Making a point the fun way

Updated: Jan 20 2007, 06:29am hrs
Many months ago, my wife got into Sudoku, which I assumed was a Japanese noodle dish when I first heard the word. She tried to explain it, but as my eyes glazed over she wisely gave up. Nearly everybody knows it -- or seems to if you look at what's engrossing that passenger in the seat next to you . Some airlines even give out free Sudoku puzzle books. But it remains beyond me.

Luckily, though, I have discovered an airport game more suited to my skill level and temperament. So while my wife fills in the Sudoku squares at the airport lounge, I fire up the laptop to play a free online flash game called "Airport Security." "Airport Security" can be found at Drew Lanning, a San Francisco gamer, describes "Airport Security" as a "fast-paced and thoughtful flash game" in which "you play the role of an airport security agent screening passengers." As little animated passengers march up to the checkpoint, you must click on icons of various prohibited items depicted in their carry-on bags or on their persons, while not letting the lines back up.

The trick is, news flashes on the bottom of the screen keep changing the rules on what's allowed and what's not. You have to be quick to click on newly prohibited or allowable items, among them Sioux war bonnets, tubes of Preparation H, cattle skulls and conch shells. The voice announcements are also maddening and distracting, just like real airports. "Attention all passengers: Please be advised that transporting any object through security is discouraged," one says. "Mr. John Smith, please pick up your underpants at the west security booth," says another.

It's somewhat stupid, and requires fast reflexes and an ability to adapt to absurd and arbitrary rules changes. Just like real airport security. That's the general idea, said Ian Bogost, an assistant professor of video game criticism and rhetoric (bet you didn't know there was such a discipline) at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a founding partner of Persuasive Games, which is based in Atlanta.

Persuasive Games makes serious video games that require time and skill. But the "Airport Security" game is a fast diversion with a point, Bogost said. "Airport Security" was designed within weeks after those bewildering and frequently changing rules banning liquids, gels and other substances from carry-on bags were introduced last August. "It came out of a desire to demonstrate the absurdity of these arbitrary changes that appear to have nothing to do with actual security and everything to do with what people call security theater," he said.

"Airport Security," simple as it is, is meant to be more than a joke, he said. "You have a source system that's really complicated like airport security and you don't have to dumb down the issues involved." He added that in games "we can represent the complexities and interrelations between issues in a much more sophisticated way than, say, if we talk about them in two-minute sound bites on TV."

NY Times / Joe Sharkey