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Off the Grid: Digital killed the analog star


Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

It is an awesome time to be a gamer! We're already being wowed by the Xbox 360's impressive online integration, as we (im)patiently await the coming of the powerhouse PS3, and the très chic, über-unique Wii. Our PC's constantly need upgrades to handle the latest and greatest titles, but we happily oblige. It's worth it when we see the footage online, promising us the fully immersive experience we've come to feel we deserve. And when we're tired of being grounded by our consoles and computers, we can go anywhere with our PSPs or DSs. Even our mobile phones are slowly proving themselves to be viable platforms for our playing pleasures.

As gamers, we are drowning in new technology, and we are loving every minute of it.

And why shouldn't we? In a little over a decade, the video game industry has defined itself as an international influencer. Its games are constantly pushing the envelope, inspiring technological innovation and sparking paradigm shifts in this plugged-in, net-ready culture.

For the latest generations of gamers, it's no longer even a question: To be a gamer is to stare at a screen; Board games are laughable, and passé at best; When we think of our roots, we think of a joystick. But why did this happen?

Why did digital kill the analog star?

To be clear, I'm not against the current generation of games. I'm just as excited by the Wii as anyone else, but as a community we've turned our backs on anything non-digital, on anything analog in nature.

"But dude," you may say, "analog games just aren't cool."

I say that we just haven't given them a chance. We take for granted the obvious but important differences between analog games and their digital brethren. So I say let's go back. Let's remind ourselves why an analog experience is still valuable in our oh-so-digital age.

1) Rules are bitchin' - I know that ever since you were a toddler, you've felt that rules are what old people tell young people to follow. But all forms of games are fun because of the rules imposed on them. Dodgeball is fun because when you get hit, you're out; that's what makes you dodge. Video games follow extremely complex sets of rules in order to function, and as a player you're only privy to a small set of those rules. With analog games, however, the rules are part of the experience, and understanding them can add an extra level of enjoyment to a game. What does it mean in Chess when the king is only marginally more powerful than the lowly pawn?

2) You can actually touch them - Video games contain entire universes that are always just out of reach. It's hard to explain, but there's just something nice about having a tangible experience. Any seasoned Go player can tell you that a great deal of the game's satisfaction comes from handling and placing the pieces properly. And no, the DS and Wii don't count as touching, although they're closer than anything else.

3) Real human contact - All this online stuff is really great, but it can't replace the feeling of actually being in the same room as someone. Instead of text-chatting, audio-chatting, or (gulp) video-chatting with someone over a round of Texas Hold'Em, play with real cards, real chips, and real people. They're guaranteed to be friendlier than most internet folk, and you might even have a better time.

4) Fun for less - Any way you look at it, it's an expensive time to be a gamer, and it's only going to prove to get more expensive as time goes on. You might be planning on throwing down between $300 and $600 USD in the coming months, so why not head over to Cheapass Games right now and spend a paltry $7.50 USD on a killer app like Kill Doctor Lucky? Dig through your old board game collection and find a classic that you haven't touched in ages, like Backgammon. Or better yet, head outside and play a few rounds of Calvinball.

5) All the good designers do it - You better believe that a lot of great game designers work in analog games as much as they do in digital. We already know that when games go digital, the number of rules expand, and they become increasingly complex and difficult to create. For this reason, game design courses at NYU and USC often focus on board games before moving to computers. Gamelab -- makers of the addictive Diner Dash -- have been known to hold game nights for their staff, where they break out Settlers of Catan instead of Guitar Hero or Katamari. And paper prototyping is becoming commonplace in a number of studios. For all those aspiring game developers, here's some sound advice: Don't jump right into C or Maya -- start with pens and paper, dice and cards.

We have a lot of ground to cover, and we've only barely scratched the surface. In the coming weeks and months, I'll be looking at classic and modern marvels of board game design, as well as speaking with developers about their non-digital distractions. We've already taken a look at Crossroads, a truly mobile game, and hopefully we'll have a chance to check out similar projects as time goes on. In the meantime, let's together try to remember our true roots.

Let's remember that gaming's not just about screentime anymore.

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