Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Joy of Games

In June 2013, I discovered TableTop, and lo, it was glorious. At a time when I was feeling kind of bad about myself and sinking further daily, it gave me something really positive to float on. The notions that games are fun, that games are social, that gamers form an inherently friendly community through the games they share, these were all nice, happy thoughts. And getting exposure to lots of interesting new games (plus reminding me of a few forgotten ones) was also handy. It's true that I was playing things already, with both my Warhammer roleplaying group (which was probably actually trying out Torg at the time), and my Star Trek roleplaying group (which was still doing Star Trek back then), and a few months later we'd also start up a new Forgotten Realms/Pathfinder roleplaying group. Roleplaying games are my favourite, because if I stop paying attention and doodle flaming penises on the map, it's "in character".
(Insert penis here)

TableTop took me back about a decade, to a time after high school when we (my usual general gaming social circle) went through a big board games phase. My friend Damon's dad has been gaming since the '70s and has a literal walk-in pantry stuffed to capacity with games you can't hope to buy anymore (plus many that have recently been re-released). We had a couple duds from that collection, but also so many amazing ones, in addition to a few games from other sources. Balderdash was a frequent favourite (and anything with French maritime horse food is definitely a fake). Cosmic Encounters rings happy bells, though I don't actually remember how it goes. Source of the Nile was amazing. Kremlin was exciting and challenging. Diplomacy was similarly engaging, though its slower play put off some people and the need to engage other players non-violently utterly confused others. Acquire was cool, though it did once cause us to have to clean an entire lounge and sort through a (not kidding) cubic-meter pile of Magic cards to look for a missing tile that was actually just trapped inside the box lid. And there was always our favourite fall-back, the "What are we going to do?" game. For a while, though, board games became infrequent, which was a pity. TableTop coincided with us getting back into them, so that was nice.

Our Warhammer roleplaying group had, by then, already established a monthly board games evening (I believe Scotland Yard, Shadows Over Camelot and the Egyptian temple-building one were all popular choices). The Star Trek group would eventually squish into what is now DeeTwenty, and the first month or two of DeeTwenty were centered almost entirely around board games. Separate from all this, my friend Ali, as serious an expert on board games as I've ever met, started introducing me to a few more new games (Dominion stands out most clearly), and also showed me Shut Up & Sit Down. While TableTop is great, its higher production value and numerous guests mean there's not a lot of it to enjoy. SU&SD does things cheap and cheerful, using a mix of videos, podcasts and blogs, and so manages to cover way more games, way more frequently; as a general review source, it's clearly more valuable. It's also noticeably more British, and now it's even got meaningful connections with the Blessed James Wallis.

While I'm punting good reviewers, there's also the Nearly Enough Dice podcast, which is probably the least professional of the three I've linked, but makes up for this with great enthusiasm and joy at what they play. Also, they cover roleplaying games way more, which suits me well.

This year's Icon also captured the fun of games nicely, and there are a few other little cons in Joburg that look increasingly promising. I've probably played as many new games in the last 2 years as in the whole decade before that. Video games have been a thing too: I've made my fortune in EVE, I've come second in a Tekken tournament, I can beat both Civ 2 and Thief without resorting to petty combat, and so on.

As Bill Nye claims that Carl Sagan said, when you're in love, you want the whole world to know it. Games are great. Humans have known this for millennia. So I really like it when more people are playing more games. It's fascinating and horrible to read about the sexist nature of early roleplaying; I kind of abstractly knew it wouldn't have been good, but that detailed history is well worth a read to get completely clear on it. My own entry to the hobby wasn't much different, and it wasn't until I ventured from my white-boy high school crowd to join my first "grown-up" group that I had my first regular games with players who weren't male or straight (and I don't think it's entirely coincidental that this more inclusive campaign was Star Trek). Even today, I don't think I've ever been in a game with anyone who wasn't Europeanly white, and the male-female ratio remains badly lobsided.

It's a bit fucked up, really, considering (1) there's no good reason such a cheap, open-ended, adaptable, easy hobby shouldn't appeal to nearly everyone, and (2) the only actual reason it hasn't is that there were shitty historical roots that have yet to be fully scrubbed off. I wish I knew a good way to help fix this, other than to say: Non straight white rich males, you should really get into roleplaying en masse; it's great. [EDIT: Maybe Felicia Day's thoughts are more useful here.] Board games seem more balanced (I think?), and video games are by some counts now more popular with women than men. In my anecdotal experience, wargames of the sort that roleplaying games originally spawned from remain mostly a wasteland of white dudes.

This makes the recent squall of angsty boys and paranoid middle-aged men (or is it the other way round?) trying to steal the term 'gamer' from the rest of us with the GamerGate shit so much more annoying. And to me, it is mere annoyance, fortunately, because I'm a small fry white dude, not a prominent person of any other description, so I'm not worth threatening. I can't imagine what it must be like to feel endangered and also have the added insult of having your love of games, your identity as a gamer, undermined like this. I don't think anyone who loves games and wants others to love them would have any good reason to associate with that spiteful plop of douchebags, and I hope for everyone's sake that they just fade away soon. The rest of us have games to play.