Solitary Soundings

Musings of a solitary gamer. "The advantage of conversation is such that, for want of company, a man had better talk to a post than let his thoughts lie smoking and smothering." (Jeremy Collier) Comments welcome.
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Board Gaming Alone and on the Phone

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"Don't hang around, 'cause two's a crowd on my cloud, baby."
"If I were to hang my head, I'd miss all the rainbows. And I'd drown in raindrops instead."
In this brave new world of ours, as everyone knows, we can play board games (and card and tile games) by ourselves and even on portable devices. Wonderful, isn't it? Or is it?

In this blog post I'm talking about the games we find in BGG's database, not the ones we find in the VGG database. (The latter, of course, can also be played alone and are always played on electronic devices, but a blog post about that would be for VGG.)

Just to get my opinion stated, I like these "new" options in board gaming (yeah, they're new to some of us, old to others--but they're relatively new anyway). So now I'm going to launch into why I like them.

(FYI, several paragraphs have been deleted here, as I realized I was relating my life history again. Let's see if we can proceed without that this time.)

The main reason I like solitaire games and single-player games on electronic devices is convenience. Before I had those options, it was necessary to meet up with at least one other person and schedule a game. I like people, but I'm kind of allergic to schedules--especially in my free time. In my world, leisure time and schedules don't mix. But if I'm the only player of a game, all I ever have to do is play. Anytime I'm free and in a gaming mood, I play a game. Simple.

Now, if I were more of a social butterfly, solitude would be a stiff price to pay just for convenience. Luckily for me, I can take or leave other human players. A game, to me, is like a little, self-contained world; and once I get absorbed in it, I'm not paying much attention to my environment anyway. If there are other people at the table, I'm as likely to say, "Shut up and play" as anything else. Actually I'm much more soft-spoken than that, but I do have a low tolerance for trash talk and silliness. (Light humor is fine, though; I'm guilty of that myself.) Most of the games I like call for some focus and concentration anyway, so the player whose turn it is usually gets quiet without my having to say anything. But if I'm just sitting there playing a studious game with quiet people, are those other people necessary at all?

Some believe so. Even in the case of, say, chess, there are people who only like to play on a nice day in the park with a thoughtful, experienced opponent. The park atmosphere sets the mood, and the other player brings his or her own special style to the game. Then it all ends up being a full, rich experience, encompassing much more than just the series of moves that get made.

That's very nice, I'm sure. But I guess I compartmentalize my life more. If I'm in a park, I probably want fresh air and a a touch of nature more than anything else; and playing a game of chess is certain to distract me from the natural surroundings. Or if I'm sitting with a fellow human being, my main interest is likely to be in getting to know that person--exchanging information or making small talk, getting inside each other's head a bit. And both the game and the park environment might tend to pull my attention away from that. I'd rather chat with the person indoors, with nothing on the table except maybe food and beverages, so that our conversation can be the main event.

In short, when I play a game (and I mean a real, thoughtful game, not a trivial game; I rarely play the latter anyway), I want the whole environment to be conducive to my getting fully engrossed in the game play itself. No side conversations, no barking dogs, no TV in the background--nothing. Just the game.

Some people are so socially oriented that, to my amazement, they misunderstand me when I say "just the game." They immediately picture a group of people gathered around a table--something like that. But that is not what I'm talking about, obviously. A game, to me, is essentially a system. Usually it's a set of rules and components and comes in a box. These days the rules and components are often digitized and found on an electronic device, but it's the same thing. The game itself has no human element; it's a system and can be boiled down to mathematics.

But it takes a human mind to activate the system. And the main purpose of the system is to exercise the human mind. So, I'm not interested in a game that plays itself--two chess computers playing each other, for example. To do me any good, the game needs to be connected to my mind at least. Optionally it can also be connected to other people's minds.

If I'm playing chess with you, we're taking turns operating the system and providing mental exercise for each other. If seven of us are playing Diplomacy, we're all operating the system simultaneously and negotiating with one another about what changes to bring about within the system; and of course we're all getting mental exercise in the process.

We're having fun too. If the "system" weren't fun to play around with, we probably wouldn't. For exercise alone, we could go off and solve calculus problems or something (not to say that can't also be fun; I'm just trying to think of something most people would consider dry). Besides mental exercise, games can involve make-believe, creativity, artistry, and more. Game play stirs up emotions. Fun is a subjective experience that's hard to define, but we can probably all agree that we play games for fun.

OK, enough about what a game is and what it's for. Now back to why I like playing games solo.

I've already mentioned convenience: it's easier to just sit down and play than to get someone else to sit down and play with me. I've also mentioned focus: I can concentrate on the game better without any human interaction or other distractions. Now I'll mention immersion.

"Immersion" is an ill-defined term, but gamers use it pretty regularly. It refers to getting fully absorbed--emotionally and mentally--in a book, a movie, a game, or whatever. Often it's tied in with escape--as in curling up with a good book and becoming immersed in the story. In a sense, when you're immersed in a game, you're caught up in an alternate reality--something other than day-to-day life on planet Earth.

Call it escape, immersion, or being absorbed, it's one of two main reasons I turn to games. The other reason is mental exercise.

But I think I'm just going in circles here, or parsing things out unnecessarily. All I'm really saying is the obvious thing: that it's fun to get mentally, emotionally, and creatively engrossed in playing a good game.

What I'm trying to get back around to is that solo games lend themselves to immersion. If you're reading a book or watching a movie, you don't want people interrupting; you've been transported to some other place, and it can be annoying if someone walks up and asks what you're reading or watching. For the moment, you're back in the day-to-day world, and then you have to readjust to the story you were into.

Decades ago, Jim Dunnigan learned, via a marketing survey, that the vast majority of people who bought wargames played them solitaire. They were all designed as two-player games (with a few exceptions), but we wargamers just played both sides against each other. Competitive gamers are sometimes astounded by that, but it's not about competition; it's about immersion. A wargame is basically a time-and-motion study of a battle or campaign, so playing a wargame is a lot like perusing a book with maps. Wargames can be played competitively, and some wargamers do that too (in fact, in the early days, wargames were advertised as "military chess"). But what I usually did was just play a game solitaire until I had learned the rules and gotten a feel for the scenario; then I'd start over with a different game and do the same thing. I didn't compete with myself or make any elaborate strategic studies; I just immersed myself in the game until I felt the experience was over--at least for the time being.

That brings me to one aspect of solitaire that I tend to dislike: designed-for-solitaire board games. You'd think I'd be all over a game like that; it sounds like it's customized just for me. But not so. I've tried a number of times to get into such games, but the only one I still own is Mosby's Raiders, and I'm not sure why I hang on to that one (I never play it). You see, what the solitaire system does is reintroduce competition. If you just play both sides of a game, you're sort of choreographing a battle scene, so to speak--making these guys fight those guys just to create the kind of spectacle you want. But if you have an opponent--be it human or AI--you're not doing that anymore; now you're competing. A structured form of creativity has given way to problem-solving competition.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that. Actually I like a lot of highly competitive games--chess, checkers, and go, for example. But I don't expect to get immersed in those games. They're abstract, so they don't lend themselves to immersion (as I tried to define it above). There's no make-believe involved. Instead, it comes down to almost pure mathematics. So when I'm in the mood for that kind of game, all I want is mental exercise--and of course a certain kind of fun.

But if I'm playing a wargame or any game with a rich, detailed theme or subject, most likely I'm expecting to get caught up in it the way I do in a novel or movie. It's an escapist thing. It involves emotion as much as intellect, creativity as much as reason. Basically it means stepping into a story and becoming part of it, vicariously experiencing everything the story is about.

And I find that competition gets in the way of that. Sure, there's conflict in every good story. But there's a difference between witnessing the conflict and being held responsible for success or failure in one side of that conflict. The latter is what competition is all about.

So, don't make me play a game like Field Commander: Rommel; let me just play both sides of France 1940 instead. That way I can explore the campaign in a more leisurely way, see it from both perspectives, and--I feel--get more out of it.

If it's backgammon, though, then please do give me an AI opponent to play against. There's no subject, theme, or story to immerse myself in, so in a game like that I do want competition and mental exercise.

For a long while now, I've been finding my Android phone (which might better be called a pocket computer, but I'll go with whatever people are calling the devices) an ideal medium for playing classic board and card games. Right now I've got a board-game folder with apps for chess, mancala, go, go-moku, checkers, and backgammon; and in my card-game folder are cribbage, casino, solitaire (patience), bezique, and gin rummy. I should probably move dominoes into that folder too. I play a few of those games a lot more than all the others, but I do get them all played. And to me they're some of the best games in the world.

The AI is reasonably strong in all those games, and in some it's capable of kicking my butt so badly that I could struggle with it all my life and never improve enough to win regularly. So, there's plenty of mental exercise available there. And the variety of games means I get different kinds of mental exercise.

Also, these games are all small and short enough that it feels natural to play them on a phone-sized screen. In addition, it's discreet. Everybody carries such phones around nowadays, so I just blend in if I'm sitting in the courtyard of a mall, playing a game while waiting for my wife to finish up in a clothing store.

True, I don't get the human interaction or the tactile delight of handling a tabletop game set. But to me, those aspects of gaming are secondary anyway. If I can enjoy them once in a blue moon, fine; meanwhile I can enjoy smartphone games every day.

I used to have more immersive games on my phone--wargames and RPGs and such. But over time, I uninstalled them all. I found I just wasn't playing them, so they weren't worth all the storage space they took up. The only time I ever want to play an immersive game is when I'm at home with at least a couple hours to spare. And in that case, I'll probably play a computer game--the kind found in the VGG database--rather than a board game.

Again, it's mainly a matter of convenience. I used to set up and play board wargames. Nowadays, that feels like a lot of work just for a solitaire game. Why use up all that table space just for myself? And why spend the time, when I can instantly have a game going on the computer? My eyesight is such that board games are a little awkward anyway. And I don't get that much pleasure from handling cardboard game pieces (nor would I ever again put time and effort into dealing with miniatures games).

That said, however, I am thinking of setting up Magic Realm again one of these days. I've been playing it using RealmSpeak (a java app), but I'd like to experience the tabletop version again and get to where I know I can play the game "manually." That way I'll be comfortable teaching the game to someone or playing with a group if I ever decide to do that.

You see, my solo gaming has never been for the purpose of avoiding people. As I've said many times, I like people. I'd usually welcome a game with someone else. It's just that in my day-to-day life, opportunities to do that don't come along naturally or frequently. And I'm not the kind of person to press the issue--to make it happen. Also, I do resent schedules being imposed on my leisure time. So, I welcome games with others under specific circumstances: we're already hanging out together anyway, and we both (or all) feel like playing a game. Then the game emerges more or less spontaneously from general social interaction. Otherwise, if it's something that has to be forced (i.e., scheduled), I'll just play by myself. If someone else shows an interest and handles the scheduling, though, I'll probably be agreeable.

I like to rehearse for such situations, though, however rare they may be. When I play backgammon on my phone, I feel I'm staying in shape for the next game I play with my wife or someone else. Same with all the wargames I used to play: it was just a sort of "shadow boxing" to help me keep all the rules in my head so I'd be ready to play a human opponent at some future date. To that extent, gaming is a social activity even for me.

Most of the time, though, I find the modern world of gaming wonderful. I get to do something I've loved all my life, and now I can do it anytime, anyplace. The only problems I face are (1) being overwhelmed by so much to choose from and (2) being tempted to spend so much time gaming that I neglect other things I ought to be doing.

As you can see, though, I never let gaming get in the way of my blogging.
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