New computer game offers a cop's view of the street


Street scenes: A gang member shows off for his buddies by talking trash to a street cop.

A wealthy homeowner has little time for pesky police wanting to quiz her.

A detective trying to eke out a few leads wanders into a sleazy bar while a topless dancer prances about in full view.

And then there's occasional action like foot chases, shootings, stabbings and open brawls during arrests.

Every week television viewers can get their fill of it all, straight from America's streets via reality shows like "COPS," "Top Cops," or "America's Most Wanted."

But these scenes aren't on television, they're in a computer game, Police Quest.

While television shows like "NYPD Blue" are enticing viewers to peek inside the gritty world of police work, Police Quest is offering a unique challenge: "Crawl into the mind of a serial killer," the box urges.

Even more arresting than the game's concept is the author hired by Sierra software: former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates.

"They wanted someone who would make sure it was credible," says Mr. Gates.

"I wanted to show people what it's really like out there."

Where television shows put viewers in the seat next to an officer or give them a firsthand account of the incident through a re-enactment, Police Quest is out to make computer users learn to think like a cop, specifically a homicide detective.

The game uses new technology for strikingly realistic scenes, and creators had extensive access to Los Angeles police files and facilities to make sure the game depicts real-life constraints officers have to face.

Police Quest is expected to cost about $70.

Sierra, one of the nation's biggest computer gaming companies, makes no bones about wanting Police Quest to cash in on people's fascination with police.

Television has been doing it for years, first with dramatic series like "Dragnet" and "Hill Street Blues," and more recently with the ultrarealistic "COPS," which hit the airwaves on Fox six years ago.

After more than 200 episodes, "COPS" has spurred countless copycats and similar projects. On any given night, the public can ride with a police officer, a paramedic or firefighter. Viewers see re-creations of dramatic rescues and hear dispatchers maintaining calm in the face of crisis.

Now, police across the country find themselves deluged with requests from television producers wanting to put cameras in their squad cars or comb through the commendation files.

Mr. Gates says he agreed to author Police Quest to dispel many of the misconceptions people have about police work. He dismisses any suggestion that he made a deal with Sierra just for the money, although he acknowledges it is substantial.

Sierra officials insist they hired Mr. Gates for his extensive knowledge gleaned from a 43-year career in law enforcement, not for his controversial reputation.

Mr. Gates held the office of Los Angeles police chief for 22 years, during which countless critics accused him of running a brutal, racist department, a charge he has vehemently denied. After refusing consistent calls for his resignation, Mr. Gates resigned in the summer of 1992 in the wake of the Rodney King beating.

"I don't see this game causing any controversy," the former chief insists. "I was brought in for my experience. I think good, ordinary, responsible, quiet citizens are going to be very supportive."

But some minority leaders, particularly those in Los Angeles, aren't buying that story.

"He embodies all that is bad in law enforcement -- the problems of the macho, racist, brutal police experience that we're working hard to put behind us," says John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "That anyone would hire him for a project like this proves that some companies will do anything for the almighty dollar."

And the game has spawned a flurry of jokes making fun of Mr. Gates' involvement.

One joke making the rounds: "Heard about the special feature in Daryl Gates' new game? When you're done playing, it refuses to quit."

Officials from Sierra are quick to preclude other obvious jokes. No one gets beaten up and there aren't any riots, they point out.

As homicide detective John Cary, players have to sort out real leads from the garbage. As the bodies stack up, the pressure mounts. There's the fearful public, "loudmouth politicians," and even reporters, Mr. Gates explained during a recent demonstration of his game.

There's lots of false leads, hesitant witnesses and paperwork -- tons of paperwork.

Programmers have capitalized in a big way on the former chief's experience and connections. The game draws heavily from the actual offices, manuals and even bars that Los Angeles detectives use.

For example, at crime scenes, the detectives aren't allowed to gather evidence. In real life, there are specialists for that, so they are in the game as well.

Before players may carry a weapon, they must qualify with it at a pistol range. Once on the street, they had better not pull it without justification, otherwise it's a trip to Internal Affairs.

Players can talk trash to gangs and street thugs, but they've got to mind their manners around business owners and civic leaders, Mr. Gates says. It's all part of his effort to show others what officers must deal with every day.

For visual reality, designers used new digital cameras and actors to film the game rather than create it on artists' pads. When they were finished shooting, the images were fed directly into a computer rather than onto film.

As a result, the scenery and characters look much more lifelike than previous computer games.

Players get to see inside Parker Center (the Los Angeles police headquarters), the central homicide office, a police helicopter and even the Short Stop, a bar popular with many officers.

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