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Off the Grid: ... and on again


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

I adore analog games. I respect them for their design; I envy them for their relative simplicity; I've even enjoyed playing them, on the several occasions when I've convinced my peers to forego Counterstrike for Carcassonne, Legend of Zelda for LCR.

But try as I might, I can't seem to stay off the grid.

With regards to Joystiq, I feel as though I've made a poor role model. Here I am, writing biweekly columns in advocacy of a non-digital lifestyle and I so often, in my own personal gaming, turn to the Wii or DS instead of a collective game of Fluxx or Kill Doctor Lucky. I'm effectively evangelizing for a religion that I myself do not practice.

So what's the problem here? Is there even a problem? Should I consider rehabilitation, or is there something video games offer me that analog games simply can't?

The problem might simply be that there is too much of a divide between video game culture and analog game culture to make for a smooth transition. I didn't grow up playing D&D and Risk, but rather Mario and Sonic. And though I try my best to ignore it, there are great disparities between the two cultures. The conversations I hear about tabletop games consist of scary new words like "european-style" and "d20," instead of words within my comfort zone like "jaggies" and "mmorpg." Over time, I might be able to learn the new vocabulary but it's always easier to just go back to what I know. Rather than attempting to work on catching up on analog game history and language, it's almost more comforting to keep up to date on the culture I've already worked hard to identify myself with.

It's also important to remember that, with few exceptions, analog games are experiences built for two or more people. Fluxx is fun to play with several buddies, but sometimes friends just aren't available, and single-player video games do a great job of offering the same escapist entertainment without the need for warm bodies.

There are times, of course, when you have the friends over, and the choice is between a rousing game of Wii Sports, or a few rounds of Carcassonne. I've been in this situation before, and have entirely neglected my growing collection of board and card games for the shiny white console. It all comes down to ease of playability. I can sit my friends in a circle, and take the time to explain the rules of a new game to them, or I can hand them a controller and tell them to start swinging. From their perspective, they're going to be having fun a lot quicker with the Wii, and from my perspective, it's that much less time I have to spend talking. It's hard explaining a game like Kill Doctor Lucky to people who've never played, and it only gets more frustrating when someone's late to the party, and you have to give the whole explanation all over again.

The idea of playability is worth bringing up again, in order to discuss the importance of interactivity. For me, one of the biggest draws to video games is the experience of interacting. It's not unique to video games, however, as it's the same experience I have with a cell phone, iPod, or even my laptop. Interfacing with a computer system is by far one of the most compelling interactive experiences one can have. If you doubt this, think about how often you see people push random buttons whenever possible. Just clicking on something is never enough, though. For it to be a compelling experience, the something has to react, has to acknowledge in some way that you've clicked it -- whether it does that by opening a door, making a noise, or printing a document.

In a way, video games are the ultimate "button," reacting in countless ways to the interactions of a player. A board game might theoretically be designed to be in every way as complicated as its digital counterpart, but it will never be able to react to you. Rather, the whole point of a board game is understanding the rules, and knowing what each decision you make in turn affects. A well-designed analog game can make for a great experience, but it will still lack that simple pleasure of reaction.

I still adore analog games, of course, but it seems that this is the time of year where I find myself more enamored with video games. Maybe it has something to do with being home from school for the winter. I've grown accustomed to being constantly surrounded by people, talking in the hallways, walking to classes, or attending parties. Each winter break I return home from college, and instead spend many days in a relatively quiet, empty house. In these solitary moments, maybe it's important for me to have reaction. Maybe I need a button more when I'm alone.

Or maybe I should just call my damn friends. I've spent far too much time staring at screens. Happy holidays.

Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

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