Preppie 2 was the first computer game to evoke an emotional response from me. I played it at my cousin Darwin's place, on his Atari 800. The game was a variation of Pac-Man, only instead of eating dots in a maze and avoiding ghosts, you painted the floors of a sorority house and avoided giant frogs.
The game's music, graphics and sense of humour gave it a whimsical, innocent charm that I adored. At the time I thought to myself, "This is what's wonderful about human culture."
That was more than twenty years ago. Today, I'm about halfway through Fallout 3, the much-ballyhooed post-nuclear roleplaying game, the third, as you may have guessed, in a series.
Fallout 3 is a bleak game, played out on the ruined, atomic-scarred landscape of an apocalyptic Washington DC. Ruined junk and debris are scattered across the landscape, and feral dogs and mutated insects hunger for your flesh. People are uniformly impoverished; bottlecaps serve as cash, and old vacuum cleaners, tools and even tin cans are valuable. Everyone is armed, frightened, and pessimistic.
And yet there's a melancholy beauty to be had in this game. The 50s aesthetic, however rusted-out and radiation-soaked, has an irresistable appeal. Rocketship-themed gas stations and Nuka-Cola vending machines dot the landscape. Faded propaganda posters brighten up crumbling walls. Old computer records, books and notes paint a picture of a happier time. Surviving radio broadcasts play popular hits of the 40s and 50s - particularly "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," by the Inkspots, an ironic counterpoint to this world's fate.
It's a violent game. In my search for my father, I've had to kill over 60 people so far, and hundreds of mutated monsters (the game keeps track). And even though my victims are pixels, not people, I feel deeply saddened. For in a world like this, every life is precious.
More than anything else, Fallout 3 reminds me exactly how much we have to lose. The Washington of our world is home to incredible architecture, priceless archives, great works of art - and of course, millions of human beings. Now multiply that by all the thousands of cities across the globe, each with equal value.
I grew up living with the fear that a nuclear holocaust would destroy all that. In the 1990s, that fear faded away. We seem to be facing a more gradual catastrophe these days.
But Fallout 3 reminds me that all manner of self-inflicted horrors could yet be unleashed on humanity. I hope we're wise enough to play out our violent impulses in the virtual world, rather than the real one. The world of Fallout is a fun place to visit - and every second I play, it shows me how lucky I am to live in a world still brimming with life.