Saturday, February 11, 2017

Finding Value out of Gaming

Rocky: I can't do it.
Adrian: What?
Rocky: I can't beat him.
Adrian: Apollo?
Rocky: Yeah. I've been out there walking around, thinking. I mean, who am I kidding? I ain't even in the guy's league.
Adrian: (sighs) What're we gonna do?
Rocky: I dunno.
Adrian: You worked so hard.
Rocky: Yeah, it don't matter. Because I was nobody before.
Adrian: Don't say that.
Rocky: C'mon, Adrian. It's true. I was nobody. But it don't matter either, y'know? 'Cause I was thinking. It really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, see, if that bell rings and I'm still standing, I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I wasn't just another bum from the neighborhood.
--From Rocky (1976). Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone.

As I've occasionally alluded to in past posts, gaming is something I've done since I was a kid. I'm old enough to (barely) remember Pong when it came out, but I grew up in a household that played a lot of classic board and card games.* But at the same time, my parents got caught up in the Satanic Panic of the 80s and threw out our D&D collection right before I finished 8th Grade, and while I was allowed to play video games on our old Texas Instruments home computer, we never had a gaming console.**

And I still never understood the difference between playing Tunnels of Doom on the TI-99/4A and cracking open a Players Handbook and playing a Paladin.

Ooo, a chest!

Oh sure, the video game is pretty much an abstract dungeon crawl, but the dungeons my friends and I made back in the early 80s were pretty similar as well.*** Even Tunnels of Doom had Demons as monsters at the bottom levels of the dungeon, so you can't argue that there wasn't a "Satanic" aspect to the game. The only thing I can think of is that D&D and the other pencil and paper RPGs encouraged imagination, which when coupled to what the Satanic Panic people called "the occult", led to people going down a Dark Path.

Hey, look! An AD&D Players Handbook!!
From Army of Darkness and
"Klaatu... Verata... Mlkhpffphff."
You know, the whole Necronomicon/Evil Book concept.


The reason why I'm bringing this up again is that I've been doing some thinking about what gaming has meant to me over the years.

While it has meant a primary form of physical interaction between people --friends and acquaintances sitting around a table or a television set-- it has also meant something more.

Games as Generational Connections

It's no secret that I've used games to hang around with my kids. The mini-Reds have been indoctrinated into gamer culture from a young age, and they've grown to become gamers themselves. Whereas other families might discuss sports****, we discuss games. Gen Con is an annual pilgrimage. Smash Bros games devolve into frenetic free-for-alls with all the excited screams and boasts that you'd see on a basketball court.

Some of my favorite memories as a father have come from gaming as well, such as the time when I first introduced the mini-Reds to RPGs, using the Savage Worlds system and a pulp setting from Triple Ace Games to give the kids a chance to be their own Indiana Jones. Or the time when my brother-in-law ran a Pathfinder one-shot for me and the mini-Reds, and the youngest mini-Red went off script and did something totally unexpected and stuck her PC's hand in the fire in the center of the room we were exploring.***** Or the times I ran instances with them in SWTOR and LOTRO.

I've no doubt that when my oldest goes off to college I'll use MMOs to keep in touch with her. I can imagine her occasionally logging into SWTOR or LOTRO to just putz around and occasionally group up, just before heading out to dinner or hanging out with friends.

Both are from, and from Field of Dreams.
Go ahead and get a tissue. That scene, where Ray talks with
the ghost of his father, still tears me up.

Games as Emotional Grounding

I may have played sports, but I was no jock.

It may come as a surprise to those who never played competitive or select sports, but there is a hierarchy to those who play team sports. The starters and main subs off the bench get the lion's share of attention, and the rest of the subs are, for all intents and purposes, there to round out a large enough of a squad for practices. Some teams have a byrule of having everybody play at least part of every game, but the competitive/select teams do not; they want to win, not build character.******

However, just because you play sports doesn't mean that you're a jock or a member of jock culture. I was always an outsider on the teams that I played on; I had different interests than most of my teammates, and I never hung around with them outside of practice or games. Perhaps this was best illustrated during the basketball banquet during my 8th Grade: the team was gathered to one side, and everybody had a chair to sit on.... Except me. None were to be seen, so I had to stand.

From all over the internet. Really. I found
at least six links without even trying hard.

And people wondered why I never hung out with the jocks outside of practice and games.

RPGs gave me a chance to feel worthwhile when life stuck me on the low end of the school pecking order. You get the ability to be the hero of your own adventure, working with friends to achieve a goal worthy of an SF&F novel. And for a kid who was head over heels into JRR Tolkien, there wasn't much more than I could want.

CRPGs and MMOs have a similar appeal, where you're the hero of the story, but instead of purely in the mind's eye you can see it up there on the screen. It also allows you to feel like you matter on no small level, and to an insecure kid that can mean a lot.

If there's one thing that I would wish for our community, it is that we open our arms more to embrace the marginalized. It's pretty well known that the gamer community has issues with people who want to shut the door and pretend that games and gamers are an exclusive boys club, behaving like the Puritans once they reached the shores of New England.# RPG companies and gamers have come a long way, but we've got a long way to go.

We're not there yet, but I really love this drawing.

Games as Drama##

Sure, there are your games that are abstract or have a minimal theme --such as Checkers or Go-- but unless the drama involves telling tales about escapades in a game of Poker, there's not much in the way of drama to those games. I don't look at the Euro boardgame Puerto Rico and think that there's a lot of drama in shipping goods as a colonial governor. Still, drama can leak in from player interaction or an epic match ("Dude, remember that time I only had a rook and a king and I STILL beat you?"), but RPGs have drama built into their DNA. CRPGs and MMOs have a story to tell, and you're along for the ride. Want to be Link and save the world (again)? Shepard needs to fight the Reapers and save the galaxy, are you game? I hear the Burning Legion has returned to Azeroth and the Horde/Alliance need heroes; are you up for it?

Even games that are more about the fights and bashing skulls (such as Bayonetta, Gears of War, or God of War) have a story to them. Drama can be interchanged for "plot" at this point, but in an RPG it means more because you want to feel like your choices matter. Non-MMO CRPGs can pull this off more easily because the developers can accommodate different choices in-game, but MMOs have the great advantage of player interaction that a CRPG can't hope to match. A visit to any MMO gamer blog will demonstrate the value of player interactions to an MMO player. Sure, there are people who are present to play the economic game or "win" the raiding/PvP game, but the reason why they play an MMO versus a single player CRPG is because you can hang with and fight alongside your friends (or friends of convenience).

Franchise fans are their own geek subgroup, too.
Hey I could have put Trekkies or Tolkien fans here, but at least
Zelda is CRPG related.  From Pinterest.

The pencil and paper games, RPGs and theme heavy boardgames, have drama as part of their central makeup. The whole point of RPGs is to get friends together and tell a story, whether that is by exploring a dungeon, taking part in an epic quest, or even dealing with eking out a living on the edges of the galaxy. The heavily thematic boardgames, such as Runebound or Fury of Dracula, borrow from RPGs to help the players tell a story while playing the game.

Of course, unintended drama can wreck a game. I've been in guilds that have imploded because of unnecessary drama, D&D groups that blew up because they either got too large or we weren't following the DM's direction to take the game###. And yes, I've been in game groups that had issues where the DM's SO received preferential treatment. It wasn't pleasant.

If you've ever been a DM, you'll appreciate this.
My oldest looked at the last one especially and laughed.
The place where I found this (via Google search) doesn't resolve anymore,
so I've no idea who to attribute it to.
Not everybody likes drama. Hell, look at the complaints about Dragon Age 2 from a story perspective and you see that a certain subset of gamers simply do not like games that emphasized story at (what they thought) was the expense of gameplay, as if it was a zero sum game. My wife still is reluctant to play pencil and paper RPGs because an ex was an obsessive controlling DM, and rightly or wrongly she internally associates "asshat ex-boyfriend" with playing RPGs. Games such as Mario Kart or Settlers of Catan are much more in her wheelhouse, because she prefers to not go too heavily into drama (both good and bad).

But in the end, the bonds you make in a guild or a gaming group can last a lifetime; you fought together, laughed together, goofed around together, and even cried together. Friendships like that are what keep game worlds alive.


Gaming has certainly changed me, given me an anchor, and helped me with my empathy. As a social outcast growing up, gaming was a lifeline to get me to interact with people that I would ordinarily never associate with. I'm still not perfect; I can tend to act like a mother hen to my friends (online and offline) when I should simply just keep my mouth shut and let them deal with their own shit the way they want to####. But gaming has made me more empathetic, more loyal, and more outgoing than I would have been without it. Sure, it's not like my Dad is going to call me up to talk about the latest expac in SWTOR or WoW#####, but when a bunch of my friends get together to play some Smash Bros and boardgames, we've got that same connection.

Okay, enough about me. What about you? What have games and gaming meant to you? How do they define you (if at all)? Do they keep you going, do they inspire you, and do they help you connect with people?

*Rook? Yep. Uncle Wiggly? Played it. Hearts? Of course; I thought I was really good at Hearts until I got to college and would routinely get my ass handed to me by my dorm friends. As for other games that people might not know much about today, Authors springs to mind. I think I still have my card deck of Authors around somewhere; I'll have to keep an eye out for it the next time I clean parts of the basement.

**True story: to get me to work on my free throws for basketball, my dad made me a deal that if I made 10 free throws in a row we would get an Atari 2600 console. I spent the better part of that summer and fall trying for that elusive 10 in a row, because I wanted to spend more than 5 minutes at a time playing Asteroids. After countless tries, one day the next summer I finally reached that goal only to have my dad renege on his promise.

***My very first adventure consisted of the following encounter: "You open the door at the end of the hallway and see 10 RED DRAGONS!!!" Needless to say, this 1st Level Fighter died.

****We still talk about college basketball a bit, but not to the extent that my neighbors talk about sports with their kids, or even I talk about sports with my father.

*****My brother-in-law did what any good DM does, and he improvised. He caused a spectre to arise out of the flaming brazier and attack her, which was a bit of a problem because we were already in a fight with some goblins. My youngest's two siblings stared at her, aghast. "What did you go and do THAT for??!!!" one of them wailed. "I wanted to see what would happen," she replied, nonplussed. (For the record, we did survive, but that was because I was the Cleric. As usual.)

******Sure, if you go to a random select team's website they'll say that they want to build character and sportsmanship, but my experiences say "win first, everything else second".

#It wasn't until I went to college that I was exposed to gamer girls, and I look back on my early days playing D&D with regret that I didn't think of asking any of the girls I knew if they wanted to pay. I'd vowed to not make the same mistake with my kids, and the mini-Reds have all grown up to become gamers in their own right.

##I could have easily called this the "Bioware Section", but they don't have a monopoly on good drama within a game. It only seems they do.

###My current D&D 3.0 game group grew out of one such blowup back in college. The DM had scripted everything --and I do mean everything-- to the point where we felt like we were there just to be "yes men" to his dramatic writing. When any of us wanted to do something offbeat or wanted to follow something not on the script, he blew up. Needless to say, he decided that we weren't worth his time and walked out, and one of us said "Hey, I've been a DM before. I'll take over and we'll start from scratch."

####"Stop being a creeper, Dad." "You're not an amateur psychologist, Red. Shut up." I've heard them plenty of times. At the same time, if somebody needs a hand or wants to talk, I want to be there for them. I remember what it's like to be isolated and not have anyone to talk to.

#####For the record, he calls almost daily during college basketball season. There's always a game going on that provides (you guessed it) drama.


  1. Something you said really made me stop and think - the bit where you use games to hang around your kids and you discuss games. My kiddos are more into gaming than sports or tv-watching and I've had this idea that I'm not being a great mother by not encouraging them to get out and do the more 'traditional' things but I realised - we never stop talking together. From breakfast conversations to sitting around the table at night the 3 of us (2 kiddos and myself) are always in conversation. About games we can find to play together, issues that have come up in games and how to handle them (he stole the resource I wanted etc), and general chatter about what thye are up to in their games. Maybe gaming is building a bond that's a lot stronger between us than I thought.

    1. I'd say it is, Zeirah.

      My dad in particular was of the "throw them outside and go play all day" sort, and my wife subscribes to that as well but to a lesser extent. The thing is, my wife and my dad were drawing from their experiences of hanging around with their neighbors who they got along well with. I didn't have the same experiences, and to a decent extent neither have the mini-Reds. So I don't begrudge them their desire to not hang around outside all day long. (Besides, my son and I in particular are of the "burn and peel" sort of skin tone, and that's not a fun thing for the summer sun.)

      Having that connection with the kids --especially for gaming, which a lot of people in my generation view somewhat disparagingly-- is invaluable. Especially in their teen years, as they've become more independent and push back against boundaries we've set, gaming provides that common ground that we can communicate about without them putting up barriers.

      And I'll be honest in that it's kept me more in touch with what's going on with their generation than if I'd had to rely upon secondhand. While some friends and relatives have no clue about items such as or eSports ("Get this crap off of ESPN!" I've heard more than once from people I know), I can hold my own in conversations with the kids about them. Mispronouncing things, well, that's a different matter entirely...

      Anyway, I'd say you're doing a great job and are building bonds that will last a lifetime, so if it works for your family, keep on doing it!