Playing games always seems to have been part of my life. I have tried thinking back to my childhood to try and pinpoint when I started playing games. But I find it an impossible task. While I can recall my first role playing game experience (Maelstrom), playing my first home computer game (something involving ‘blocks’ on a ZX-80) and my first ‘modern’ board game (Settlers of Catan), I cannot pinpoint playing my first game, because before all the other games there was cards and Jibash (an old family dice game) with my mum, dad and brother. So it feels as if I have always played games, and that to some degree I come from a family of game players (more so my father’s side). But why do I play? I suspect I won’t ever really know the answer but maybe I can muse on it a little.
At its most simple, games are fun, or rather create opportunities in which fun can happen. Obviously, I say this from the perspective of a player of games, and I suspect that there are a whole group of people who would disagree with me and claim that games are ‘boring’ and ‘dull’. But often I think it is just that they haven’t played the right sort of game. So as I say, games can create a space in which fun can happen. Depending on the game, this can be deliberate (apples to apples), or due to how players interact (Republic of Rome). But either way, fun is integral to why games are played and certainly to why I play them. When games stop being fun, this is when my interest wanes and I move onto something new.
I am really quite shy, especially with people I don’t know. One of the things I have always loved about games is that they allow me to meet people and interact with them without having to make ‘small talk’. I find that games allow me to develop social bonds and friendships whilst playing. Then, at a certain point when I know the person (or have spent enough time around them), I am no longer shy with them and can open up. This makes me sound a bit socially inept, but it’s not that, it’s just that I am shy around people I don’t know.
Over time I have begun to really treasure the friendships I have developed through games. I love the way we have a clear thing in common and a simple reason to meet up. It’s not that I don’t meet my gaming friends for social occasions, it’s just that we also meet up specifically to play games.
I find games constantly engaging, I think because I am never quite sure what will happen. Even a game I have played a lot can produce usual or unexpected outcomes. I find this range of possibilities fascinating, because unlike other types of media, before a game is played no-one knows who will win.
But whilst games have an element of the unknown in terms of what will happen and who may win, they are also bounded by rules and design which mean that not all things are possible. I think the structure and design inherent in games move them beyond randomness and instead shift them much more into the realm of a chaotic system, in that there are rules and patterns in how games can develop, but small changes in how the players interact can produce new and interesting results.
Games can be a delightful relaxation because of the concentration and thought they demand, much like how a craftsman can lose themselves in the moment of creation. So when I play games I can find myself lost in the moment, concentrating so much on what I have to do to succeed that everything else in life fades away. Lost in the game my mind cannot fret or worry about some perceived slight or embarrassment. At its most extreme, and this has only rarely happened, I enter the ‘flow’ (also called being in the Zone), that delightful place where action and reaction flow smoothly through me without conscious thought. But frankly a lot of the games I play don’t lend themselves to flow; still, they all demand a level of concentration that allows me to forget my everyday troubles and play.
I don’t drive, which means that I spend a lot of time walking and hanging around waiting for buses. All of this is made worse because frankly, I think too much. I find games can be a lovely distraction in these moments, not playing them, but rather thinking about them. I strongly suspect that this is why I like 4X games so much – there is a lot to think about. So when I am hanging round I can chew over the latest dilemma in my current strategy game of choice or muse about how I am going to level up my character in the current RPG. If I haven’t got any current strategies to finesse, then often I will consider why my current favourite game is so good, what could be improved, or what doesn’t work. I love how thinking about games can distract me and help pass the time, I love it so much that I refuse to buy a smart phone because I don’t want to waste such moments jabbing at a screen when I could be off in my own world thinking about games.
As a dyslexic I have always struggled with reading; even now after two degrees, I struggle with reading. It is not that I can’t read, it is more that reading takes effort, a lot of effort. Because of this I rarely read fiction, since I find the effort to enjoyment ratio is too skewed in favour of effort over escapism. Instead I use games to escape from the real world.
When I was young I felt like I had been born in the wrong time, I wanted to live in a world of swords and magic. As I have got older I have had to accept that such a time probably never existed and I have come to enjoy the benefits of the modern world. I still occasionally yearn for the mythical worlds I imagined as a child but for the most part I don’t think of them much, except when I play games.
Games allow me to escape into fantastical realms, much as books and films can, but I find the difference is that in games I am there in the world as me. In other media you are substituting your personality for someone else’s. Whilst you can journey in strange realms you are only ever an observer. Games are different, in games you are the actor, the decider. This allows me to really explore the world and be someone else.
If at first you don’t succeed
Games can demand a lot of the player; knowledge, skill, lateral thinking; but one of the most important skills a game player needs is perseverance. The challenge that games present is, I find, one of their most attractive features. Like a dog with a bone I gnaw at games trying to overcome the problems and challenges, this can be deeply satisfying. As I write this I am struck by the bizarreness of my previous statements and yet they are true. I am stubborn and like any skill that demands practice, games allow me to challenge myself and encourage me to overcome difficulties and obstacles. Yet they are also play, at any point I can just quit and, beyond what I think of myself, there is no come back. So maybe I enjoy that I can play at being stubborn and determined in games but when that becomes boring and chore-like I can quit and move on to pastures new.
All the other reasons lead to this, I play games to play with reality. As a child it was accepted that I would play, but as I grew up, play began to become more and more frowned upon, not just by my family but also my peers. It came to the point where I couldn’t play with my friends because it was considered ‘childish’. What I found is that while ‘make-believe’ and other forms of unstructured play became impossible to do without ridicule, people’s attitude to games was different. Whilst games were still seen as kind of childish (this was the late seventies/ early eighties after all) they were more accepted. Once I had discovered the joys of pen & paper RPGs, there really was no stopping me. RPGs may have helped mark me out as a nerd, but at least my friends accepted them as a legitimate way to play and I was able to continue to toy with reality.
Why I play
I am not sure I will ever fully understand what drives me to play. That is part of the reason to start writing this blog to explore what drives me. But more than that i want to examine my life through the games I have played. I suspect I will return to the subject of why I play in the future for the moment maybe I am best just stating the fact
“I am a player of games”