The Jaded Gamer

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Hatred of hassle and mistrust of imagination - how video games got what board games didn't

Alec Chapman
United Kingdom
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Anyway, how's your sex life?
"She said the same thing about waffles."
Microbadge: Offline from The Geek for a while
Yo ho! I've been concentrating on a very exciting musical project so have been away from the 'geek for a while. Hope everyone avoided a pre-Christmas "this year they'll play Caylus" splurge.

I've been mulling over a little conundrum and finally got a point where I am comfortable with my thinking. I've always been intrigued by why it is that computer games have achieved popularity and, more importantly, mainstream acceptance over the last 25 years, while boardgames - certainly the geek equal (geekqual?) of computer games when I was at primary school - have remained a fringe pastime.

Now, the initial response of the defensive fan in me would be to ask why we want mainstream acceptance anyway? After all, the hobby is doing fine and we're getting great games and dedicated fans.

Well, there's something in that, but my dream is to be able to break out a game in any location and not get looked at in the same way the public looks at the crazy guy in Oxford Circus who shouts in your face about Jesus in an aggressive manner not at all in keeping with peace and love.

So, the advantages of mainstream acceptance can be summarised as follows
1. More money in the industry = more games
2. More people playing games = more opponents
3. More places to play games = more gaming

All good things I am sure you will agree, though as in all things more games also means more bad games, more opponents means more asshole opponents with the maturity of a brain damaged goldfish and finally more places to play means little with all the extra players around.

But anyway - I was saying that board games aren't getting accepted more. The much maligned Guardian article about the wealth of the hobby barely scratched the surface... of the surface, but did appear promising - until one remembers that an article very much like this one turns up every year and while I have noticed a change on the shelves in Waterstones this year (they have X Wing!) I don't see attitudes changing so much as an appreciation of markets that exist already.

So I come back to the question I started with - what drove video games into the mainstream but not board games. I have two major threads of thought on this one.

1. (most) Video Games are more accessible than (most) Board Games

This is obvious fact, even removing the caveats my strict brain forces me to include. To play a video game, simply plug in, switch on and play. You can go from a wrapped present to an online fragging player in about fifteen minutes. Set up is two cables and - this is a grossly underestimated factor - you never have to do it again. Compare this to a board game. Many of them you can be up and running with in a short while, but the board needs setting up, new players need to be taught, it needs fully packing away every time etc etc. It's more hassle. And if the modern western world hates one thing above all others it's hassle. yuk

It's simply too much work for many people.

2. People Mistrust Imagination

This is the big one.

Remember when you were a kid and you ran around pretending you were a superhero? Or a robot? or any of a billion different variations (including, perhaps a superhero pirate robot ninja)?

Well, for many people the fact that we did something as a child leads to the conclusion that this thing is childISH. A sort of logical fallacy if you will. Of course, any bright person realises that imagination and reason make a better and more potent combination of skills than reason alone, but they may not realise that imagination is a skill you can continue to use and develop beyond your childhood.

It is in this fact, I think, that we reach enlightenment on why the people at large steer clear of recreational board gaming outside of one game of Monopoly at Christmas

...and remember, Christmas is the one time of year we are "allowed" to revert back to a pseudo-childhood...

The rise in acceptance of video games has gone hand in hand with the improvement in their presentation. Call Of Duty players are now presented with a realistic soldier shooting other realistic soldiers with realistic weaponry. When I was young, a block was firing lines at other blocks and you had to fill in the gaps with... you've guessed it... imagination.

You don't need much imagination any more to play Skyrim, or Far Cry and the like, because it is handed to you on a plate. You see a dragon in Skyrim because the computer is showing you what is undeniably and irrefutably a dragon. It's not like you have a brightly coloured cartoon dragon flying towards you and have to imagine the terrifying fire breathing monster - it is actually there, in as close to reality as you would, I assume, want such a beast to be.

Of course, realistic games are not all of gaming, but the more cartoony ones have realistic physics or controls that (and this was a luxury in the old days) work logically. What I am basically saying is that it has become less work to get swept away in a game - more passivity in imagination, if you will.

Now, the converse is true with board games. They become increasingly difficult in line with how many options there are included - so, for instance, the decision trees at any moment in Twilight Imperium, for example, are far larger than those in 6 Nimmt, but many times smaller than any one moment in Skyrim (a game in which you can simply wander off and do any of hundreds of things if you like).

However, while the average twitch FPS gamer can transfer their skills to a game like Skyrim with relatively few adaptations (the two stick method of 3 dimensional navigation has become pretty ubiquitous in console gaming) the average single game of Monopoly a year player cannot switch to something more complicated with as little work and with as generous an effort/reward ratio.

Even if/once the difficulty hurdle is overcome, there is still the childhood association of imagination with immaturity to best, and that is much more difficult to extinguish.

A wooden cube in a gaming context can be many things; a crate of indigo; a sheep; an orc laying siege to a Stronghold. Never forget that to an onlooker it remains a wooden cube until they buy into it. In fact, for a lot of gamers it remains a wooden cube beyond this point - these tend to be those for whom victory is an exercise in mathematics and mechanisms, but bear with me.

Whilst I appreciate that gaming is not necessarily actually pretending you are a farmer or a space captain, it is probably worth bearing in mind that to some guy who has wandered down into London On Board from the bar above may see things differently - and he should not be dismissed out of hand.

I can't really see a solution to this - perhaps it isn't even a problem in the first place? All I know is that the things that make board gaming great for me - the social interaction, the imagination, the systems and processes that mesh with the players' personalities to create the unique experience of every play - are not easy things to appreciate.

I cannot force myself to be surprised when people are not enthused by the hobby's possibilities. I don't think there is mileage, either, in forcing people to try it against their will. but maybe there are ways we can address these issues directly - by avoiding orcs and goblins, arcane rules mangling and by doing the set up and strike of games ourselves?

In any case, whoever you're playing with this week. I hope you're having fun.
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