Addiction is an ugly thing, and yet, it’s not as uncommon as we like to pretend it is. I’m convinced that we all suffer from it. Everyone has a poison, and let’s face it, you’re lucky if that poison isn’t a literal one. People addicted to drugs, alcohol, calories and sugar are in for a rough future as they proceed to destroy their bodies in search of the next best high.
While I am certainly a drinker, I’d like to think that I’ve staved off addiction. Most nights I’m content with having one or two beers and calling it a night. But I do have another addiction, and in some ways, it’s more difficult to regulate than the number of drinks I decide to imbibe.
I’m am completely, irreparably addicted to games.
Regular readers of this blog can probably infer that I’m a tad… shall we say, “obsessive”? I get a worm of an idea in my mind, and it starts to chew its way out through my ear canal. Some people would call this “mental exercise.” That’s charitable. It’s probably better referred to as a kind of insanity.
I’ve always wanted to see this world as a place of rules and logic, of patterns and protocols. I have this desire, despite the fact that some part of me knows that society is a construct we force upon the random chaos of life. But I like rules, so long as they make sense and don’t contradict themselves. I like certainty. It calms me to think that there’s a right way of doing something and a wrong way, that success is something attainable if you can just figure out the puzzle. It frustrates and confuses and panics me to think that there is a gray, nebulous area between these two extremes.
Games provide all of us with a kind of structure, a simulated world in which we can solve problems and make progress through logic. Whether it’s Risk or the latest iteration of Call of Duty, a game world is one in which random, dumb chaos just doesn’t happen like it does in the real world. Granted, there is chance, but any legitimately good game strikes a delicate balance between chance and skill to favor skill at least slightly over chance.
But there is a danger in falling into these virtual worlds and not being able to emerge from them, in being unable or unwilling to interact with reality in all its mundane, random mediocrity. Games allow us to stop being who we are and to be someone else, without all the messy trouble of designing costumes to wear or learning how to act.
To a certain extent, storytelling in novels, films, television, and music provide this similar sense of escapism, but there is a difference with games; with these other media, we are mostly passive participants in someone else’s vision. In games, there is at least the illusion of control, of our particular selves being represented through the actions of the avatar in the video game, board game, RPG, or card game that we choose to play.
But video games are particularly manipulative virtual realities. At first blush, they seem the most real, the most capable of providing us with avatars in which we are in control. But a video game has restrictions that other games don’t. Programming limits possibilities and forces us into certain scenarios, down scripted pathways to outcomes that anyone else playing the game will share. A puzzle in a game has only one solution, and while there may be variety in choosing in what order we pick particular missions or with what gear we execute those missions, for the most part, we are living through the same experience. The game forces us to think like it does in order for us to progress.
To be fair, there are more complex video games out there. Considering that we all started side-scrolling from the left side of the screen to the right, it is truly remarkable that there are video games with alternate endings depending on the choices we make, or “open worlds” in which we choose how and in what order we would like to progress. And of course there are these massive multiplayer RPG games that give us the option to customize everything from our skills and powers to our wardrobe and demeanor. These are fully immersive experiences, indeed. But you can’t change the rules to a video game like you can with a board game or card game. You can’t invent alternative options or choices, new rules or regulations. You’re limited by what the game allows you to do.
On the other hand, a card or board game provides what I believe is a more rewarding and socially productive experience.
Generally, video games rely more on hand-to-eye coordination than actual strategy, alienating people who are not particularly adept with a game controller. A card or board game, by contrast, is about decisions and planning rather than speed and dexterity, a mental game rather than a physical one.
A video game gives you a world to visualize and hear with graphics that occasionally look better than real life and sounds so realistic you may think someone is actually sneaking up on you with a gun. But a card or board game forces you to use your imagination to see the world, the characters, and the outcomes of these conflicts, drawing you deeper into the storytelling and the use of your imagination.
And of course a video game is often a solitary experience: even when playing over the Internet with or against other players, you are often sitting alone in your home; a card or board game is about physical presence, about sharing wisecracks, drinks, and snacks with a friend or friends sitting right next to you.
It has been interesting to watch how video games have drifted away from mainstream audiences to coddle the more reliable and loyal hardcore gaming audience. As a result, the variety of games has diminished over the years. Where there were once adventure, RPG, strategy, and platforming games, nowadays most games are first-person shooters, in which you mow down seemingly endless waves of enemies. While the graphics may keep getting better, the simulated realities increasingly becoming more difficult to discern between fiction and reality, the extent to which these games seem homogenized, a constant repetition of only one kind of experience, repackaged and franchised out, is rather dispiriting.
Just as Hollywood’s output looks more and more like video games, video games are trying to be more like films, with long running sequels, skyrocketing budgets, and no room for any genre that isn’t guaranteed to make hundreds of millions of dollars upon release. While these are raw, stimulating, adrenaline-junkie, immersive experiences, there’s something to be said for variety and appealing to other audiences outside the one lucrative demographic you’ve embraced. Audiences looking for a different gaming experience must search elsewhere, outside the realm of video games to find something that they can play with friends in the same room.
Enter card and board games. Largely forgotten for a decade or two under the weight of video game fanaticism, they seem to be reemerging in popularity. Kids who grew up with video games and are now adults are looking to embrace their gaming roots again, but many have also matured enough that the prospect of gunning people down with pixelated rifle bursts and digital blood doesn’t evoke the same adolescent euphoria. For these audiences, there is something simultaneously fresh and nostalgic about tokens and game pieces, clunky boards and wrinkled cards.
For my part, I love the depth of many of these games and the ability to engage in a kind of communal storytelling over a table. The choices you make, the rules you agree to, the chance of gaining a particular card or rolling a dice that lands you in a perfect place are analog joys, to be sure, but also perhaps more human and graspable, more relatable and real than the digital mayhem of a video game. I love that these games progress at a slower pace, that there is time for consideration and thought, with both internal and external debates over whether you should pick a card or draw, roll the dice or pass your turn, attack a fellow player or seek to collaborate.
The best way that I can describe table gaming for non-gaming aficionados is that it’s like a jam session for storytellers. There’s this sense of each participant bringing something unique to the experience, that separate parts become a larger whole, and the organic progression of these character and plot threads represented by the players at the table form a mosaic of different decisions and consequences, of action and reaction that is an aphrodisiac for those of us who both love crafting and consuming story.
My first exposure to this kind of gaming was with the 90s Star Wars Collectible Card Game from Decipher. It was this incredibly diverse, eclectic game where you could decide to build a deck around bounty hunters trekking across the galaxy to capture fugitives while your opponent trapped opponents in asteroid fields, organized a crew of droids to run rampant, trained to be a Jedi on Dagobah, moved the Death Star across the galaxy to destroy planets, or led a bloodthirsty bunch of savage Tusken Raiders through sandstorms on the desert planet Tatooine.
My passion for the game resulted in my informal adoption of the franchise after Decipher lost the license. I designed my own cards in Photoshop for the sole purpose of having new scenarios and decks to play-test with a friend of mine, and the strategy that went into crafting the ins-and-outs of a balanced set of cards that could compete against one another while remaining unique and separate turned out to be great practice for planning plots and characters for future short stories.
If I start playing games, whether it’s video or card, board or linguistic, it’s tough for me to stop. Most people decide that in order to prevent themselves from being too heavily addicted to alcohol, they’ll only drink socially. Well, I’ve adopted that practice with games.
But if I’m being honest with myself and everyone else, I’ll admit that every once in awhile the computer or the X-Box calls out to me and I can’t resist. The next thing I know it’s 4 in the morning.
Thanks go out to Bleeding Cool contributor and fellow gamer Erik Grove for the inspiration to write this piece. Erik made some very good recommendations in this week’s BC column for those of you who love playing games, especially of the comic book and superhero variety. You can also check out his personal website to enjoy his latest musings and read his stories.