Friday, July 15, 2011

A Brief and Inaccurate History of Games

Since time began, people have played games. Initially, these games were very simple, and mostly involved two men hitting each other on the head with clubs. The winner of this game was pretty obvious, because the loser got to bleed out on the floor of the cave and the winner got to drag a woman by her hair. Happily, we have better games than that now. Otherwise my wife would kill me for trying to drag her by her hair.

Some time passed, and someone invented chess, which was such an impressive game that people all over the globe learned to play it and wrote complicated books about it and high-school kids joined chess clubs so that they could have their underwear yanked up over their heads and get thrown into trash bins. Chess was such a big deal that it spawned several spin-offs and expansions. For instance, in India and China, they play it completely different, and at Hogwarts, you can get killed playing it (this variant is not all that popular with PTA groups).

Along the way, we also wound up with playing cards and checkers and marbles, which were very slick components that ran the gamut from being cheap to over-produced. There were also dominoes, but nobody really understood what to do with dominoes outside standing them all up on one end and then knocking them over. Dominoes were very educational, because they let us understand why the US had to go into Vietnam.

Many early board games were boring, often trite roll-and-move games. The boards were often overly complicated, but the rulesets were elegant and the mechanics were easy enough to understand. You would roll dice or spin a spinner and move ahead a certain number of spaces. These games were often indicative of the popular misconceptions of their time. For instance, a spot on the board might say, 'Your wife does not have dinner ready. Beat her for her disobedience and then smoke a cigarette in your living room, because they are good for you.'

Many games were also used as propaganda. Games made in Germany during the early part of the 20th century would reward kids extra points for blowing up parts of England, while some games taught poor black kids how important it was that they have their own water fountains. Sit at the Back of the Bus was offered up on a Kickstarter promotion in 1963, but Rosa Parks burned her copy along with her bra and then marched on Washington, which was very bad press, and the game ultimately failed, although it made a brief resurgence when Doctor King said, 'I have a very bad board game!'

About the same time, however, grown men began to play with army men. Miniature soldiers would be pushed around maps and various mechanics would be employed to manage conflict resolution. Often these mechanics involved spring-loaded cannons that would fire tiny ballistic weapons. These weapons were quickly outlawed because they were deemed unsafe for children under 17. They were later brought back, but the bullets were replaced with orange foam, the weapons were made from bright yellow plastic, and players were encouraged to wear bicycle helmets and protective eyewear. These updated games sold poorly, and were discontinued when junior-high kids began to modify them to shoot firecrackers into public toilets.

It was not until the sixties that we began to see the first games played with cardboard squares and bland maps covered in hexagonal lines. Initially, these games were thought to be boring and overly complex, but it was quickly discovered that grown men would spend hours in their basements drinking cheap liquor and pretending to reenact famous battles using these cardboard squares. Many years later, European game designers discovered that initial reports had been correct, and these games actually were boring and overly complex.

The 1970s brought us roleplaying games, and suddenly, young boys who had previously just been scrawny and socially awkward were able to truly explore just how nerdy they could be. Where they were previously only able to express their geekery by reading comic books and dreaming about talking with girls, they were now able to lock themselves away for weeks at a time and pretend that they actually had any physical capabilities whatsoever. But at least they weren't in chess club.

On top of being a powerful force for retaining virginity among teenage boys, roleplaying games also lead to the greatest development in gaming history - the dungeon crawler. This was about all there was to play during the 1980s, and so it became a very popular pastime. People could now play games about killing goblins and saving kingdoms without having to talk with an affected British accent, and so dozens of young men were saved from having to learn to use 'methinks' properly in a sentence. Unfortunately for many others, it was too late, and they were already greeting each other with the silly phrase, 'well met.'

The 90s kind of sucked. Nothing much happened. Games Workshop sued somebody, but nobody was surprised.

But then, after the turn of the century, a glorious event occurred - Reiner Knizia made some games! At last, games were no longer about killing things or rolling and moving. Now they were boring math exercises, and thousands of gamers rose up from obscurity to carry Reiner games around and tell everyone how much smarter they were. Mensa members came into their own when their meetings changed. Instead of simply trying to outdo each other by comparing their recent reading lists ('Yes, I did like Voltaire when I was in grade school, but now I find that reading Plato in the original Greek is the only thing that interests me'), Mensa nerds played Reiner games to prove their mental superiority. The rest of the world did not care, and continued to steal their lunch money.

Eventually, the gamers who enjoyed killing things began a war against the gamers who liked doing math. The blood-thirsty gamers decided that they were true Americans, and the math geeks associated themselves with Europe, especially Germany, which was mostly because the Germans were so ashamed about losing World War Two that they made it illegal to create fun games. The battle lines were drawn, though many people who just liked playing games were left to wonder why anyone would bother fighting about something as asinine as what to do with their spare time.

Since that time, the Gamer Dweeb Wars have simmered considerably. The European killjoys retreated to the Internet, which was mostly where nerds wound up sooner or later anyway. The American warmongers also retreated to the Internet, but they went to a different part. Both took turns complaining about the other camp, often saying horrible things because the other people were too far away to hit them.

The future is full of promise, as we are currently enjoying the historical pinnacle of gaming. At this point, a game is created every forty-seven seconds, and game clubs meet many times a week to attempt to play everything that came out in the last two days. They are usually unsuccessful and completely unable to enjoy anything, since they have to spend most of their time reading lengthy rulebooks and arguing on the Internet about FAQs and errata. Then nobody can remember how to play the games they were playing last week, which isn't really that important, anyway, because they already own so many games that they have to use online web databases to figure out what they have, and nobody has times to play anything twice.

Ten years from now, we won't play games on boards at all. All gaming will take place on our phones, and we will all go blind and get brain tumors from the radiation. We won't care, though, because we'll have the games wired directly into our brains so that we can play when we sleep. I can't wait. I hear Apple is working on a skull-clubbing app you can get through iTunes.

10 comments:

Steve said...

This is, hands down, the greatest thing ever written. Well played.

Colorcrayons said...

Haha! Thanks for taking the time to put those thoughts down on your keyboard, Matt. Great read as always. Man, I love this fucking blog.

Enrique said...

Loved it! But c'mon give props to the french, Asmodee in particular, they come up with the weirdest mix/fusion of cultures, truly a style their own.

ninthdoc said...

OMG! That was the funniest thing I've read in a long time. Were you drunk and channeling Douglas Adams at the same time? I swear to God parts of that sounded like the narrator in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (not the latest movie, that just sucked).

Ronac said...

Not Brief, fairly inaccurate and totally fun. Haven't read something as funny as this in a while....

Another Matt said...

Hilarious. Well done, sir.

Anonymous said...

As always, a great read. This may be the best article I've read of yours.

~Pete

Keith S said...

I like Reiner games but can assure you any Mensa member would be first up against the wall, Billy Bragg music playing in the background, when the revolution comes. He shouldnt be tarred with that brush.

The best gaming blog around, keep it up

Anonymous said...

Meh. I took time out of playing with my cat for this?

Moonglow said...

I took time out from playing with myself and consider it time well spent.