Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Cultured Gamers

Greg Costikyan has an excellent retrospective on the history of gaming up in this week's Escapist. Well worth a read, he details how video games hearken from a long line of gaming culture. He follows the thread all the way back to the first identifiable game designer, back in 1759. Through war games, board games, miniatures, role playing, collectible card games, video games, we see a common thread. We are a culture of gamers, and games have a long history, often unseen.

The thing that hit me the hardest wasn’t that we play games (lots of games), it was that some people seriously don’t know about it. Journalism would have you believe that video games invented gaming. There are people who honestly don’t see the connection between the lazy Sunday card and board games they played with their families, and the booming world of video gaming. Are they that far removed?

I’ve always been a gamer. I have a deep love of board games, card games, and role playing games. So much so that in my misguided youth I made my own games. There are two or three that I can remember with detail. A couple of these were even school projects (that got good marks). I’ve always loved the process of creating games, rules, and worlds – and then playing with them. This article was really a reaffirming of my love of gaming, and my desire to design my own games.

But even more so, it got me to thinking about games within fiction, especially sci-fi and fantasy. It is something that I think is often times lacking in imaginary worlds in general. Authors are busy creating characters, plots, action, and all that other literary stuff, they don’t sit back and design a whole world – complete with games – for their story to live in.

Is it just me, or do worlds that come complete with their own games and pastimes seem somehow more complete, and instantly compelling? I can think of a couple off the top of my head, and they weren’t the first ones I’d think of normally. One is a series of books by Kristin Britain, starting with Green Rider. I’d consider these books fairly standard fantasy fare. Filled to the brim with magic (good and bad), lost knowledge, evil forces, and fantastic locales, it pretty much fulfills any escapist’s dream. It’s well written, but not particularly memorable – except for a rather well developed side theme.

The main character learns about herself, her abilities and place in the world, through the playing of a game. This game is steeped in historical and cultural significance. Somewhere between Chess and Risk for 2-3 players, it brings an extra layer of meaning to the story as it is used to represent the subtle actions of the characters and the underlying plots. The game is wholly made up, it does not exist, and while the book describes portions of the board and rules, it is not playable. But it adds depth, and history, and grounding to the storyworld. Their culture is like ours: they play games.

Another example is the silly, off-beat Discworld of Terry Pratchett. The Disc is full strange magic, odd (and sometimes small) gods, and colourful characters. It is like nothing else. And yet, the people of that world have a connection to us through games. Not our games, mind, but games within their own context. Specifically, the reoccurring mentions of Cripple Mister Onion. Through minimal descriptions, and varying accounts we can gather that the game is something akin to a fantastical cross between Poker and Rummy. It is played with a deck of cards (possibly a tarot deck) of eight suits, and involves gambling. People in our world have gone so far as to develop rules to play by.

Games are a part of who we are, as a culture. Perhaps as a species. We learn through games, relax through games, and express ourselves in the kinds of games we play and make. Games have changed a lot over the years, and continue to do so through innovation and creative design. Games create their own cultures, given the right circumstances, and connect cultures that might not otherwise connect. Games are a part of us, and are not going away.


I'd like to note that neither Costikyan's article nor my comment talk about sports in this context. But it applies to my examples in much the same way as a less energetic game might.

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