Gaming and Other Ethereal Ideas

As I write this, it is a week after Thanksgiving in the US and the holiday season is in full swing.  Black Friday has come and gone, as has Shop Small Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday… Kid’s lists have been made, checked at least twice, and the smell of egg nog and melted from overuse credit cards fill the air. Joy to the world.

Of course, along with the gift-giving tradition comes another one near and dear to my inner child – Christmas specials.  I still love watching Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and the hippest one of all, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I don’t know if it is Dr. Seuss’ twisted rhymes, or the empathy you feel for the Grinch’s dog Max, or just Boris Karloff’s voice – that sonic blend of English gentleman and two heavy stones scraping together – that makes my heart grow two sizes, but if it’s on I’m compelled to watch.

The Grinch’s subtle message – it’s as subtle as a Mack dump truck – is that you can strip away the material stuff, but Christmas will still come. All those noble Whos down in Whoville that are above all of the materialism (even though they participate in it pretty hard) will still hold hands in the town square and rejoice.  Because Christmas isn’t in the boxes and bags, it’s something more.

This mirrors one of my more off the wall ideas about gaming. It’s not about the material goods that make up what’s in the box. That isn’t the game. The game is something more.

I believe what we call games is reliant on three distinct ingredients; the Players, the Components, the Environment.  Of these, one you have control over, one you can influence, and the third is completely out of your control.

Let’s start with the Players.  Play requires players.  Without players, the closest you will come is a simulation. Back in the day, I was a big PC gamer. I remember reading reviews of new titles and one of the biggest red flags the reviewer could raise is that the game played itself.  Too many choices were made for the player. If the game was on rails (i.e. taking the player through environments instead of allowing them freewill to explore the game space), then the game wasn’t fun. I don’t care how beautiful the graphics were rendered; players need to drive the action.

Even when a board game is balanced and players are making the decisions, the interactive nature of tabletop games requires players of similar skill. When you play a video game, you can set the opposition to easy, normal, or hard. The more real players you involve, the more planning and consideration is required.

The most difficult board game I’ve seen is Avalon Hill’s Advanced Squad Leader.  Any game that has literally binders full of rules is one I’m not prepared to play. I could do it, but I don’t for the same reason why I’ve never gotten into golf. It’s less a game than it is a lifestyle and I just can’t devote the required amount of effort at this stage.  I have a mortgage payment to meet.

Now if you take the complexity down a notch and play Dominion, Defenders of the Realm, Takenoko, Power Grid and a whole host of medium to medium-high complexity games, I’m all in.  That said, I appreciate that these games can be more than other people want to bother with. I know folks who aren’t even casual gamers who won’t try anything more complex than Clue, Sorry, or any other traditional board game they grew up playing. And that’s fine. They just aren’t at the top of my list when I’m planning a gaming night.

The point is, having the correct players who share similar interests and abilities – or who are at least willing to try something new – is vital to a successful gaming session.

If the first component are the players, then the second component is what is traditionally considered to be the game itself – the contents of the box, or at the very least the rules of play. To me, rules and components are no more a game unto themselves as flour, sugar, cocoa, and eggs make a cake. They are components to a cake, but it takes an outside force – the baker or the gamer – to complete the result.  In fact, anyone who has played freeze tag knows that the only components are the gamers themselves. If you have a yard and a gang of kids, you’re set.

The one benefit of this component is that choosing the game is completely within your control. Of course you need to take your players’ ability and interest into consideration, but the final choice is yours.

The third component of a game is also the one that’s completely out of your control; The Environment. Of all the brilliant parts in the Netflix mini-series Stranger Things, the one they nailed was the kid’s RPG play. The kids were secluded – in this case in the basement – uninterrupted by parents or siblings for long stretches of time. At one point, the main character Mike’s mother tells him to shut down the game for the day.  He said that after 10 hours they were almost done with the adventure. His mother looks at him and asks with incredulity, “You’ve been playing for ten hours?” When conditions are right, game time can just fly by.

Unfortunately, the older I get the more real life penetrates my ability to game. In the Tuesday Gaming Group I attend, we use the first 15 to 30 minutes to discuss whatever is on our minds. We give updates, ask for advice, talk about work or pop culture related events… It’s our firebreak which usually allows us to clear the deck before tackling the night’s game. Sometimes the real world still intercedes, but only rarely.

When the three aspects of gaming – The Players, The Components, and The Environment – are in balance, the gaming quality will reach a memorable peak.  This quality may simply be memorable because it happens so rarely.  How many times have you played a favorite game when the resulting experience just wasn’t as fun as you remembered? You can’t complain about the game components since they haven’t changed. No, one or more of the three aspects were out of balance.  Perhaps a player was sick or too distracted by real world situations, or you were the victim of a series of bad dice rolls and couldn’t make any in-game progress, or the host’s baby was particularly fussy that night…  Something broke the delicate gaming spell.

Allow me to use another medium as an illustration. My wife and I saw the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project on opening night. We were both anxious to see the film. The fake historical website the production hosted fueled our interest. We arrived at the theater early and there was already a line. The movie was delayed as they filled every last seat in the auditorium – much to the annoyance and inconvenience of folks who arrived early to get their desired seats. As the movie played, there was a palpable shared energy in the theater. Even the slightest scare was met with excited screams.  It had gone way past being just a movie and became an elevated pop-cultural experience.

When Blair Witch eventually made it to HBO, I watched it again. This time I was alone, I hadn’t just read the supporting website, and it was in the middle of the day.  Needless to say, the second viewing held none of the excitement of the first.  The movie was the same – I couldn’t point a finger at that – I just wasn’t feeling it the second time around.

That energy I felt at the first screening is the same feeling I have when the three gaming components are aligned and perfectly in balance. That’s when the game is bigger than what can be contained in the rules or the box. It’s bigger than the sum of the parts. When the play is connecting, really connecting the players, the game energy is spiritual in nature.  And it’s why later – sometimes years later – we’ll discuss a particular play or game in such excited detail.  So powerful was that moment that we want to relive it even if it’s only a shadow of the original experience.

Don’t believe me? Ask a lifelong Pittsburgh Steeler fan to describe the Immaculate Reception. Or a San Francisco 49ers fan to describe The Catch. Or a Titans fan to describe the Music City Miracle. That glint in their eye is the game energy they felt at that moment rushing back to them.

And that’s why I watch the same Christmas specials every year. It’s also why I carefully select the player, game, and environment mix when I host my game nights. It’s an opportunity and the only way to tap into that rare, delicate, and evasive game energy once again.

© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved