A Walk in the Park

I have always been fascinated with the English language.  I am an avid reader, a crossword puzzle fanatic, and I pride myself on my diverse vocabulary.  Recently however, I was at a loss for words when asked to accurately define the difference between game and play.  I knew what both the words ‘meant’ but I couldn’t vocalize the root difference.  I took the logical next step and sought out official definitions of both words, they are as follows:

Game: “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement” (From Merriam-Webster)

Play: “recreational activity; especially the spontaneous activity of children” (From Merriam-Webster)

These definitions do not clarify the difference, as they are nearly identical.  We can agree that both games and play are active, and they are both for amusement, but what sets them apart? In order to explore the difference between games and play I have gone through a step-by-step visualization… just bear with it.

Its Saturday afternoon and you head down to the local park.  The air is crisp and the sun is shining.  You lazily stroll along a winding path until you come upon a group of toddlers.  The small children seemingly wander about aimlessly, but upon further investigation you realize that they happen to be chasing small butterflies.  You think to yourself that these children are at play, innocently engaging in a freeform activity for the sake of amusement.  You continue along the path until you come across jungle gym swarming with 9-year-old children.  The children seem to be participating in a game they refer to as cops and robbers.  At first the activity seems to be completely devoid of structure, but upon further investigation you find that there is a rudimentary rule set.  There are two teams, waging battle, but you would not necessarily consider this a game.  Children switch sides at will and they fail to follow any unified set of conventions.  Soon the activity ends as children begin to wander off.  This seems to be a more organized form of play, but it’s not quite a game.  Once again you proceed along the path until you come across a group of elderly gentlemen playing chess.  Surely we consider this a game.  The men play for amusement, but unlike the younglings they follow a strict set of conventions.  Each piece has a unique style of movement, limiting the player’s options.  The battle is waged turn by turn until one player reigns supreme, there is a clear end game.

Hopefully what this visualization shows us is that a clear set of rules separates games from play.  The toddlers activity is completely spontaneous, it is play in its most basic form.  The 9-year-olds are participating in something slightly more complex, as they are beginning to form a rule set.  Cops and Robbers is somewhere in-between random wanderings and chess.  The elderly gentlemen are completely dependent upon a rule set, and it’s the rules that separate games from play.

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Did we forget a gameplay vector?

@====={{\\\Breon Guarino\\\\\\

That’s right, you heard me. I’m a TABLETOP GAMER. You might ask what that entails; you might be utterly confused by the miniatures and dice scattered amongst the half-consumed soda cans and dog-eared manuals. I would answer you, but I am elsewhere.

Where I am, I am the tactical commander of a Blood Angels battle-group. I am watching the auspex readings of a dozen squads of elite Space Marines. I am sending troops loyal to the God-Emperor of Mankind to their deaths in battle; I send them to glory. I speak three words, and thirty jump-packs spin up their turbines, thirty power-armored knights fall from the sky into the main gun-line of the menacing xenos. The foul Eldar have made their last incursion on the surface of this planet, and it will be by my hand and my faith in the God-Emperor that they are driven back. The air is thick with ionized air from the pitifully deficient las-weapons carried by the doomed Planetary Defense Force that held the surface long enough for me and my battle-brothers to arrive by drop pod assault.  We were fired from orbit to bypass the danger of anti-aircraft fire; the blessed sons of the Emperor have arrived to purge the xeno filth from a loyal planet of the Imperium. I hear the bark of my brethren firing .75 caliber shells from their holy bolters, and within short moments I hear the secondary explosions as the bolts penetrate and explode a few inches past the first layer of armor, terrain, or flesh that they encounter. I hear cries of “For the Emperor!” and “Death before dishonor!” I see my brother Chaplains reciting the Litanies of Hate among their squads, fearless in their sable armor, masters of the trade of bringing death and destruction. Streams of plasma and melta-weapons bring down the agile but poorly-armored vehicles of the Eldar, and my Assault Marines have torn through the enemy gun-line in a spray of tainted blood and torn flesh.

Shortly thereafter, my turn has ended, and I pass the dice off to my esteemed opponent with a few comments about the wonderful painting work on his miniatures. I am only human, and I watch my opponent’s vehicles prove their offensive worth against two of my support squads. My opponent doesn’t fully grasp that I’ve allowed myself to be flanked for a reason, though, because I still have some  reserves left, and he’ll be singing a different tune once I melta-bomb his sorry little grav-tanks with my fresh Assault Marines on the next turn.

Sure, I’ll grant that I’m sitting at a table covered in painted plastic terrain pieces. I’ll allow the assumption that all I’m doing is playing a luck-based version of chess. A person who sees only these things does not see the story I am creating with every die roll and with the help of my opponent. My miniatures were painted not too long ago, but the Blood Angels are a venerated Chapter that has been in existence since the 31st millennium. I wage war not upon tabletops with good friends but on distant scattered hell-worlds against horrors that would break the minds of less well-versed humans. The Great Age of Humanity has come and gone three times before the battle on my dining-room table, and I fight in the name of the mighty God-Emperor that only just succeeded in uniting humanity once more before his betrayal by his favorite son among the Primarchs, the Warmaster Horus. I insert myself and allow myself to fall into the grand universe of Warhammer 40,000 like a quarter into a gumball machine. Through my battles and campaigns, I forge new legends and lore against the backdrop provided the backdrop of a cold and uncaring universe in which the only hope for humanity is to abandon the compassion and mercy that makes it humane.

Am I playing 40K (as it is often affectionately known by the fan base) for the tactical struggle? Oh, most certainly. It is engaging to work within the rules that are constructed. At the end of the day, it is an honor to test myself and my good fortune against that of a worthy opponent. I love the feel of a good roll in combat, knowing that my squads’ bolter fire has struck true. I love the suspense of an assault phase during my turn and the triumph of pinning down an enemy squad with well-directed sniper fire. There is a thrill to the process, almost as though my war-spirit was being tested in the same fiery baptism that my miniature battle-brothers go through.

However…I could just be playing chess, or the Star Wars miniature battle game.

I play 40K because the story really hits me. The grim darkness of the 41st millennium is a setting in which humans cannot afford to give or take any respite. Travel through the Warp from planet to planet runs the risk of being devoured in transit by otherworldly daemons too powerful for the human mind to comprehend. It is a unique tactical experience, but it is a purely unique experience in storytelling. It is a meeting and melding of LotR, Star Wars, and the compiled world of Lovecraft, with the finest aspects of each. Each victory comes through a moral fog, because the morality isn’t white/black, gray/black, or even simply gray. Each race is unabashedly disturbing in some aspects, from the dogmatic zealotry of the Space Marines and Ordos Hereticus to the frenzied debauchery of the Dark Eldar and Chaos to the planet-rapes of the Tyranid hive-mind. The depth there to be probed is staggering, and one can only truly appreciate the game through the story. This is why I play 40K instead of chess, when given a choice.

Why do I play 40K instead of the Star Wars miniature tabletop battle game?

I play 40K because a .75-caliber explosive shell punching into your chest and detonating within you will clear up that nasty little case of Midi-Chlorians in a hurry. The Force is a sign of the Taint of Chaos, after all.

Bored of the Board?

One vivid memory I have of my childhood is spending countless hours playing Star Fox 64 or Super Mario 64 on my Nintendo 64 game console, which was the first console I ever owned. That’s not to say I was a video game fanatic, however. Often times when I would invite friends over, I would suggest a game of checkers or chess, though I would often be met with the same answer of, “No, let’s play Nintendo; chess (or checkers) is boring!”

Oh how crestfallen my grade-school self would be! After spending so much time practicing against my dad on board games to try and get “good” at them (whatever that term means for a young kid), rarely would I get the chance to match my wits against my friends’ in those arenas. Looking back with the knowledge I have now, the obvious reason of video games being the hip, new thing still resounds. However, I now also see the difference in the mechanics of both styles of games, and therefore why the video games were so appealing: The idea of a progressive story line rather than just thinking of how to manipulate, work around, or work against rules was a huge pull on young kids who are in a prime age for absorbing all sorts of new stories in fantastical realms.

All games have rules, regardless of the impact the rules have on the game. In some games, like chess, the rules are just as important to defeat as your opponent is in that your skill at navigating through or around the rules usually dictates your success. However with the more progressive (games based more on an evolutionary track of skills, story, or both) orientation, the rules may just be guidelines rather than direct opposition. For instance, in Final Fantasy games, there is no ability to jump, a seemingly effortless action compared to everything else going on. With this “rule” of no jumping, the player is limited in his or her movement. However, rarely deters someone who wants to play the game; the advancement in the game overcomes the restrictions set by the rules. In comparison, if a player is upset with the sole option of diagonal movement in checkers, he or she is much more likely to quit playing due to the larger role of the rules in the game’s core conflict.

I am a video game fan, and have been since my Nintendo 64. However, I will also always enjoy a good game of checkers or chess. To those people who think board games are boring due to their lesser depth or progression, I would simply tell them to rethink how you they view the rules. They are not just a constraint, but a challenge, obstacle, even an opponent. They are called “games” rather than “chores” or “puzzles” for a reason; they have conflict, they have invested interest from those playing, and losing is not any more fun or acceptable in their mediums. The next time anyone uses the term “gamer,” rethink – is the term really being used all inclusively?

-AlecSJ