Sunday, April 05, 2009

Theories of games

While visiting Vanderbilt over spring break, I discovered that astrophysicist Bob Scherrer and I share a couple of boyhood interests: science fiction and strategic games. Bob actually writes science fiction, and still plays board games with his kids, whereas I switched long ago to "serious" literature and don't play or design games anymore.

But from age 11 to 14 or so (basically until I hit puberty and discovered girls), I spent every Saturday at the local university simulation gaming club, playing games like Panzergruppe Guderian, Starship Troopers or Dungeons and Dragons with college students and other adults. Bob tells me that I should have saved my collection of these games -- that they'd be very valuable today! Actually, the design of games and rule systems interested me even more than play.

Although I admire the elegance of classical games like Chess and Go, I prefer simulation games. More specifically, I enjoy thinking about the design and structure of these games. A good analogy is the distinction between natural science and mathematics. The former attempts to distill truths about the workings (dynamics) of the natural world, whereas the latter can be admired solely for its abstract beauty and elegance. To me Chess sometimes feels too finite and crystalline. The challenge of formulating a system of rules that captures the key strategic or tactical issues facing, e.g., Stalin, or an infantry platoon, or the ruler of a city state, or even a science postdoc, is just messy enough to be more interesting to me than the study of a finite abstract system. To some extent, every theoretical scientist, economist and financial modeler is participating in a kind of game design -- building a simplified model without throwing away the essential details.

I think role playing games are overly maligned, even among the community of gamers. Under ideal circumstances, role playing games are highly educational, and combine components like story telling, negotiation, diplomacy and team building. At the club I attended one of the "game masters" (I know, it sounds silly!) was a portly older man named Bill Dawkins, who preferred to be called Standing Bear (his Native American name). Standing Bear, though possessed of limited formal education, was widely read and had lived a vast life. He was the most creative story teller and world creator I have known. His ideas were easily as original and interesting as those I had encountered in science fiction and fantasy writing. Each of the role playing campaigns he created, taking place over years, was a masterpiece of imagination and myth building. He attracted scores of players from around the region. I often found myself playing alongside or against people I barely knew, although some came to be close friends.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that you call them 'simulation games'. That's always how I have thought of them, but the CS guys have a thing for saying that a game has the fictitious play property.

Simulation is a hugely under-rated part of the field of game [so, strategic'] analysis.

Unknown said...

You should check out Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother"... Good sci fi, good role-playing games, ...

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