One common complaint that elders make against computer games is that they are a waste of time, they teach you nothing useful that you could use in real life, that you had better study or practice your art or trade or whatever, rather than sit there with your hand twitching on the joystick.
Well, they're probably right when it comes to Serious Sam 2 or the latest version of Need for Speed. But they certainly have very little idea about the more serious and complex types of games that exercise the player's survival instincts and build up their skills for fine judgment and expert management.
We're talking about strategy games, of course. Think the epoch-making Age of Empires series from Microsoft, or Starcraft, or The Rise of Nations, or Battle Realms.
These are games that engage you in two ways. The first is a civilization-building mode that calls on your resource management and labor deployment skills. Different strategy games have different types and numbers of resources to gather and manage, but in all of these games you need to locate where on the map each essential resource is available. You need to set the labor class of your population on the task of gathering in those resources to the centers where they can be processed. You also need to put the processed stuff to the best possible use, so that your civilization prospers fast and what is more important that it prospers faster than the civilizations of your rivals.
For the real time strategies are basically competitive games where you strive against your friends, neighbors, anonymous rivals on the internet, or, in absence of any other real-world player, Artificial Intelligence players controlled by the game and your computer's CPU.
And as in all competitive environments, war eventually follows.
The upkeep of civilians and soldiers, the exploration of new technologies, the escalation to new eras, the creation of new units these are costly business. And this costs money, food and other resources.
As the cities grow technologically and in other ways, the local resources get used up. The gatherers are sent to farther and farther sites to haul in the stuff that is vital to the survival and expansion of your cities. Naturally, at some point, rival gatherers find themselves competing for the same resources. Once this happens, it is only a matter of time before the war-drums start beating.
Which brings us to the second mode of gameplay warfare. Here is where your military skills are called forth. Victory is as much a matter of technological, logistical and positional superiority as it is a matter of numbers. Much depends on how good you are at determining just the right ratio between civilians and soldiers in your cities, so that your army is adequately strong but not at the cost of development. How quickly and successfully your laborers bring in the 'filthy lucre' will dictate how quickly you can improve your military technology, and thus will have a major effect on the outcome of your battles.
And when (if at all) you've succeeded in wiping out all other civilizations from the map, you'll be faced by another crisis the resources will all have evaporated, and this time there's no easy neighbor to sack and loot. The neighbors are all dead. I guess it teaches you the necessity of what the economists the world over are calling 'sustainable development!
You see, real time strategies have some real life skill to teach you, no matter what you aspire to be, from a stockbroker's clerk to a bloodthirsty warlord, from a glass-toting economist to a professional gamer!
So the next time your mom tell you to get off that game and get on more serious things, you can ask her to sit down at the other computer and beat you at least once before she can talk to you again about real life skills.