Bringing new depth to computer gaming

Former Southern Baptist minister Johnny Wilson left the pulpit for a second calling: computer games.

Mr. Wilson, who has a PhD in Old Testament studies, is now the editorial director of Computer Gaming World, a San Francisco-based monthly magazine that covers everything about PC games, including reviews of software and hardware, how-to-win articles, and interviews with game designers.

The son and brother of Baptist ministers, Wilson says he had a calling to go into the ministry. But he realized that he was preaching to the converted in the small Kentucky churches he pastored - and that his work was not as meaningful as he wanted.

Wilson had long been a fan of computer games. In fact, he had been writing freelance articles for Computer Gaming World while a minister. "I suddenly realized that the magazine was a bigger audience, and I realized that I was at something of a dead end in my pastoral career," he says.

He made a leap of faith and left the ministry. A job offer to edit the 300,000-circulation publication followed. In taking this unusual step, Wilson followed in the footsteps of a former theological-school classmate who had gone into the ministry and then left it to found the magazine. "I saw the magazine as fun, as providing a wider audience, and I saw myself as an advocate for meaning in PC games, which I perceived as the next great art form," Wilson says.

That was 13 years ago. Today, the Alameda, Calif., resident feels the potential for PC games to make the transition to an art form is still there, but problematic. As in many art forms, the computer-game industry is dependent on commercial work for its survival.

And although still active in a church, now as a Presbyterian deacon, Wilson's purpose in life has changed. "Now my mission is to be essentially something of a prophet calling out for more meaning in games," he says.

Stories teach truth more than laws and how-to books do, and computer-game stories and settings are important. Whether profound or not, computer-game contexts can have a rich environment and meaning.

"People are beginning to get it," he says of the PC-game industry.

There are two basic game design philosophies. In one, the designer opposes the player and tries to make him fail. This kind of game has arbitrary ambushes, unfair puzzles, and tricks. In the other, the designer takes the opposite approach, with fairer puzzles and foreshadowing of struggles to come.

"What you see are these two different design philosophies that are constantly struggling," Wilson says.

One design encourages players and the other doesn't. Wilson sees an analogy with religion and life itself. God wants us to succeed, not in a material way, but to maximize our potential, he says. "I often say that that second kind of design is the way my theology works. I see it in the best game design, I see it in life, and that's one reason I'm in this business."

Wilson sees two positive trends in computer games. A trend just starting is "multi-player games" or "cooperative play," in which a number of players have access to a game. Flight simulation games with participants at different computers playing on the same squadron are one example. "This will emphasize cooperation, understanding, communication, and problem-solving more than simple, mechanistic bang-bang, you're dead," Wilson says.

A second trend is that of the "persistent world," games that continue with other players when an individual isn't online. These games and their players fit the description of "virtual communities." "I see an exciting couple of decades ahead of us in computer games," he says.

He has ready arguments for most criticisms of games. Violence in computer games, for example, is not a black-and-white issue, he says. It is sometimes so cartoonish and special-effect laden that it's funny. "You're indulging your darker side but with no consequences," he says.

Realistic violence is another matter, though. "The more realistic it is, the more it has to have consequences. People will identify with characters, and if it's done realistically, you may be propagandizing them that violence is the only solution," he adds. One could also add that some of the images of violence depicted in his magazine, as reviews or advertising, are definitely PG13.

As for computer games disregarding children's needs, Wilson blames mom and dad for not taking the time to monitor their children's computer time.

"This is not the fault of computer games. It's the fault of the parents. At best, it's the fault of the computer industry for not doing an adequate job of content labeling," he says.

Wilson favors age-appropriate and content labeling with specific indicators of sexual situations and types of violence.

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