Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Opposites in why people play

A few years ago I was listening to taped lectures about the Roman Republic. The lecturer was a young man who recounted the experience of a much older scholar who was an expert on the Roman Republic’s constitution. The Roman constitution is an unwritten and often puzzling mishmash of traditions. The lecturer said the older scholar described his experiences: when he was young he thought he understood the Roman constitution, but as he got older he felt he understood less and less, so now as senior faculty he wasn’t at all sure how it worked!

The young lecturer found this a little depressing but I can understand it completely, because I sometimes feel the same way about my understanding of why people play games. Apparently some game scholars simply assume that people play games to win, but that’s clearly not even close to the truth, especially for many Euro gamers and for many people of the younger generation. When I wrote a piece about why people play games for my book that’s been printed on GameCareerGuide (republished in this blog ), I listed a wide variety of motivations, but that was only a beginning.

But what’s brought this to mind right now is watching people play two very different games: one is Betrayal at House on the Hill and the other is Hansa Teutonica (HT). These games are about as different as two games can be, yet the players in both cases were late teens and twenty-somethings. I’m pretty sure the players of Betrayal would immediately fall asleep if they played HT. Though I think the HT players would not be quite so put off by Betrayal I think they’d rapidly find it pointless.

Betrayal is a story driven game (exploration of a haunted house) with lots of chance involved; HT has a tacked-on “theme” of traders in the Hanseatic League but is for all practical purposes a rather complex abstract game with no chance, yet of the kind I call “mental gymnastics”.

At the NC State gamers club Betrayal is played virtually every week. Most of the players are as much role-playing gamers as boardgamers. "Casual" would describe them, most don't own enough games to say so (this is a club-owned copy), and play tabletop games once a week for 3-4 hours.

I have been reading reviews and watching video reviews of the game to try to understand exactly what it is that attracts the players. It seems to me that the story-driven aspect of it is what makes it popular, along with relatively short gameplay (an hour). The players don't seem to mind the initial wandering (which the hard-core on BoardgameGeek call "pointless"), but as someone pointed out, it's not much different than when D&D came out and you wandered around a dungeon. And certainly not different from the "leveling up", without interest a larger purpose, that characterizes most computer MMORPGs. Someone suggested that there was a resmblance in purpose to Munchkin, where the game goal is to reach a particular level.

I am not into tactically oriented story driven games--though I played D&D for 30 years, I hated being made to follow a particular story. I do like the sweep of history in games ("story" is part of "history"). But I am not a horror-movie fan. So I'm not the least tempted the play Betrayal.

The players of HT play games several times a week, sometimes for six hours or more. HT itself seems to be a one hour game, with three players anyway. As with many Euro games HT feels to me like a game where you do things for the sake of doing them, where complexity is introduced for the sake of complexity, where there are lots of different things you can do and yet none of them feels like you’re doing something that actually represents anything anyone would do in reality. To me either a game is completely abstract, and should be simple to play but have complexity in playing well, or the game should be one where everything I do can be *easily* seen to represent something that might be done or occur in reality. I don’t try to design simulations but if I’m designing a historical game I often want it to be a representation. Britannia is a representation of British history not a simulation, Dragon Rage is a representation of an attack on a city, not a simulation. In fact I think simulations of history are a delusion and a dead-end, perhaps excepting highly tactical games. (I’ve written two long articles about some of these topics, one of which was recently published in Against the Odds magazine.)

For me, either a game is entirely abstract (chess), or it is a model of some reality, but it doesn't have to be a highly detailed or "accurate" model. HT, like many recent Euro games, is neither, it's abstract but complex, pretending to be a model, yet frequently but not always turns out to be a particularly poor model.

So my reaction to HT is like my reaction to a great many Euro games, “why would anyone bother?” Yet obviously a lot of people do bother, and must enjoy what they’re doing.

1 comment:

Dan Eastwood said...

A similar situation occurs in discussions of science (and likely many topics). The amateurs are certain, but the experts may be hesitant. The expert understands the subtleties and exceptions, and has to consider more cautiously. To the amateur, everything is simple.

It is simply obvious this must be correct. ;-)