Chapter 16 - Fun and games

The person who coined the phrase "Life's not all fun and games" clearly didn't own a computer.

It might be hard to justify a $1,000 purchase based on wanting to play computer solitaire, but once you've got a computer, you might as well use it for everything you enjoy.

"I'd be less than honest if I didn't mention games," says 60-year-old Darryl, of Corpus Christi, Texas. "I love to play adventure games such as Riven, the Journeyman Project, Myst, etc. I doubt that first person shooters are going to be much of a draw for most seniors, but who knows?"

Most new games range in price from $20 to $50. But if you browse through the discount racks at your local computer store, you can often find older games for $5 or $10 that are still a lot of fun.

Adventure games

Darryl talks about his love of adventure games, so let's start there. Adventure games involve moving through a virtual reality world while trying to solve puzzles with deductive reasoning.

The earliest version of this genre, Zork (1980), was straight text. You'd get a description of the setting and then had to type a command telling the computer what you wanted to do - "Go West," "Open Door."

Despite its lack of graphics, Zork could engulf your time for hours because of its creatively designed worlds. Today's adventure games are based on that same premise, but the text descriptions are replaced with spectacular 3-D settings.

Myst (1994) is believed to be the greatest selling computer game of all time, selling more than 5.5 million copies through 1999, according to industry tracker PC Data. The game continued to appear on Top Ten charts years after its release thanks to its marvelously created worlds and challenging puzzles. Game creators have been trying to match its success ever since.

Some adventure games are simple; many are quite complex. The fun is solving a mystery to move on to a previously uncharted part of the virtual world. If you find yourself getting frustrated, save your game and come back when your mind is fresh.

That's the beauty of this genre - you can set your own pace. Save the game and return in a day or two to the same spot. Or play for an hour, save it and take a break, then return after lunch.

Game shows

If you enjoy watching "Wheel of Fortune" on TV, why not jump in and play?

Computer versions of all your favorite games shows - from classics such as "Jeopardy!" and "Family Feud" to more recent shows such as "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" and "Deal or No Deal?" are enticing viewers to leave the sidelines and jump onto the field. The challenging questions provide exercise for the mind, while having to buzz in helps keep your hand-eye coordination in tact.

Puzzle, card and board games

If you've played it before the advent of computers, chances are you'll find a cyber version of it somewhere. Companies continue to jump onto the retro game bandwagon, turning popular traditional games into software

Backgammon, Battleship, dominoes, darts, billiards, Monopoly, blackjack and Life have all found their way onto CD-ROMs.

Barbara of Leesburg, Fla., enjoys playing mahjongg, based on an ancient Chinese tile game but played nothing like its ancestor. She's also a fan of such one-player card games as Freecell and Golf. "I do it to relax before going bed," she says.

If you're using Windows, you already have one old favorite - Solitaire - and another fun strategy game called Minesweeper. Many Windows versions also include a few additional card games - Hearts, Freecell and Spider . The free games can be found under Start - Accessories - Games. If you don't know how to play, click on Help and read through the rules.

Chess is a natural for the computer. Software developers have spent incredible time developing the artificial intelligence (AI) in these games. In other words, the computer can probably beat world champion Garry Kasparov, much less any of us. The ChessMaster games from UbiSoft are probably the best in this category.

Simulators

Simulators, or sims, are games that try to closely emulate their real-life counterparts.

The most prevalent in this category are flight-sims, which put you in the cockpits of various aircraft and challenge you to land them without crashing. A quick perusal of any flight sim manual will tell you that playing is practically as complicated as flying a real plane. In fact, some versions of these programs are actually used by pilots for training and practice.

The most popular is the Microsoft Flight Simulator series, which allows you to fly a commercial jet to nearly any airport in the world. You can actually start to recognize the skyline of a city on approach and can even fly by historic buildings and bridges. The airport layouts are even accurate.

War historians will also find tons of combat and mission-based war games, allowing them to fly everything from an old B-17 Flying Fortress to an ultra-modern F-22.

But, if you want to play flight sims, prepare to do a lot of studying.

There are also many life-based sim games. Games in The Sims series from Electronic Arts allows players to create and control characters throughout their life while determining the outcome of their relationships and adventures.

SimCity allowed players to become amateur urban planners, and other reality-based titles in this genre include Railroad Tycoon, in which you run a railroad line, and Roller Coaster Tycoon, which challenges you to successfully run all aspects of an amusement park.

Sports games

The sports gaming market has become almost as huge as sports itself.

Hockey, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, golf and auto racing have all moved from the field onto the monitor. Heck, EA Sports even sells a line of European games including cricket and rugby!

While many of the electronic versions of sports games are fast paced and are difficult to master, computer golf can be quite relaxing (as long as you don't mind hitting the ball into the water now and then). The Tiger Woods PGA Tour series from EA Sports is widely considered the best golf game. You control the swing with your mouse, and there are several famous courses and players to use.

The big catch with sports games is the software companies want you to buy a new version every year, so you can get updated rosters and better high-powered graphics. Truth is, most of the improvements don't justify a new purchase each year. So the trick is to keep your version a couple of years and find Internet sites that let you download updated rosters for that game.

First-person shooters

First-person shooters, such as games in the Doom and Halo series involve maneuvering a character through a 3-D world and shooting creature that stands in your way.

They're not particularly popular with retirees, as they tend to be quite violent and are extremely fast-paced. Despite their adult ratings, they're popular with teenagers, although you too might find it cathartic to take your day's frustrations out by aiming a flame-thrower at a 10-foot creature.

Kids games

Children's software might not be your cup of tea, but it's great to keep a few titles on hand for when the grandkids visit. The good news is that you can usually pick up children's games for under $20 and often under $10. Get something that they don't have at home and tell their parents not to buy it for them. That way, it's new and fresh whenever they come to visit.

Can you handle it?

If you want to play the latest and greatest that computer gaming has to offer, you'll have to occasionally upgrade your system. Unlike any other software genre, gaming constantly pushes the envelope, requiring faster processors, huge amounts of RAM memory and newer 3-D video cards.

Be sure to read the requirements on the box to make sure your system is up to snuff before shelling out $50 on a game. Particularly, make sure it will run on your type (PC or Mac) and check the required processor speed and RAM. Many games require certain level of 3-D video card, so if your system doesn't have one, you might have to pass on a title or two or buy and install a new card.

Online games

If you're wired to the Internet, you don't have to buy a ton of new software to play a few new games.

There are tons of free games online, allowing you to have some fun without ever leaving your Web browser. On such sites popular sites as Yahoo! or Pogo you can challenge a friend or stranger to a game of cribbage or backgammon. There are also sites that offer online crossword puzzles and other puzzles.

NEXT - Chapter 17 - Keeping the books