On Becoming a Gamer, Part the Second: Demanding More from Games

Most people play miniatures wargames the way they would a boardgame—as one-off, stand alone sessions. One game of Risk or Scrabble is not really connected to the next. Similarly, the way most people play involves no storyline or ongoing campaign. The background setting might be fleshed out (Middle Earth, the Civil War, Europe in the 1980s) but individual games are not usually understood to influence a broader gameworld (the fictional setting of the game itself).

 Most wargames are also built on rather flimsy premises. Two forces that face off and hurtle themselves at the other is a pretty common premise. Historical wargames are better for this, because there is a built-in context. But often a battle happens because, well, that’s just what Elves and Orcs do when they meet. Even in historical games, they aren’t generally interconnected. If the Confederates prevail over the Union at Gettysburg, that doesn’t create an alternate history influencing the next game. It’s easy enough to do. It’s just that most players don’t bother. Most probably aren’t interested in this aspect.

 One-off wargaming has been unsatisfying to me for a long time now. Especially given the effort and investment to prepare and play a miniatures game (the cost of models, painting, making scenery) it always seemed a shame to me that these games didn’t really matter, because they were not a part of something bigger.

 While my residency revolves around an inter-connected series of tabletop miniature wargames, I am approaching it to some extent as I would an ongoing role-playing game. I’m an unusual guy. I’m an unusual gamer. And I’m a really unusual wargamer.

 It is hard to parse out entirely how role-playing games influenced my friends and me. RPGs were such a big part of our lives, I think aspects bled into many areas. As intelligent children of liberal/progressive intellectuals, it was a given that we would develop powerfully creative minds. RPGs are an especially creative and unique kind of play, very different from that which normal kids encounter at home or in playgrounds.

 [Quick note—when I talk about RPGs, I’m always referring to pen and paper role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons. I never use the term to describe video games or any other type of game. Wikipedia does a fine job of laying out the distinctions.]

Role-playing games have a strong make-believe element. They are also generally ongoing, long-term games. The game isn’t over after a couple hours. Play continues session after session for days, weeks, and possibly years. Characters and story lines evolve. Even the gameworld can evolve, sometimes influenced by the player characters. RPGs require a certain degree of discipline, attention to rules and book-keeping that is not a part of normal children’s play.

This ongoing rhythm and the connectedness of one game to another would go on to have much influence on my other hobbies and even for my general aesthetic sensibilities.

 As a kid, I was the type of gamer most kids are—interested in killing monsters, acquiring loot and making my character more powerful. To the extent that I was interested in character development, it was mostly to make my character cool. The notion of playing a weakness, for the sake of character, did not at first occur to me.

As I got a little older, character and plot were more of a concern. I looked at rules less with an eye to exploiting them to become more powerful, and more as a vessel in which to explore a personality and see neat things happen in-game. I still played characters that more or less resembled me, or variations of me. But I, and my closest friends, branched out into unfamiliar types at a younger age than most other kids.

 In conjunction with higher expectations in terms of character development, we also started to put a lot of stock in realism. The games themselves did not need to be based on reality. We were happy to play games where heroes, monsters, magic, faster-than-light-travel, telepathy, etc. existed. But we wanted the world, and the events that unfolded within it, to be more or less realistic within the setting.

 Two not terribly well-known films were enormously influential to me– the 1981 sci-fi film Outland, and the 1976 film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Both were on heavy rotation on cable when I was young. Neither is really a favorite of mine, nor would they make a list of the best films ever. But I found (and continue to find) them impressive in their grittiness and realism. They are both stories where the details matter and where the chain of consequences of action and reaction are constant throughout. They caught me at the exactly the right age to capture my imagination and influence my aesthetic sensibilities. They helped set the bar for how I wanted my games to be.

 A preference for realistic books and movies, and a strong aversion to plot holes and inconsistencies in character was in place by age 13 or so. Again, I liked fanciful stories just fine, as long as they were internally consistent.

 I’ve never been attracted to RPGs where the fate of the world rests in the players’ hands. I don’t like to play powerful heroes. Big themes and big challenges just don’t hold much appeal. If dragons exist in a world, there should be few of them, not one in every cave. They should be a big deal—the kind of thing one hears about in legend. And meeting one should be the event of a lifetime. I like games where breaking an ankle out in the woods poses a serious mortal threat. Where running out of ammo actually happens. Where magic and powerful artifacts are not only rare, but potentially dangerous.

Even playing as kids, if a character skewered a peasant with a spear in sight of the town guard, we expected the town guard to try to make an arrest, and that they would recognize us if we passed through town a month later. We also expected that goblins would guard the entrance to their caverns, that piles of treasure would not be left unattended, or that mercenary scum like us (if we were playing mercenary scum) would not be paid in full until the job was done. We didn’t just expect it—we wanted it. We needed the gameworld, and its occupants, to behave realistically and to react to our characters realistically. It somehow robbed the game of its fun to beat an overly easy challenge or to get away with things we ought not to have.

 This desire and need for games to matter, as I experience mattering, is really why I’m doing this residency.


One thought on “On Becoming a Gamer, Part the Second: Demanding More from Games

  1. Just wanted to say that I am coming off a 5-game/6 week warhammer campaign that was just me and my 9-year old son. We definately used these principles, and had a story about an alien insect swarm infesting a moon occupied by fungus-based space orks. The battle raged between a brash Ork warboss not used to having his authority challenged and montrous 40 foot tall Hive Leader who perceived all other life forms as nothing but food.

    So it felt like each battle really mattered. The Orks almost thought they’d made it in Game 4 when they successfully repelled the swarm from their fort. Their over confidence got them in the end when they attempted to destroy the hive but were overwhelmed by the rapidly multuplying bugs, many of which had learned burrow under ground and burst up behind the orks.

    Anyway, I know nothing is more thrilling than hearing about other people’s campaigns, but the point is the story really mattered and that’s what brought in the creativity and emotional commitment. I feel like my boy and I really shared an experience not just some games.

    Next up: Can a band of Dwarves establish a supply route through Goblin Infested swamps? Good times.

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