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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To Randomize or Not to Randomize

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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
Ask me what the best games in the world are, and I'll probably say chess and go. If I feel like inserting something unexpected, I might add checkers.

But ask me how often I play those games, and I'll say very, very rarely.

Why would I not play the games I consider best? What games do I play instead, and why?

I suppose my admiration for games like chess and go has a lot to do with cultural conditioning. Those games have a long history and get a lot of praise. That sets them apart from most games, which are regarded as casual entertainment.

Besides those general reputations, chess, go, and a handful of other games are the darlings of intellectual gamers--the Mensa crowd. Our culture prizes intellect, so being smart enough to win at chess or go is a feather in anyone's cap.

But another reason I put chess and go at the top of the totem pole is that they're great for mental exercise, and that's one of my primary purposes for gaming. I'm not competitive, and I'm not even particularly social when it comes to gaming; I play mostly solitaire. So one of the few rewards I can get from my hobby is mental exercise.

There's another reward, though, and it's about equally important to me. I don't want to call it escapism, so I'll call it modeling reality. Ever since I was a little kid, I've loved the idea of games as venues for make-believe: you get to be a real-estate tycoon in Monopoly, a detective in Clue, or a world conqueror in Risk. For me, this means I can curl up with a good game the way some people like to curl up with a good novel. It's an escape, yes--but I think of it as an escape into something--into a model of some slice of real life. It's not a holodeck, and it's not even a complete or accurate simulation, but it's enough to let me feel I'm really there, provided I suspend my disbelief and focus just on what's being modeled--what elements of reality (even an alternate reality--fiction) are covered by the game.

For me, mental exercise goes hand in hand with modeling reality. As I solve problems in order to exercise my mind, I want to believe the problems I'm dealing with are similar to those that need to be dealt with in real life. Even though Monopoly, Clue, and Risk are silly parodies of what their themes cover, players still do, in the game, some of what real-life tycoons, detectives, and militarists do. Though one will never become, say, a great detective just by mastering Clue, the game at least gives players some experience with deduction, which everyone knows is an aspect of detective work.

In my life, the big attraction has been wargames, sometimes called conflict simulations. I see war as perhaps the ultimate test of survival on a grand scale; I figure that if one can learn to survive, and even thrive, under the pressure of war, s/he can make it most anywhere. I was probably influenced too much by my dad's war stories and by all the war-related movies and TV shows I saw as a kid. Be that as it may, war has always seemed like a big deal to me--something worth learning about and trying to figure out.

But my way of approaching anything of that sort is to withdraw from it and work with models of it on the tabletop or on a computer. Far be it from me to venture into the actual, real-world experience. In the case of war, that would be dangerous and perhaps horrifying. But even if my interest were in business, detective work, or something relatively peaceful, I'd be inclined to just think about it and play with models of it rather than to plunge in and actually do the thing.

So, I play games to exercise my mind, and I do that by solving problems in the game; and I always like to believe that all the problem solving I do in games is at least indirectly or vaguely connected with real-world ventures. Believing that enables me to just lose myself in a game and enjoy it, all the while feeling I'm doing something worthwhile. If I didn't believe my gaming had any possible application in real life, I'd be ashamed of it. If gaming is just a respite from daily life, like watching TV or stopping for a beer after work, then I do a lot more of it than is healthy. And I don't want to admit that.

What has any of this got to do with randomness? OK, I'm getting to it. But first, let's connect what I've said so far with what I asked in the beginning.

One reason I rate games like chess and go so highly and yet very rarely play them is that they're abstract--they lack the thematic connection with the world that I like to escape into. That's not a deal breaker; I've played plenty of chess, checkers, and go while believing it was good for me and would benefit me in all areas of life. But without the theme or subject, I have to strain a bit to imagine how it might be applied to some real-world situation. In fact, I've debated with people over it: others have sometimes insisted that getting good at chess does nothing except make one good at chess; there's no real-world application for anything one learns from chess. I tend to disagree, but I can't prove the assertion false. And if it were true, then I'd feel chess was a waste of my time.

But if I'm playing a game about war, for example, there's little doubt that some of what I learn from the game could be applied somehow to actual war. And since I believe all things are interconnected, what applies to war can at least indirectly be applied elsewhere in the world.

Again, that's really only important to me because I'm deceiving myself. I always suppose that if I spend enough time in solitude, poring over books and models and such, I'll eventually learn enough about life to venture out into it with confidence. I don't feel I can do that until I'm ready. So, I've spent sixty-odd years so far trying to prepare myself to emerge into the world and do something real. Even I can see through the self-deception at this point: in truth I'll never feel ready. But now I'm so much in the habit of studying and preparing that I don't know how to stop. And with only a couple decades or so ahead of me (many of those likely being low-energy years of suboptimal health), I don't have a strong motivation to turn over a new leaf or reinvent myself.

Anyway, one reason I don't play top-notch games like chess and go is that they're abstract. Another reason is that they lack randomness.

A game without any random factor is, to my mind, stark competition. I think up the best move I can and make it, and then you think up the best move you can and make it, and so on: it's like a war between two minds as we endeavor to outthink each other.

As I said above, I'm not competitive. I don't like winning or losing when I'm playing a game with other people. I feel stupid or inept if I lose, and I feel bad for my opponent(s) if I win. It has been that way all my life: I've always loved games but been irritated by having to find opponents for them. Hence, I took to solitaire early on. The computer also helps, as I can stand playing against A.I. opponents. But I have zero interest in competing with other human beings.

In spite of that, I have, of course, played games with people. I've done it lots of times. And it has never been a terrible experience. Usually it's just "friendly competition"--a structured social activity, or something to do to pass the time. But given a choice of social activities, I'd rather do something that's not competitive at all, even in a friendly way.

And games without randomness seem, to me, to emphasize competition. Games with randomizers can still be competitive, but I don't feel the intensity so much. If I blunder in chess, it's my fault; no doubt about it. If I lose in backgammon, maybe it was due to poor play on my part, but maybe I just got some bad dice rolls.

That "maybe" means a lot to me, because I'm not the kind of person who's likely to ever analyze a game closely. I'll probably never review a backgammon game and compare my dice rolls to my opponent's rolls to see if randomness tipped things in someone's favor. In fact, I'm more likely to believe in luck--to imagine there's some mysterious force at work. And if I go that far, I might also imagine that I can earn luck by being a good person or something--so that a run of favorable dice rolls might indicate I've become a lucky guy and will continue getting more than my share of favorable rolls, since I deserve them.

Unfortunately, there's a flip side to that. Anytime I suffer from a bad series of dice rolls, I complain, "I deserve better!" I feel like life is cheating me. Here I am, working hard at the game, improving at it, and maintaining a good attitude, and suddenly everything goes sour. Why?

Well, perhaps just because randomness evens out. If my skillful play is excessively rewarded in one game, it'll go unrewarded in another. And vice versa. Because Lady Luck is actually impartial and, in fact, doesn't even exist.

Still, I find myself playing games like backgammon and dominoes (on my phone) frequently, whereas I almost never play chess or go. The latter feel like hard work because there's never any chance of getting something for nothing--being rewarded in spite of sloppy play. Justice prevails, but I can expect no mercy. If I wanted to face those conditions and concentrate that hard, I'd just venture into the real world instead and tackle some useful project. Heck, it'd probably be a lot easier.

That's not my idea of a hobby. To me, a hobby ought to be an enjoyable respite from real life. A game ought to be a safe environment in which to play around as if one were doing some real-life thing. And yet the "playing around" ought to actually prepare one to better handle things in real life.

It's enough for me, though, if it all just seems that way. If I'm absorbed in a wargame, intent on winning a campaign, I'm enjoying myself and also feeling more and more capable of someday directing a real-life campaign (should the opportunity ever arise, though I know it won't). Or at least more capable of understanding the next military-history book I read. But in order to continue enjoying myself as I play, the game has to be somewhat forgiving--has to have some randomness that tips things in my favor now and then, keeping me from having to (or even being able to) think every little thing all the way through.

And what about too much randomness? Well, I used to play Farkle on my phone. There's some decision making in it, but it's basically a game of chance. I had fun with it. If it had a theme (i.e., purported to model some bit of real life), I might still be playing it, as I enjoyed watching the various patterns unfold. It's always cool, to me, just to see the unexpected dice roll or card draw turn up in a game. Though it's beyond the players' control, it's still a sight to see. So, I'm more reluctant to play a game with too little randomness than one with too much.

Some say randomness is a necessity if a game is to model reality to some degree: there are always random factors in life, so a game that models life has to have randomness too. I'm not so sure about that. It's also said that there are no accidents in life--that there's a divine plan, and apparent accidents are effects of karma or something like that. That rings true for me too. It could be that randomness is an illusion.

Still, to the human mind--my mind, anyway--life does seem full of variables and uncertainties. And playing games is mostly a mental thing. The business of "modeling reality" in a game is just to help me make some connection with the real world (i.e., the world outside the game). If my mind can make an association of some kind, it's satisfied. Then I can happily play the game and believe I'm doing something more than merely amusing myself. At minimum, I'm practicing solving problems, and that practice is making me a little more fit to solve problems beyond the game--the challenges I encounter in day-to-day life.

Gaming is not sufficient preparation for that, by any means, but it can help. Oftentimes it's mostly a pleasant diversion, and that's fine. I just do so much of it, and put so much thought into it, that for me it has to have a saving grace, a valid purpose--a measure of usefulness.

So, should I change my assessment of games like chess and go, and stop calling them the best games in the world? Should I point instead to the games I play most often and get the most enjoyment from?

Or should I let go of my counterproductive desires for "modeling reality" and for randomness, and start playing chess and go if they are indeed the best games in the world? That's exactly what I've done periodically over the years. I took a good look and decided chess, go, and similar games were the very best for problem-solving practice; then I sidestepped competition and opted to play those games only against a computer A.I. During the times I've done that, I've felt I was being truest to my philosophy about gaming--and also getting the best results.

However, I'm only human, I guess. Every time I did that, I eventually gave way under the pressure. I started missing randomness and "modeling reality," and I turned to lighter games. Or I'd turn the difficulty down pretty low, so that I could just cruise through games of chess or go without really learning much of anything. But in the end, in order to be kind to myself, I got back to just playing wargames and computer strategy games, escaping into the "reality modeling" as much as anything else.

Meanwhile--to randomize, or not to randomize? I gravitate toward games with randomness because they somehow seem more forgiving and seem to offer more variety. I'm not sure they really do, but that's how I perceive them. When I stop and think about how it pays to calculate probabilities in games of chance, I find that distasteful. Usually I just turn a blind eye to that and go by guesswork. If I were going to study a game, I'd definitely pick one like chess or go. But as long as I'm just going to keep the game moving at a fast pace, without stopping to think too much, randomness is welcome.

So there--now I've said too much about that. Did you get anything out of it, or was I just rambling?
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