Category Archives: Tabletop Games

I’m Still a Gamer

Amid the toxic fallout from August in the gaming world is an idea that’s being championed by several feminist critics, including Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra, that the term “gamer” ought to be disposed with.

On the one hand, I completely sympathize with the sentiment that’s behind the argument. “Gamers,” by which she means the trollish minority of anti-feminist vocal MRA-supporting feminist-conspiracy-theory-touting subset of gamers, have of late been behaving like spoiled toddlers who have been told that they can’t eat their entire birthday cake because other people should also get a slice.

But on the other, I think the knee-jerk impulse to excise the term from our vocabulary runs the risk of erasing a lot of what is good about being a gamer. Identifying with the rest of gamer culture – sharing common fandoms and conversations; enjoying the thrill of victory, whether in solo, co-op, or competitive play; experiencing the excitement of new game mechanics or technologies… all those things are also a part of being a gamer. I’ve found more friends by identifying as a gamer (both board games and videogames) than I have by identifying as anything else. I’d hate to lose that.

I understand, too, the argument that games are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of our culture. They are. More people play games – especially casual mobile games – than ever before… or do they? Solitaire has been a staple of people’s lives since they could make cards. Dice (or knuckle-bones) can be solitaire, co-op, and competitive, too. In short, whether playing a sport, a board/card game, or a videogame, human beings have been gamers of varying degrees for all eternity. Just because more people play Candy Crush and Flappy Bird than used to play Minesweeper doesn’t mean that there isn’t a distinction between those folks who are gamers, and Gamers.

Certainly, there isn’t a level of monetary commitment one can give to become a Gamer (per a current argument), nor dedicated hours to gaming, nor ownership of a particular set of machinery. Being a Gamer is about attitude and ownership of the identity (not the paraphernalia). It’s about putting games before a lot of other things, and wanting to put games before other things because of the positives that gaming represents.

Being a Gamer, to me, means being willing to take risks. It also means wanting to never let go of the impulse to play. Playfulness, and the embrasure of the fantastic that comes with it, is something our society as a whole is sorely lacking. Playfulness can manifest in many ways, not just through gaming, but gaming is, to me at least, one of the most concrete ways that adults have the opportunity to remain playful in a world that is otherwise harsh, unfair, and stressful.

Play is important – physical play, cosplay, identity play, virtual play… all kinds of play that help us to define and redefine ourselves and our beliefs, to experiment with new patterns of thought and ways of engaging with the world, to work out our frustrations in a safe way. And Gamers are (some of the) people who value play more than most.

And that’s why I want to not just hold on to the Gamer identity, but to reclaim it and encourage people to embrace it.

TLF: PAX Bostonia

At the end of March, I got lucky enough to have a presentation at the New England Modern Language Association annual conference in Boston at the exact same time as PAX East 2013. PAX – Penny Arcade eXpo – was started years ago by the guys that run Penny Arcade, and has since expanded to include PAX East (Boston instead of Seattle), PAX Dev (for developers), and PAX Aus (Australia). In other words, it’s enormously popular. The passes sell out every year.

So when I noticed that I was going to be in Boston anyway, you can bet your britches that I was going to go. And this was my experience. It was, in a word, awesome. Sure, there were a couple of minor downs, but overall, PAX was full of ups, and gives me hope that with the right leaders in terms of attitude, the gaming community will join the rest of the Western civilized world in recognizing equality as something open to everyone, not just straight white men.

Settlers of Critical Thinking

So today my class actually sat down and played Settlers of Catan to explore issues of resource management and game theory. At the end of class, one student actually borrowed the game from me to play with his roommates. They had a great time. They got into it. They worked in teams. They competed. They did all the things that they were supposed to do in terms of theory – sometimes they made the irrational choice to “robber” someone who had stolen from them rather than use strategy. Sometimes they made “nicer” trades to get on a team’s good side.

The down side? They didn’t seem to recognize that they were actually doing this. From time to time I would point it out to the table as I watched and helped, but for the most part, this exercise was largely for my – rather than their – benefit. I was the one who really had the distance from the intensity of the game to notice the significant differences in teams who had to carefully manage resources and those who had a shortage and did a lot more verbal manipulation.

I got to see the teams who had a clear leader, the teams that worked out strategy together, and the fact that the only solo player (in either class) won… certainly, one instance isn’t nearly enough to know that solo play is an advantage, but it was interesting to note. He didn’t have to fight with anyone, or compromise his strategy to make room for someone else’s suggestions.

The most predominant element of theory I saw at work, though, was definitely the competitive drive acting as a rational-behavior-reducing utility. Once the robber got used the first time (by rolling a seven, rather than drawing a soldier), then it became a weapon. When I play, my friends and I try to avoid penalizing each other most of the time (by putting the robber on an empty tile). That was definitely not the case in my classes. Once that first seven was rolled, they went out of their way to buy soldiers to get “back” at each other, or – in some cases – to steal particular resources. Without more specific research, it’s hard to say whether the teams more prone to using the robber were actually hurting themselves, but my guess would be that they spent far more resources on development cards than they needed to for revenge, instead of building up cities or settlements for the victory points. That said, my solo player won by buying a development card that gave him a victory point.

But for me the most interesting part was seeing how the layout of the board impacted the strategies of the teams. One table had a huge shortage of wood (and a plenitude of sheep to the point where they ran out of sheep cards), so they didn’t expand outward, but built cities and development cards almost from the start. Another table had so much hostility that they rarely traded with each other. And another had mostly wood and brick, so they spent most of the game on roads and settlements because they didn’t have as much ore or sheep.

And the dice – the randomness – also had a huge impact on these numbers. Random chance, as we know from game theory, helps to mitigate strategy and equalize the players, but it also emulates the seeming randomness of resource management in the environment. If there’s a drought, you won’t have as much wheat. Foot and mouth disease can cause a dearth of sheep. And when you need those resources, you face Tragedy of the Commons. These are real-world issues that manifest in the distribution of tiles and numbers, and in the rolls of the dice. In this idea, the robber acts as a Free Rider whose theft of the blocked resource keeps that resource out of the hands of those who have legitimately paid for it.

The biggest issue was time – we didn’t have the time to get all the way to 10 victory points, and we didn’t have the time to really sit down and talk about what the game was teaching us about game theory, cooperation and competition, or resource management. It’s something I want to come back to with them, to work on in relation to the larger problems of systems theory and leadership… to talk about the ways in which their decisions as individuals interacted with the elements of the game beyond their control as a team and as a whole.

Playing Nice!

So an article that grabbed my attention yesterday is actually on how playing games can make us nicer – specifically, “Forget violence: Do co-op games make us less aggressive?” by Jamie Madigan on Gamasutra.

I’ve mentioned co-op games on this blog before, although specifically in reference to board games. Madigan’s article is talking specifically about videogames and psychology studies. Apparently, recent studies from 2010 onwards have found that players show fewer violent impulses, make fewer connections to violent language, and are generally more cooperative with others after playing a game in co-op mode. Basically, cooperative play produces a cooperative mindset that then translates into other behaviors.

I do not in the least find this surprising, nor do I imagine most people do. If you’ve just spent several hours trying to help other people accomplish something, you’re in a completely different mental space than if you’ve just spent several hours trying desperately to kill more people than anyone else.

Here’s something that the article doesn’t mention, but that I’ve noticed from a lot of play-time (electronic and tabletop). Your lexicon is totally different. When you are playing cooperatively – in Team Fortress 2‘s new “Mann vs. Machine” mode, say – the other people on your team are “dudes,” are referred to by “name,” or by their character class. The people or bots you’re competing against are usually some sort of expletive or insult. In-group vs. out-group, as I talked about today with my students.

“Mann vs. Machine” actually has raised several of these issues for me recently. As a long-time TF2 player, I was fully expecting to see a leaderboard when I loaded up “MvM.” I didn’t. At first, I was disappointed. I wanted to see that board – to know where I was on it and how well I was doing. Even though TF2 has always been cooperative to an extent (your team versus another team), there was always a leaderboard and therefore a level of competition. But not in “MvM.” And it makes people better team players.

There’s no competitive pressure to do better than your teammates (to say nothing of the other players), but there is pressure to help your teammates and the team as a whole. Pressure is exerted if you aren’t contributing to the collective goal by showboating or running off to kill everything yourself. And people are nicer to each other – fewer insults, more helpful suggestions, and even the tone of comments telling people they don’t know what they’re doing are constructive rather than offensive.

Maybe there’s something to the idea that we don’t always have to be individuals. We can be a useful member of a team and have value there without always having to be praised individually for being special. Sometimes, sure, individuality is important, vital, even. But sometimes, it’s better to play Engineer and support your team, to play Medic and keep everyone alive rather than just trying to rack up points by following the one Heavy who shoots everything.

And cooperative play – whether Yggdrasil or Pandemic or TF2 – puts us in a better state of mind overall when it doesn’t also pit us against one another. Games like Modern Warfare produce animosity within teams because they force players to measure one another rather than encourage team play. And the deep irony is that if players work together (rather than each striving for individual top score), their team does better. Leadership isn’t just about who kills the most enemies or steals the most intels. Leadership can also be about teamwork, and the leaderboard actually hinders that process in online play.

And, really, I’m all for anything that makes people be nicer to each other in the online gaming community.

Round Tables

Last year at the Ethical Inquiry through Video Game Play and Design conference at the Prindle Institute for Ethics at Depaw University, I had the great pleasure of discovering (and playing) cooperative boardgames, specifically, Yggdrasil. Since, I’ve also been able to play Pandemic, which I like less, although it is more readily accessible for people not obsessed with Norse mythology.

I grew up playing boardgames. Monopoly, Clue, chess, Trivial Pursuit, the obligatory games of small children: Snakes and Ladders, Candyland, Sorry. In my family, we also played mah jongg (my family’s German, so no, I don’t know why we chose that as our family game of choice). But none of those were cooperative. Most games aren’t. They’re about beating other people, whether the other team or everyone else sitting at the table.

But Yggdrasil and Pandemic represent a different type of game in which the players are pitted against the game itself. In Pandemic, players oppose the spread of a disease. In Yggdrasil, though, the players play against the gods. And that’s one of the reasons I like it so much.

Perhaps it’s my competitive streak, but Pandemic‘s us-versus-the-viral-outbreak setting (while fun) is rather horribly bleak. We win, or we all die horrible, messy deaths. Yggdrasil forces you to have opponents with names and (admittedly bizarre) faces. Loki, Jormungand, Hell, Nidhogg, Sirt, Fenrir. And each has a personality (each one does something different and awful to the players). It’s much more personal than the objective horror of a virus. And while Pandemic may be simulating something more real – and therefore possibly more relevant to the real world – than Yggdrasil, there is more hope to the end of the Norse world (if you know the myth). At least if the gods win, the players are remade, the world re-created, and it continues on. In Pandemic… not so much.

But what’s really fun about both games (and, indeed, most of the cooperative videogames I’ve played in which the players are being civil to one another) is the sense of camaraderie that is produced by defeating a piece of paper with a god on it, or a pixellated wave of zombies on the screen. It creates fiero (that woo-hoo! feeling that makes you want to throw your arms up in the air and yell), yes, but it does so in a way that is intrinsically communal rather than individuated. And I think we need more of that in our lives.

So much of contemporary Western society (especially in the U.S.) is me-me-me. Games are also me-me-me. But cooperative games are us-us-us. And when they’re not just team games, but truly cooperative games, they’re even more US-US-US!! And when you play them around a table (instead of mediated through the ether of the internet), they’re US-US-US! in a completely familial kind of way. Sure, it’s a temporary feeling that wears off the minute you start to play Risk and are at each other’s throats again. But cooperative fiero is probably the closest we can get to a sense of gaming nationalism that is non-exclusionary. And that’s a feeling that we should be trying to achieve more often outside of gameplay.

We’re good at factionalism and individualism. We’re good at creating in-groups and out-groups. But what if everyone – like Arthur’s legendary round table – is actually working together against the odds, not against another nation or ethnicity or creed? Isn’t that really what we need in this world? Maybe games aren’t the way we get there, but thinking about what in games helps us achieve it, even temporarily, might help us to realize how we could begin to apply those ideas to the real problems that aren’t so easily overcome.

Settling Catan

Because it was requested… a post on leadership and Settlers of Catan.

My history with this game goes all the way back to high school, and I have distinct memories of it from then, from college (when one associate of mine set a microwave on fire), and then from graduate school, when an online version made cross-state play a possibility. Last week, I watched an episode of Big Bang Theory that included play from Settlers, primarily focusing on the “I have sheep, I need wood” joke that is ubiquitous to all players of the game.

Here’s how the game works. The board is randomized, built of octagonal tiles of resources (sheep, wood, ore, brick, wheat) with numbers corresponding to two D6s. Players place settlements and build roads and cities along the borders of these tiles. Players roll the D6s in order to determine which resources are added to their pool (players collect resources for tiles touching their settlements/cities when the number on that tile is rolled). Players compete for “longest road,” “largest army,” and so on, using resources to purchase military units, road segments, settlements, cities, and victory points (each road, settlement, etc. is also worth a number of victory points).

The game encourages a certain level of cooperative play. Trading is encouraged. Players have to share resource space, so they are often “rooting” for the same numbers on the dice. A certain level of cooperation is also needed to keep the person in the lead from pulling too far ahead and achieving too many victory points too fast.

The game also, naturally, encourages competitive – sometimes cut-throat – play. There is a single desert tile with a Robber (which can be placed on a resource tile to stop collection of that resource), and the Robber can be moved to block collection off a specific tile that has a high incidence of occurrence, or even to “screw” a particular player out of resource collection. The Robber is also sometimes used to give one player a monopoly over a certain resource. Players might “interrupt” each others’ roads, making it harder to achieve “longest road.”

So what can we say about leadership and Settlers of Catan? Like Junta, Settlers can be a game of manipulation – convincing others who are your “enemies” to give you what you want by convincing them that it is also in their best interest (whether it really is or not). This particular mechanic is not exclusive by any means to only these games. It happens in Monopoly, Risk, poker, and innumerable other games. But it also happens in leadership contexts: leaders have to convince other leaders (in international politics, say) or followers to act in a way (that at least seems to be) in their own best interest while also being in the best interest of the leader.

Settlers is also about making good, sustainable choices. Some numbers are rolled more often than others when you have two D6s (6 and 8). Some resources are more valuable early in the game, some more valuable in the late game – it takes different resources to start a settlement than it does to expand it into a city. Some things cost more than others to build, but are worth more in the long run. The players have to make good initial choices to have access to the right resources in the right amounts.

But it is almost never the case that players are able to rely only on themselves. They have to be able to get a “better deal” out of another player than they would at the “bank” in order to play sustainably. They want to be able to negotiate mutually beneficial deals – “I need wood, you need ore, let’s trade.”

But they also don’t want to “help” the other player to win: they want to keep their own rate of growth just a little bit higher than that of the other players, but they also don’t want to appear that way. A player who is recognized as being in the lead will be Robbered, not-traded-with, and generally poorly treated by the others, at least until they are no longer perceived to be in the lead. But they are also often the player who has the most resources and is willing to trade at the best rates, so the other players have to make a choice: 1) Do I keep this person from winning, even at the cost of my own chances of victory? or 2) Do I risk this person winning so that I can have a better chance of winning myself?

Such choices are perhaps more simplified in gameplay than in the real world, but when we negotiate trade deals, domestically or internationally, we’re looking at similar trade-offs. At what point does mutual cooperation cease to be beneficial enough to us because it is too unbalanced in favor of the other side? When we look at current issues of the 99%, we see something addressed by game theory that is also at work in Settlers.

Player A and Player B have the option of sharing a pile of money. We would think that the equilibrium point for sharing would be 50/50. But if Player A is wealthy and Player B is poor, Player B will be willing to take only 30% of the sum if Player A says “I refuse to take any less than 70%.” Why? Because 30% is proportionally a much greater amount to Player B than 0%, while Player A doesn’t really care either way. Player B therefore is willing to accept a much lower share because of the proportional gains, rather than an objective sum. The same thing happens in Settlers. The player in the lead is in control – they want 4 sheep for 2 wheat. If they have a lot of resources, they don’t really need the wheat, but a player with few resources besides sheep is going to be much more willing to give up the sheep for 2 wheat that are proportionally far more valuable to them than the sheep.

That’s why we see the disparity in wealth increase, rather than decrease. Because people with money have the ability to dictate the terms to those without, since any gain for those without is worth accepting, even though those who already have don’t really need any more.

Viva la Revolucion!

So I have several friends who build/design games, of the table-top, videogame, and card varieties (the gents of Sancho Games, D&D writers, the maker of Chronotron, and folks who work for Sony, Irrational, and Bethesda). One of these games is Junta.

Junta – as it has been doctored (rather extensively) to transform it from a rather banal board game into an online turn-based game – is a game-based study in leadership. The premise is that all the players are government officials in a banana republic. Each player assumes a character persona through which they conduct business, engage in negotiations, and post speeches. They begin by electing a President, who selects their cabinet positions (negotiations are encouraged), proposes a budget for all the players, and so on. Players have the capacity to coup against the President if they don’t like the way things are going, and, if they win, they elect a new President. Assassinations, military maneuvers, spies, and other political machinations are the order of the day. The goal is to end up with the most money in the bank.

Popular presidents survive for a few turns before they get ousted, since presidents have the capacity to skim money off the top of the budget, and no one wants to let them take too much. Unpopular ones go for a turn before they get annihilated. Other coveted positions generally change hands frequently, especially with a regime change.

I mention this game because our most recent round has just come to a rather exciting close. The last few turns of the game (which ends when there is no more money to distribute) are always the most interesting. Everyone – and I do mean everyone – conspires with and against everyone else. Public speeches are made for and against regimes, and may or may not reflect true loyalties. Some parties will enter into negotiations with three or more factions that they can’t possibly fulfill… sometimes at all. Death threats are made. Cards and money are swapped. And the last turn is a bloodbath.

In terms of leadership, we see leaders emerge and fall, followers remain loyal to presidents or to other players (no matter what their position is in the government), other followers betray their leaders and their fellow followers. Some players make alliances that hold throughout the game. Some players play rationally – only to their own best advantage. As a player, it is very hard to see who is doing the best and why. It is easy to see who is doing poorly (and often why), and easy to see who is “better,” but when there are several “better” players, the top one is not always obvious at all. And there is a lot of attempting to convince people of your intentions… whether sincere or not.

Good stuff. (And yes, I did win.)