In his first year in office, the President faced a crisis: He had sent $200 million in military aid to Taiwan, and now the Soviet Union was threatening to start a war. What began as a diplomatic crisis had quickly escalated, and both governments had their military forces on maximum alert. "This issue is of great concern to the Soviet government," the President's computer warned.
As President, Leonard Diiorio had two choices: To withdraw the aid or stand up to the Soviets. The former would cost him prestige in the eyes of the world; the latter would risk nuclear war.
"I have to prove to them that I'm not the kind of person who backs down easily," Diiorio said, explaining his decision not to withdraw aid. He waited anxiously until the Soviet response appeared on his terminal: "The peace-loving U.S.S.R. refuses to begin a nuclear holocaust." Diiorio sighed in relief.
This was a computer game, but it was far from an ordinary one. While most demand hand-eye coordination or created fantasy, Balance of Power offers an illusion based on reality: The opportunity to play President of the United States or general secretary of the U.S.S.R., and to influence world events through aid, treaties, diplomatic pressure, military intervention and other tactics. The second superpower--played by a human being or the computer--does likewise.
Balance of Power has been hailed by many reviewers, including David Aaron, a former national security adviser during the Carter Administration, who called it "the most sophisticated strategic simulation in America, other than Pentagon war games." It is being used in undergraduate international affairs courses, recommended to a NATO committee, and is the subject of a forthcoming article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, a prestigious academic journal published at Yale. All for a game that retails at about $45.
Officials at Mindscape Inc., the game's publisher, say the company has sold about 60,000 copies of Balance of Power. (Certified sales of 50,000 merit a silver award from the Software Publishers Assn.) The game, which first went on the market in the fall of 1985, has attracted a loyal following: Last fall, Microsoft Press released "Balance of Power: International Politics as the Ultimate Global Game," a 300-page trade paperback, which provides an introduction to geopolitics and an explanation of the game's algorithms (internal logic).
The object of the game is to strengthen allies and weaken enemies, thus accumulating "prestige points"; the more powerful a country, the greater its prestige value. To win, a player must survive eight "years" (rounds) without a nuclear war.
The heart of Balance of Power is the type of crisis faced by Leonard Diiorio when he sent military aid to Taiwan: One superpower can object to the other's initiative, first through diplomatic channels, then public challenges that involve more prestige and may lead to nuclear war. Once past the diplomatic stage, a player also risks accidental nuclear war.
Balance of Power is, by all accounts, an exceedingly difficult game to win. "I'm too aggressive," said Scott Shuler, a professor of music education at Cal State Long Beach.
"When you put yourself in the position of the President or the general secretary, you really do feel responsible for your country," says Diiorio, 34, a computer consultant who lives in Venice. "I like the concept that you have to be responsible for the fate of the earth."
At work, ex-Army Capt. John Detroye III of Lawton, Okla., runs computer simulations of weapons for the Army; he says he enjoys the chance Balance of Power affords to play on a larger scale, and he approves of its combative politics. "The Soviets are a paranoid, frightened people," Detroye said. "If you follow the course our country has taken since the Carter Administration, and make game decisions accordingly, the Soviets will take over (the U.S.) by 1997."
Not everyone praises Balance of Power. In a recent issue of the Nation, a writer described the game as "a grimly accurate reproduction of the national security mind-set . . . an appropriation of cold war attitudes disguised as computer logic."
Yet, others accuse the game of preaching pacifism, and peace groups have asked its creator to donate copies.
The creator of Balance of Power, Chris Crawford, is surprised by all the attention. "I thought that a typical college professor would say, 'Rather simplistic,' " said Crawford, who, in conversation and print, is quick to point out his game's failings. For example, Balance of Power portrays the world as a playground for two superpowers and ignores many elements, such as trade, that are important to world affairs.