Nightmare Chess and the Hall of Heroes

Though I think of myself as a ‘gamer,’ I have never played very many arcade games. My experience is limited to the Space Invaders machine at the Dave & Busters back home, and one highly unsuccessful attempt to save my cities while playing Missile Command. On the other hand, I have lots of experience with board games. From Monopoly to Nightmare Chess to backgammon to the War of the Ring, board games have been a part of my life since I was very young. And equally present there is another, very different type of game: the online games, those notorious MMOs that so many love to play to the exclusion of all else.

While both are enjoyable, they present very different experiences to their players. The first, obviously, is the real life interaction present in any board game. When you play a game of chess, or Monopoly, or any other traditional board game, you sit across the table from your opponent (s) and interact with them directly–you speak to them, watch them roll dice, and unnerve them when you study the cards you’re holding.  In addition, the vast majority of board games pit players head to head–they are competing directly against one another to win the game. In gamer vocabulary, board games are purely PvP–player versus player.

In contrast, an online game presents no inherent direct interaction. You can’t physically see anyone else who’s playing, or talk to them (with the advent of applications like TeamSpeak and Ventrilo this has changed, though). Players instead interact through their avatars–the characters they create to play in the game. Though the character represents the player in the game’s world and can interact with other avatars and the game’s environment, the avatar is not real and does not compare equally to the face-to-face interaction present in board games. Lastly, online games in general do not force players to play against each other. Even in World of Warcraft, where the conflict between the Horde and Alliance is central to both the world and storyline, players can opt not to fight other players. Most MMOs present head-to-head competition as an option through PvP servers and arenas; however players can instead choose to fight the challenges presented by the game designers in the game (and indeed must if they wish to truly experience the full game, eg. leveling up and completing endgame content). Players are also encouraged to work together through the forming of groups, guilds, and friendships to beat the game. Thus, online games are not primarily PvP focused; instead they present both PvE (player versus environment) and PvP as options for their players, with most of their content being PvE.

Furthermore, board games are almost always rules-based emergence games, where no ‘heavy’ fiction is presented to the player . Board games sometimes provide a ‘light’ fiction along with their rules, like the tycoon fantasy of Monopoly or the battle for Middle Earth presented in War of the Ring, but these are thin veneers and nowhere is the player of a board game subject to the same ‘heavy’ fiction found in online games. Board games focus instead on simple rules that nevertheless provide variations in every game played. Thus, they are emergence games. There is nothing fixed about a board game except the rules–any twists and turns, and especially the outcome of the game, are determined by the players themselves.

Online games are almost the opposite. They rely heavily on fiction, though rules are important as well, and are generally progression based. The fiction of an online game is almost certainly its most important component. The player must suspend at least some disbelief, and enter the world created by the game designers. In this world, there are quests to do, villages to save, mythical swords to forge, and worlds to conquer. But, in any online game you’ll find that there’s a certain order to these many tasks. Before you can conquer the world, you have to forge the sword, but to do that you’ll have to save the village, but before you can save the village you’ll have to do some errands for the townspeople to gain their trust. Online games present a story, a predetermined path for you to walk, and are therefore strongly fiction and progression based. You can only do the quests they allow you to do, and deviating from the storyline isn’t really possible–should the hero die halfway through, he’ll be resurrected.  If he fails the final boss fight and doesn’t destroy the evil wizard, he can always try again.  There is no emergence aspect to the PvE side of the game. The final outcome doesn’t depend on your actions or the actions of your opponent, like it does in a board game. In an online game, the story always ends the same way.

But, like a board game, an online game could not function without rules. Not only are there rules governing how a player moves about, interacts with objects, and communicates, online games restrict a player’s actions in-game. For example, in Star Wars Galaxies you cannot kill Darth Vader, and in LOTRO Gandalf is equally immortal. Killing either character would drastically change the story each game tells–and so, you cannot attack them. In both types of game, rules play an important part–for indeed, what is a game without rules?

The only real emergence aspect of an online game is its PvP side. In an arena, players learn a set of rules (eg. Movement, special attacks, etc) and play against each other. There’s no story, and though the fiction is heavier than any board game’s, it’s still lighter than the PvE aspect of the game. This is where board games and online games ‘intersect’–in the PvP arena. Here, players of both games have a similar experience in many ways, as some of the trademark characteristics of board games described above display themselves in the virtual world of the online game.

While both the board game and the online game are very different in many ways, they are both fun and enjoyable for the many players who take up their challenges. Their differences merely help to make the world of gaming the dynamic and multifaceted place it is.

So, anyone up for a game of Nightmare Chess? If not, we can always head out to the Hall of Heroes.

Dacia

PS: I totally forgot to post this on time with the math test and everything today….forgive me!! >.< I had it ready yesterday and everything. Oh well, that’s life…

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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

On Running Backs and Thimbles

Jake Karlsruher

When my friends and I first got to high school we were plagued with the Freshman Curse; the girls we hung out with in junior high ditched us for the cooler, more mature seniors. Dejected, we turned to the only comfort we had left: Madden ’06. We logged countless hours in my buddy’s basement, sitting on his torn corduroy couch, mashing the Xbox controller until our fingers hurt. We talked very little; instead, we let the 40-yard dash, fantasy draft, and franchise mode engulf us. Being good at Madden became a necessity in our social circle. If you couldn’t play well, your Friday night consisted of watching someone else play and waiting anxiously for your turn. Because of our competitive nature, the game couldn’t be confined to the basement. It seeped into our school lives and our cafeteria conversations. “You’re done tonight, I have a new team” was usually met with “Yeaaah rigght, I twenty-one O’d (21-0) you last week”. I distinctly remember a heated argument that arose when someone proposed ranking each other for an upcoming tournament (you are not better than me). It was about that time that we laid down the controllers and started to enjoy high school.

While we played a lot of Madden, we experimented with other mediums too, namely Monopoly. Every once in a while, a friend of mine would bust out Deluxe Edition and we’d kill time by playing for a while. We chatted about how the Phillies were playing, what homework we had to do, or what girls we liked. It was a social experience; we joked, laughed and ate microwave pizza. Usually we would get bored before we finished and rarely completed the game. I enjoyed the time I spent playing Monopoly, but it was clearly a different experience than playing Madden. Both Madden and Monopoly are strongly based on rules. They both can be classified as emergence games — games in which altering a strategy or game play style produces a wide range of outcomes — so why did I feel little emotional attachment to our Monopoly games but see Madden as a way of life?

In my last blog post, I commented on the importance of a viewer being able to relate to a character in a film. The phenomenon is transmedial. In games, as well as films, the person who seeks entertainment wants to connect to their subject, to feel what their subjects feel. Madden offers a first person option in which the player can see the field through a running back’s eyes. The rumble feature literally lets the player feel a chop block or a devastating hit-stick. It is much harder to relate to the Thimble as it builds its commercial empire, investing in properties up and down the Jersey Shore. Perhaps my friends and I took little interest in Monopoly because we couldn’t connect with it.

In class we discussed categories of games and assigned each genre a ratio of emergence to progression. One game might be 25% emergence and 75% progression while another might be a 50-50 split. I consider Monopoly to be more emergence based than Madden. With a console sports game, one can choose to play through thirty seasons of a franchise or turn a rookie into a superstar.  Monopoly had more emergence qualities, but we were less immersed in the game. My group’s preference was a game with more choice and progression. That being said, we never truly did reach the endgame of Monopoly. The game takes too long. Perhaps the desire for completion, the aspect of winning and losing that drives our competitive egos, is what kept us away from board games. Or maybe it’s just us. Could it be that our collective generation has lost the patience for board games? I like my Blackberry and my Internet and I’m used to instant gratification. At some point, reaching down and physically pushing Thimble to Reading Railroad became obsolete. I don’t have time for that.

My friends and I spent more time playing console games than board games. Monopoly Deluxe was enjoyable, but Madden ’06 engulfed us entirely. However, all good things have to end and eventually we had to move on… to Madden ’07.

-Kar-El