Games and me

2011-05-03 by alexboly

Last night, my friend Felix asked me for an article for No Time To Play, and since I owe him and this time I knew I can do it, I started thinking about games once again and my history with playing. And I thought about sharing with you as much as I can in a blog post. So, this is it: my (incomplete and far from final) story with games.

I used to be quite a gamer. I was playing around 2-3 hours a day on average, and I had 5-6 hours sessions at times. I loved it. I was escaping to alternate worlds, exploring different situations and having a wonderful feeling whenever I was winning.

Not anymore. Now, when I play games from time to time I can’t help myself analyzing them. I see most games as repetitive, dull, without substance. Maybe I learned too much about how my brain works. Maybe I’ve seen more of the real life and games seem artificial. Or maybe games are not what they used to be.

The first game that caught me for years may prove unexpected: tabletop football (soccer for US readers). It doesn’t look like much, and the whole game needs just a terrain (table), 22 tokens (one per football player), 1-2 smaller tokens for the ball and another token per player for driving the players. After playing it for years, I started to adapt the rules. I thought the game was not dynamic enough because only one football player could be moved in a turn, which left very little space to combinations, so I added the possibility of moving one, and then two players without touching the ball as well. I created my own terrain, enlarging it to fit on the largest table that I had in the house. I played it with commercial tokens and with normal buttons. The combinations I used were only limited by my imagination, and I had lots of fun.

Looking back, I think this episode showed two interesting things: that I like not only to play games but also to adapt them and that I prefer real time games. The first idea probably made me become a programmer; the second is true even nowadays.

I think that once I started adapting a game, the next step was obvious: build one myself. I thus embarked on an impossible, but very fun, journey of creating a table top war game. It was in the time of the first Iraqi war, so I thought about using all the stuff I was hearing about and recreate the war in miniature. It was first and foremost an exercise in imagination, and it proved to be a dead end project. Only back then, I didn’t think about it as a project, but as playing; playing with building a game.

By the time I abandoned it, I had a huge table and more than 100 pieces made out of cardboard, representing tanks, ships, missiles, planes, carriers, soldiers and who knows what else. Trying the game was a tricky business: both players had to hold their breath so that the cardboard pieces won’t fly away from the table and we had to take care to gather all the pieces at the end. I had no idea about rock/paper/scissors back then, so I never got to define the game rules – which was probably the most difficult thing to do anyway. I can imagine though the complexity of such a game, the adventure of creating and refining the rules while playing it for the first times, the strategical decisions driven by the combination of short and long range weapons. It could have been a good game.

I don’t remember why I stopped working at it. It probably was a mix of the technical difficulties, the complexity of the game rules that were waiting to be created and the fact that computers became a larger presence in my life.

Computers… I loved them from the very beginning. I still don’t know exactly why, but my best guess now is that they are a way to alternate worlds, a path to our imagination, and an empty universe where anyone who knows how can create something new. At the time I got my first computer, it was a ZX-80 clone that I used to connect to a black and white 14 inch TV with valves. I was lucky, because my model was a new one and was booting directly from memory; many of my colleagues had to boot theirs from a tape. To load games however, I had to use tapes, and so I got the best tool for the job: a very bulky but impressively sturdy cassette player manufactured in Russia. (To get an idea of what that means, there were stories with people letting them go from the 3rd floor and still working perfectly afterwards – I believed them.) Still, tapes were wearing off after a time, so you had to learn to apply pressure on the tape in specific areas and at a given time to be able to load it. I guess it was part of the fun back then.


My computer came with a game that I mastered after long playing sessions: Serpenti.

I’m sure you can play it now in emulators, and I’m pretty sure that if you don’t know it already, you’ll hate it. I loved many things about that game: the challenge, the simple and straight mechanics, and its most distinctive aspect: the sound. I would describe it more, but I don’t think I can; you’ll have to hear and see it to understand what I mean.

There were other games back then: Dan Dare, Nether Earth, Batty, Dizzy 3… All of them were jewels, each wonderful in its own way. There were good games on PC as well: Dune, Warcraft 2, Starcraft, Quake 2 and my best picks: Halflife, Broken Sword (the series), Gothic (1 and 2). They all share some characteristics: easy to start to play, real time, an interesting world or situation and they manage to pull you in and to make you want to overcome the difficulties ahead. They surprised me, enchanted me and didn’t let me go until I unfolded the whole story.

Fast forward to the beginning of the year. I’ve decided to get in touch with modern gaming, so I picked one type of game I’ve never played before, the gigantic commercial success called World of Warcraft. I was in holiday, no pressure whatsoever, with an open mind, ready to see what this universe has to offer. I think I played it for a total of 20 hours and that was it.

My first feeling was that it’s too crowded. Too many characters running around, doing the same thing as I was doing, while the universe was busy to respawn the same enemies over and over and over again. Maybe I’m not enough of a believer, but that was hard to ignore. Anyway, I decided to move over this detail and did my part. After the first few hours, I realized that I’m doing the same thing again and again: killing enemies so that I can get more experience so that I can increase my skills so that I can use additional weapons so that I can kill stronger enemies. I decided to move over this as well and try to see what other people see in World of Warcraft. I failed miserably. All I see is that it’s about running in an infinite cycle that plugs into the ancestral mechanism deeply ingrained in the player’s brain that provides satisfaction on the road to discovery. Only the discovery is, in this case, virtual.

So I wonder: Did I learn too much about how my brain works? Have I seen more of the real life? Or aren’t games what they used to be?

I honestly have no idea.