Sunday, May 13, 2007

Is there a Generation Gap in BoardGaming?

Older people may tend to recognize the existence of "generation gaps" more than young people do. There are certainly people who make a living explaining the differences between generations to other people, and I suspect few people doubt that there are significant differences between generations. All generalizations about generations have many exceptions, of course, but in my experience it is absolutely scary how many such generalizations seem to be widely applicable.

I have some anecdotes and observations, and I wonder how many gamers have seen generational differences among boardgamers (who are somewhat different than video gamers, where some of these anecdotes come from). Generally when I say "younger people" below I'm referring to adults or near-adults, not to children.

I recall listening to a talk by a 25 year old (who had already written one or two books and was widely known) about differences between "Gen Y" (also called Millennials or Me Generation) and older people. Somehow the topic of cheat codes in video games came up. He said a Millennial was perfectly content to find cheat codes, jump to the last level of a game, and beat it. An older person might say "you cheated". The Millennial says "I beat the game, didn't I? I just enjoyed the fruits of my research, I didn't cheat." The older person says, "but the point is enjoying the journey, not the end--you didn't beat the game, you went around it". The Millennial disagrees. One of the students in my college class for high school students says there's a device that you can buy called a "Shark" that contains cheat codes for lots of games--you don't even have to look them up somewhere online! What's the point?, says an older generation.

Video games have changed over the years. They are much more likely to "lead you by the nose" now (linear plot) than years ago. The games have changed to appeal to a wider audience (and perhaps a younger audience). I was astonished to hear about video games in which you don't have to aim at targets, you just point in the general direction of the enemy and the computer takes care of the rest. There also seem to be video games that automatically heal you, and in other ways make the game easier to survive. How much of this is due to changes in youthful preferences, and how much to a desire to reach a broad audience, I don't know.

I believe I see a generational difference in Dungeons and Dragons, between the older versions and 3rd edition. Someone called 3rd edition "Fantasy Squad Leader", not an adventure so much as a detailed tactical military operation. (I must say that I played first edition D&D as a wargame, but never in the excruciating detail of 3rd edition.) But the bigger difference is in the attitude of the players. A first edition referee's maxim was, "players will attempt to find unearned advantages--prevent it". In the third edition, everyone looks for unearned advantages, and seems to think that's perfectly OK. Hence there are myriads of "prestige" classes published, hundreds of new skills, and even the basic ability numbers are jiggered to provide more unearned advantages. The entire game is much more a "power trip" than first or second edition was. I think a lot of this is attributable to generational differences.

When young people who have only played video games get into boardgames, I find that many are quite passive, unsure what to do. I think this comes from the nature of (console) video games, where you can succeed through persistence, by trial and error, and you don't need to analyze your situation and decide what to do. If you use trial and error in a boardgame you'll lose a lot of games. If you use trial and error in a video game, in most cases you'll succeed sooner or later. After a video gamer has played a game some, then he or she has the benefit of trial and error and can become a good player. But the analytical side of gaming, what I expect to see in game players, isn't there for the console gamer. (There are, of course, many, many exceptions.)

This leads to another difference I see. Some older folks (myself included) try to play video games without resorting to frequent respawning (going back to a saved game to start over from there--respawning may be the wrong term, but that's what I'll use here). Many video games have deliberately been made so difficult that it's impossible for even the best players to make it through without frequent respawning, but not all are like that. By and large, "millennials" don't seem to find anything wrong with constant respawning. It helps them get the optimal result to help them farther on. (It's kind of like the "Easy Button" in Staples commercials--respawning is hitting the Easy Button until you get it right.)

One would suppose that younger people will be more likely to misread rules than older people. The tendency now is to skim rather than read carefully. A great many people of all generations don't want to read the rules, if only because it seems like work, not fun. K12 and college teachers are currently struggling with students who simply do not read anything that's in print, and don't even read online material well. One of the great inventions, perhaps a greater invention than the computer, the book, is slowly becoming obsolete for many people.

I am an advocate of audio and video tutorials to help people learn how to play games, because over time we'll see fewer and fewer people who are willing and able to fully read and understand rules. (These comments apply particularly to games with more than a page or two of rules, of course.) When I bought a copy of Settlers of Catan a few years ago to see what the hubbub was about, I was impressed that there were really two sets of rules, one the "rules" and one a guide that essentially repeated everything in a different way. I'd guess that this occurred as a result of newbies purchasing the game with the original single set of rules, and not being able to figure out how to play, but I do not know the history of it.

Regular denizens of online game sites such as BGG and ConsimWorld may sneer at this--there is a form of elitism in any hobby--but the fact is, publishers need to sell games, and the online community alone is not sufficient to keep publishers earning a living. They have to reach out to others. And games will need to adjust accordingly. We already see some adjustment in the popularity of very simple (as in easy-to-learn) games.

Anyway, does anyone else have anecdotes that illustrate generational differences in game players?

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