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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The Name Game

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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)
I've loved games with a passion all my life, so when someone asks what my hobbies are, the first answer that comes to mind is, "Games!" I don't always say that; it depends on who's asking and how I feel at the moment. But there's no doubt in my mind that gaming has been my main hobby for many years.

And yet, even though I'm pretty sure you know what I mean, I feel obliged to further clarify--because game has too many meanings, even among game fans.

According to one dictionary definition, any kind of diversion is a game. Someone with that definition in mind would think I hadn't answered his question. It'd be like saying my hobby is enjoying hobbies.

The problem isn't new. Even when I was a little kid, I often had to explain what I meant by "game." In one circle, it meant games like hide-and-seek or ring-around-the-rosy. In the schoolyard it might mean dodgeball or tetherball or something. But the games I meant--the ones that tie in with my favorite hobby--are the ones my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Tussy, kept in the classroom for rainy days: Clue, Monopoly, Careers, and such. I usually had to name those individually, unless I thought to call them board games.

So, before I even reached my teens, I was already struggling with something that seemed like it ought to be simple. It was simple with my friend Lenny. We played board games and card games and tile games pretty often, so when one of us said to the other, "Wanna play a game?" we both instantly understood. But if anyone else was in on the conversation, s/he was as likely as not to say, "A game? You mean baseball or badminton or something like that?"

Next thing I knew, I was in my teens, and that's probably when I learned there were also metaphorical and slang meanings of "game." Joe South hammered away at one of them in his hit song "The Games People Play." The Hollies touched upon another in "Carrie Ann": "What's your game, girl? Can anybody play?" Then there was Billy Joe Royal's song "Cherry Hill Park," where he says of Mary Hill, "The game she played lasted all day, till way after dark."

Lenny and I became wargamers, whereupon we both learned that one-word descriptor that's only listed in the dictionary as two words. I liked "wargamer"; it told specifically what I was into. The only trouble with it was that most people didn't know what it meant. If I said my hobby was wargaming, I'd have to explain what wargames were. And besides, I liked chess and other games too.

I don't suppose any of that would have mattered if I'd been a normal teenager. The question about hobbies would have only come up occasionally anyway, and I'd be able to easily blow it off or change the subject if I wanted to. But I wasn't just a wargamer; I was a wargaming fanatic. I lived and breathed wargames. I identified with my hobby. At that age when people generally go through some kind of identity crisis, I latched on to my hobby for the sake of self-definition.

Incidentally, I learned another new word--boardgame. In wargaming circles, it was almost always a single word, even though the dictionary shows it as two words. Among wargamers, the term served to distinguish fans of Avalon Hill and SPI games from the older breed--the miniaturists. When Lenny and I ventured into miniatures wargaming, I started to feel uneasy with the "boardgamer" tag. Miniaturists were sometimes a little bit haughty, knowing that their kind of wargaming was older and pricier and required craftsmanship as well as gamesmanship. And I didn't want my ego to be bruised. Besides, I was thinking of getting into that "elite" kind of wargaming myself.

But in high school, I didn't hang out with anybody who was into sports. I had never liked sports, and for a few years already I had been using the word sports to refer to baseball, football, basketball, and any other game that involved physical action. I started saying, "I love games but hate sports." That answered the hobby question in a way that would not only help clarify my preference, but also alienate anyone who wasn't of like mind. In those cliquish years, the "jocks" were like some kind of subhuman species to me and my friends. I resented their using "my" word, game, to refer to a football match that the whole school was supposed to care about. Why couldn't they stick to "their" word--sport? To my mind at least, there was a world of difference.

Soon after high school, I started seeing something new, mostly in bowling alleys and pizza parlors: video games. I don't remember if they were called that at first. They became "arcade games" because whatever they were, they seemed to fit into the same niche as pinball and other mostly-mechanical-but-partly-electronic devices in amusement-park arcades. I had never liked the older arcade games much, and the new ones didn't seem that different to me at first. More electronics, less mechanics, but otherwise the same old thing. I had a bad attitude about both mechanics and electronics anyway; I felt there was too much gadgetry in the twentieth century. As a wargamer, my historical interest shifted back to the Victorian Age; I didn't like reading or playing games about any wars more modern than those. Also, to my mind, dexterity games were too much like sports; I avoided anything physical.

But the world went its own way, of course. It didn't conform to my preferences, as I believed it should. The video-arcade scene became a big thing, and then consoles brought video gaming into the home. Now anytime someone asked what my hobby was, and I wanted to say, "Games!" I had more explaining to do than ever. Most people were now thinking of arcade games or console games, and I did not want to be identified with those.

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of my fellow wargamers jumped ship and turned to something brand-new--role-playing games. Much to my surprise and dismay, Dungeons & Dragons took off like board wargaming never had. I couldn't believe so many gamers preferred fiction to history, or that grown-up gamers would sit around pretending to be knights or wizards or whatever. I had always seen wargaming as a very mature hobby, akin to the sandtable exercises in military academies like West Point, Annapolis, and Sandhurst. In contrast, RPGs immediately struck me as juvenile. I wanted no part of them. So, here was yet another pastime that people called "gaming," but which I refused to be identified with. It was getting harder and harder to say, "Games!" when someone asked about my hobbies.

When the PC came on the scene, the favorite term became "computer games" (or in some cases, "microcomputer games"). This shift made me stop and think. I put off buying a home computer system for a long time, but when I finally caved in and got one, I soon found out about game software. And it wasn't all like those twitchy arcade games; there was software for classic games like chess, go, and bridge. Soon there was software for hex-and-counter board wargames. These things were right up my alley.

That pointed up a problem I'd had all my life. Though I'd always been passionate about games (the kind I meant), I was never competitive, and I wasn't even very social. Though I played games with my family sometimes (not that often), mostly I stuck to two-player games. And even then, I resented the need for another player. I enjoyed the games themselves--immersing myself in the structured world defined by the game's components and rules--but it was annoying for me to have to ask someone else to play. Usually the other person was less than enthusiastic. But even if I found someone keen on playing, I'd soon notice that his or her style and preferences were at least a bit different than mine. Hence, I couldn't enjoy the game by getting into it my way, entirely on my own terms. I had to accommodate my opponent or fellow players. I often thought games would have been better without other people.

Unfortunately, when I put that to the test, I was proven wrong. Sometime in high school, I discovered solitaire (patience). The idea of being able to play a card game by myself had a tremendous amount of appeal, and I learned a few games and played them pretty often. In time, though, they all started to feel dull. There wasn't enough to them. Basically, I realized, these "games" were all about sorting a shuffled deck of cards. Other games I'd been fond of--chess and wargames, for example--seemed to have a lot of meaning as well as a lot of strategic and tactical challenge. Solitaire didn't.

In the 1980s, a few solitaire wargames were published, and I just had to try those. Among others, I played Ambush!, B-17: Queen of the Skies, and Mosby's Raiders. (I still own the latter but haven't played it in decades.) Well, I loved the idea of these games, but I couldn't help but feel something was off. I didn't mind playing alone, but having to operate the "manual AI" made the experience seem too artificial somehow--less like what I considered a real game. Partly it was that the "manual AI" was only there to provide competition, and I really never cared that much about competition; I only cared about exploring the game and learning and improving.

Actually, around this time I was very much into playing two-player wargames by myself. I'd been doing it for years, ever since I lost touch with my old wargaming group. I'd buy a new game and teach it to myself; and to do that, I'd have to set it up and play at least a few turns--just playing both sides against each other. And I found that learning process so satisfying that it became my whole hobby. For years it was about the only kind of gaming I did.

So, there was yet another problem for me when it came to saying what my hobby was. Even if I said, "Games!" and went on to narrow it down to board wargames, I'd then have to explain that I didn't actually play them head-to-head against another wargamer. If I described what I did, many people would think it wasn't gaming at all. So, at this phase of my life, I just avoided talking about my hobbies. I loved what I was doing, but I didn't expect anyone else to understand or appreciate it.

Then (to get back on track here), along came the PC and wargame software. Now I could play chess, or a game like V for Victory: Utah Beach, all by myself and be playing competitively, the way the game was designed. I could get the full experience of playing a game without having to ask anyone else to play. And I could practice to my heart's content, staying ready for the day when I'd get around to playing against a human opponent again.

For me, that was a dream come true. However, at this point I would have had a very hard time saying, in a casual conversation, what my hobby was. I wasn't doing anything lots of other people weren't also doing, but from the average person's viewpoint, my kind of gaming was idiosyncratic. "You play games? Like tennis?" "No, more like chess." "Oh, you belong to a chess club?" "No, I play by myself, on the computer; and not just chess, but also wargames." By then, I'd be getting funny looks from anyone not in the know.

It didn't matter, though, because the topic hardly ever came up. And when it did, I'd usually evade the question by saying my hobbies were things like reading and dabbling at foreign languages. I didn't need to explain games. Most people weren't interested in them, and I wasn't much interested in playing games with other people anyway.

But then along came the Internet. With worldwide communication opened up, I naturally sought out groups of like-minded hobbyists online. Usenet offered, and I found lots of boardgamers and wargamers there; and a few years later there was BGG.

At first it seemed like another dream come true: here are perhaps thousands of other people, all as interested in the gaming hobby as I am. Around here it goes without saying that games are a favorite hobby. So we're one big, like-minded group, right?

Yeah--until we get down to just which games we're playing and how we like to do it.

For a long time (years, I guess), I must've been stuck in 1985 or sometime around then. I used the word game as if everybody who's into gaming should know what I mean by it. And I figured everybody who was into boardgaming would be well versed in the classics (chess, go, backgammon, etc.) and family games (Monopoly, Clue, Risk, etc.) and would also know something about wargames.

Only I myself didn't know much about what at first were called German games (Settlers of Catan, Bohnanza, etc.). I had to try catching up on that. Nor were the latest wargames what they were last time I was heavily into them; old publishers had gone under, and new ones were putting out games. Current wargames had standard features that older ones didn't have. So, I was a bit disoriented, but I didn't care; I was happy enough with the kind of gaming I'd been doing, and I planned to continue doing it. I wasn't going to jump onto the latest bandwagon anyway. I didn't realize, though, that that attitude marked me as a relic of the past to many gamers. When I used the word game around them, I was thinking of The Russian Campaign while they were thinking of Puerto Rico.

There were so many different games, and so many kinds of games, that BGG tried to create "subdomains" (I think they've gone away; I haven't checked lately)--so that wargamers could hang out with fellow wargamers, abstract gamers with fellow abstract gamers, and so on. Meanwhile gamers themselves made up groupings like "Eurogames" and "Ameritrash."

Still, very generally speaking, we were all still on the same page. We at least agreed we were talking about board, card, and tile games.

Except that many gamers also played video games and role-playing games. Hence, VGG and RPGG.

I had no problem steering clear of RPGG. I've never played an RPG in my life (though I've owned rule sets and learned, mentally, how to play), unless you count computer RPGs--but those fit under the heading of video games. So, that part is easy enough: I can continue to regard RPGers as "that other group of gamers," just as I've been doing since 1974 or so.

However, I couldn't avoid communication problems in BGG and VGG. I'm the odd duck among boardgamers in that I don't play or care about most modern games, but only a selection of older ones; and furthermore, I don't even play those much anymore. It got to where I realized I was playing so seldom--even when it came to favorite wargames that I could play solo--that I more or less migrated to VGG.

I was--and am--still playing computer games. I sometimes still call them that, even though most everyone else says "video games." So, VGG looks like the place to discuss the kind of gaming I actually do nowadays. Then again, as Ricky used to tell Lucy, I've often "got a lotta 'splaining to do" in that group of supposedly like-minded gamers.

First off, I've never had much of anything to do with arcade games and their generations of successors--real-time games that require controllers. Years ago, for a relatively brief time, I owned a joystick (a CH "Flight Stick"), which I used for the Aces games and Wolfenstein 3D. But I haven't had any such thing since the 1990s. I play games almost exclusively on the PC, using a mouse and keyboard. Either that or on my smartphone. And often I play classic games like backgammon, dominoes, and rummy which could be played without any electronic device at all.

Also, although I've sampled point-and-click adventure games (and even completed two or three) and played a few cRPGs, I don't really have much use for story-based games. For me, there was a sharp divide back in the mid-1970s, when I first encountered story-based gaming in the form of D&D (I'm not counting Cops & Robbers and other make-believe games I played as a little kid). I believed stories and games were two completely different things, and that the twain should never meet. When I do get lured into playing a story-based game, I generally ignore the story and characters and treat the game as a series of battles, races, and puzzles.

Because of my background and preferences, I've ended up in numerous discussions where I'd try in vain to distinguish between games and movies or stories. Most video games today are, in effect, interactive movies or stories--but I keep stubbornly denying that. To my mind, there's no way to really blend games and stories. You can have stories with some game elements or games with some story elements, but like oil and water, they never mix completely. And the mix is never to my taste anyway. So I keep wanting to hang on to my long-held definition of game as a strategic or tactical contest of some kind, even though only a subset of video games, the one that includes the likes of Civilization, fits my definition.

Naturally that infuriates gamers whose worldview and preferences differ from mine. I'm going around talking as if only the games I play are true games and most of what's in the VGG database should be called something else. And the gaming world isn't buying it.

So, once again, I find I have to explain. If asked what my hobby is, even by fellow gamers, I can't just say, "Games!" Because it doesn't tell them what I mean. I've always known what the word means to me, but it only works when I'm talking to myself.

Therefore, at long last, I've been persuaded to make a slight shift in my vocabulary--which, now that I think about it, is all that was ever needed. Instead of saying I'm into games, I'll say I'm into strategy games.

That pretty well covers it. It's not exact or perfect, but the term strategy games immediately puts everyone in mind of the things I've wanted, all my life, to just call games.

And what a long, strange trip it has been! Reflecting on it now, I wonder how I could have held so long to the ridiculous expectation that the world would sooner or later conform to my way of thinking and expressing myself. I tried every which way, in countless discussions, to describe exactly what "game" means to me and how I'm using the word. Sometimes people would get it, sometimes not. But somehow it took years for me to finally see that just adding one word would have saved hours and hours of tedious explaining--not to mention arguing.

That's not the only instance of that either. In this blog post, I've only covered the word game. Apparently there are other words I keep getting hung up on, to the dismay and confusion of my listeners. One of them is work. All my life I've been saying things like, "Work, work, work--that's all I ever seem to get to do." Whereupon my wife says she doesn't understand. To her, work is just the expenditure of energy, and most everything takes energy; and the only kind of work she'd resent would be the necessity of working for someone else, to earn a living. But to me, "work" means acting under the pressure of an obligation, doing something I'd never otherwise choose to do. One day, my wife happened to say (in response to some specific thing I've forgotten), "So you don't like work?" and I replied, "Of course not; work is an undesirable task." In that moment, she finally got my definition of "work," after hearing me use (or misuse) the word for thirty years. If I'd just said "unwelcome obligations" or "undesirable chores" instead of "work," I'd have been perfectly understood all along.

The trouble is, I couldn't say those things before. I didn't have the awareness for it. Words like game and work meant what they meant to me, and until they caused me enough problems I was never motivated to come up with any alternate expressions. I'd been using those simple terms all my life, without ever feeling any need to check a dictionary. I naturally assumed they meant the same thing to everyone else as they did to me. We all knew what "game" and "work" meant; I just apparently felt differently about those things than some other people did. So I went around looking for people who felt the same as I did.

Now I have to suspect that it was often the other way around: many people felt the way I did about what I meant; they just couldn't determine what I meant from the word I was (mis)using.

I wonder how many other words there are like that in my vocabulary. And whether other people fall into the same trap--inadvertently use words they're sure of but wrong about.

I suppose it only happens with words we're attached to. I always clung to my private notion of "game" because I liked games so much. I always clung to my personal definition of "work" because obligations weighed so heavily on me. There was enough emotion wrapped up in the terms that I couldn't let go or compromise or step back and calmly check my vocabulary. Where there's no emotion or attachment involved, it's not an issue; then if I'm wrong I just correct myself. So, one clue that a change of wording might be in order is feeling strongly about a particular term. If I feel I have to argue because I'm being misunderstood, maybe all I need to do is reword what I said and make it clearer.
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