Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Ancestors Of Video Games

I originally wrote a shorter version of this post for Forces Of Geek. You can go read that one if you like, but this is more interesting ;) -Emma-Jane

Believe it or not but there are times when I like to actively step away from my console and indulge myself another form of gaming. Board games or 'the ancestors of video games', have been around since Ancient Egyptian times but with video games becoming ever more popular and many gamers opting to play board games on their consoles, should we be concerned that they will eventually become a thing of the past? Or are they still a contender in the current games market?

Bora. Bora
I'd like to think that they still have a place in our lives and despite opting to spend the majority of my free time playing video games, I always enjoy playing a good board game! They might be considered old fashioned by some people but unlike cassette tapes, they haven't faded out of existence just yet and I hope they never do. I'm not only a big fan of board games, I also love card games and table top RPGs - I like to think of myself as an all encompassing gamer. I adopt the no game left behind policy!

My competitive nature is one of the main reasons I enjoy traditional gaming but I especially like their social aspect. Board games are a fantastic way to bridge the gap between me and my non video gaming friends. In the back of my mind, I find myself thinking "Maybe, just maybe, if they like this, I can coerce them into playing a video game with me one day?!"

They may be a predominantly social activity but let's not forget that video games can be social too. The main differences are that you're in a room with people instead of playing via a headset, rolling dice instead of holding a controller and able to mock your friends and lord it over them in person when you inevitably win the game. That last reason alone is totally worth it!

Zombies!!! - The "!!!" is important.
There's also more positive social interaction within the realm of board games. If I play a game online and communicate via a headset or in-game chat room I have no idea who I'm talking to and people often put on a persona that doesn't resemble the real them. So, in essence, I am playing a game with strangers which becomes less of a social activity and more...well..creepy. That, and often online games have a habit of spawning a lot unwarranted abuse, pointless argument and annoying background hissing.

Some people like to call them "bored games" but they have the potential to be incredibly exciting. Granted, there are hundreds of rubbish ones but the same goes for video games. For every awesome video game there are at least 10 crappy ones. A lot of board games are incredibly imaginative, they tell stories that you wouldn't necessarily come across in the video game industry, making them a gold mine of possibility. Imagine it and it probably exists! If it doesn't then creating your own is easier than you think too.

You might have an amazing story but if you want to turn it into a video game and you lack the artistic ability, the programming experience or don't know anyone with those skills who could help then you need to start studying or networking with the right people. It's going to take a long time and is a lot of hassle, so perhaps it's best left to the pros. However, in 'analog' gaming you can gather a pen and paper, some scissors, maybe a dice or two and quickly come up with a game mechanic - well, depending on the complexity of the game as some can take years to create, with detailed mechanics and rules to write - but the point is, you can execute a board game idea quickly, bringing it to life much faster than a video game. In theory, you could have a working prototype within a day.

The fact that anyone can build their own brings me to accessibility (while I do hate using that word it rings true here), there are hundreds of family friendly titles or games for the less skilled player but this doesn't mean they are all soft edged and insultingly easy like accessible video games (or let's face it, kids games or movie tie-ins) because some are impressively detailed, realistic and extreeeeemely unsuitable for kids.

Oh yes, there's even am Ankh-Morpork game! 
There's also the joy of playing something which is closer to the creator's original idea. For other mediums (especially video games) original concepts are adapted and ripped apart, re-written and transformed to appeal to a mass audience and fit in neatly with the existing norms of the industry, which let's face is, is controlled by money.

The same goes for films, a writer might have a great concept and a fantastic, well written script but after the producers and consultants begin editing it and adding flashy action sequences, the film becomes a dull, paint by numbers action flick with terrible dialogue and unrealistic portrayals of women...oh wait, I might be describing every single Michael Bay film here, sorry. Digression aside, my point is, most board game creators and table top RPG writers are lucky if they make any money at all and this is a testament to the fact that their games are made for the love of it - something rare - something video games used to be before the need for making money took over. Board games are such a niche market, as such you can come across titles which seem too obscure and specific you'll find it hard to believe they exist and the best part is, they're not dumbed down for their target audience.

In a way, indie gaming has a similar appeal because anyone can potentially create their own apps and mobile games with very little programming knowledge yet there's no doubt that to make a board game, any age or skill ability can do so without experience and this is more exciting to me because it transports me to childhood. That hallowed time when I spent my days drawing or playing with my TMNT action figures, where something as simple as a cardboard box could be a form of transportation or a house or a flying carpet... The imagination of a child is a wonderful thing yet that playful inventiveness and mind full of pure ideas is lost as we grow up and just as we learn to pay bills and do laundry, we forget how to use our imagination.

Playing a home made board game or being part of a table top RPG is a great way to re-learn how to create your own entertainment and captures that same level of pure, creative play.

A year ago I had my first experience of a table top role playing game and since then I have played a handful of one off games as well as being part of one for almost a year. What I've learnt is that although the medium is different, it's still gaming. I don't come away feeling as though I could have better spent my time playing video games. That fundamental gaming element is still there but instead of playing a ready made character I'm forced to create my own and not from a set of pre-existing skins. There's also no good or evil moral options. I am able to choose exactly what I want to do and I'm not restricted by dialogue options. Unlike RPG video games, I become my character fully and the freedom that accompanies this feels incredibly exhilarating. One of the biggest criticisms of video game RPGs is the fact that there's not enough autonomous action, moral choice, social consequence or environmental interaction and in their table top equivalents you don't have any of those issues.

Your character, your rules - well... the Games Masters rules. 
There's an undeniable charm in playing board games, something that their computer generated counterparts could never possess - certain titles have charm, sure, but as a whole when you compare the two, board games win hands down. If you think about it, much has been borrowed from board games - you wouldn't have the notion of XP, hit points, potions, boss fights... basically, without board games there wouldn't even be video games.

I'm not intending to sway everyone to give board games a go because ultimately I know they have a negative connotation in that they remind people of spending time with their families and loved ones but it's an inherent part of growing up.

Board games trained us to be the gamers we are today, surely we owe them the courtesy of visiting a games store once in a while (a proper one, full of dusty shelves and a strange yet unmistakable musty smell). Live up to your namesake, be a "gamer".

There's more to the word "game" than you think.

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