Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In defense of play

- In which Curtis samples a new board game

"Don't capitalize on an opponent's mistake, play better Go." - Aphorism on the "Go" board game.

This year I first heard the term "German-style board game", referring to the fantastic game "Settlers of Catan". I was looking for board games for the house, as the missus is fond of them, and spent some time perusing websites in search of one that was just right. Settlers was pretty highly rated, and I liked the description of it on Wikipedia and Amazon, so I bought it.

It turns out that the game has a large following, including a couple of my Facebook friends. The premise is basically city building. Different areas in the land you're settling produce different resources. If you collect enough brick, wood, what have you, you can build roads and settlements. Liberty and I played a game and enjoyed it, and some time later a friend and his wife brought over their copy for another game. Big fun.

A couple months later, the aforementioned man and wife, Herr and Frau Barrett, brought over Eurorails, which I had never heard of. It's a train game based on the Empire Builder rules, where you lay tracks and make deliveries of goods to cities based on cards you are dealt. You have goals such as building lines into so many major cities, and being the first to make so much money.

The map for Eurorails is an actual map of Europe, and I quickly found that of the four players, I had the least knowledge of where European cities were. Upsetting, sure, but geography was never my bag. Anyway, check out Wikipedia's articles on these, and if you're so moved to play either of them, you should come hang with us.

Settlers of Catan
Empire Builder

After starting to play games again after a long hiatus, I got to thinking about some games I played when I was younger, and the positive effects they had on my life. Here are a couple examples, chess and Doom.


Chess was the first game that I loved, and it spawned in me a lifelong love of board games. It was the first in a long line of things in life that I had a talent for, but only achieved stark mediocrity in, things of which I can don a Brando accent and say "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender." But no, I ended up being a bum... or if I want to dress it up a little, it became another part of my awesome eclectic makeup.

I learned chess from one of my mom's party friends when I was about 7. He was handsome and fit, a mechanic, martial artist, all around impressive and jealousy-inducing guy - at least by the standards of trashy billies. He patiently taught me the game rules and a few strategy hints, and proceeded to clean my clock over 3 or 4 games... but since he was nice about it, I easily became hooked.

Over the years I played when I had the chance. I sought out chess games for some of my childhood computers - "07-9003 Chess" for my Timex/Sinclair 1000 (which required the "RAMPack" that upgraded the memory from 2k to 16k), and Sargon II for my beloved Apple //c. Before I started to accumulate computers, I had a hand-held computer chess game with little lights by the row and column the computer wanted to move. I didn't play many real people, as I never ran into another kid who played chess when I was a kid, and I didn't know things like chess clubs or tournaments existed. [Wipes tear, shakes head]

Years of games against machines brought my skill level up from novice to... let's say "club player". But more importantly, years of playing chess got me more time on computers - more exposure to basic troubleshooting when the program didn't load, more typing, visual organization (especially with Sargon, which had one screen showing only the board, one showing the list of moves), and more chances to do something else after I had played a game, like learning simple programming. Programming naturally brings on ancillary learning, especially when you're young and math is relatively new. (Example, I wanted to make a clock program, so I had to learn how to draw a circle using cosines and sines, and learn how to estimate a 1-second sleep on systems that didn't have a user-accessible clock)

Later in life when I found live humans who could play, chess also provided me with many opportunities to interact with people one-on-one. There can only be one other player, and you sit across from them in a quiet environment for 30 minutes or more. There aren't many normally occurring instances like that. I was never much of a conversationalist, but I'd be far worse off if not for sitting down for a game with different people. I learned a lot of psychology over a chess board, for example, when you drive to Chicago so that your best friend can break up with his girlfriend, it would be better to just let her take moves back when she wants to. Also, cats do not understand why everyone is just sitting and staring at the board. The nervous ones can get pretty freaked out by it, especially if they slowly inch toward you over a period of about 5 minutes, and you suddenly shout "BOO!!" at them.


Like all red-blooded American boys, I liked me some video games back in the day. I cut my gamer teeth on Pacman and Asteroids, Missile Command, Defender, Q*Bert, all the classics when cabinet arcades were in their hayday. My favorite above all else was Joust, and I wasted many weekends at Malibu Grand Prix over near the Continent plugging tokens into Joust, and Double-Dragon, and Toki, and trying to work up the nerve to ask the hot attendant out.

Back when everyone had a 486, Id Software released Doom, effectively the first "real" first-person shooter. I was initially put off by the game because I thought the controls were too complex, but I grew to like it after I developed some reflexes for the controls. My first experience at deathmatching was pretty bad, but I got a lot better over time, and my hunger for the game grew with my skill in playing it.

When I was 23, the gang would gather at my apartment with computers in tow, and everyone would connect their computers together using ISA network cards, coax cable, BNC couplers, terminators, and run DOS-based IPX/SPX drivers that Doom (actually Doom 2 at that point) could find and use to run a 4-player peer-to-peer game. By that point most of us had found DOS mouse drivers once the limitation of keyboard-only play became a handicap.

When the gang couldn't get together, I would hang out in CompuServe's PCGamers forum looking for opponents to play over modem. To achieve stable connections over phone lines, I learned everything I could about modem init strings, adding to what I had learned running a BBS when I was a teen. In the 80s, most modems had the same command set, only varying in irrelevant arcana such as what S-register did what. Back then, the fastest modems were 2400 baud, but most of us contented ourselves with 1200. My preference was 300 baud, because I could read that fast and never needed to hit control-S to pause the page.

By 1994, I believe 28,800 baud was slowly becoming the standard. Hayes had a unique AT command set for whether or not to use MNP error correction, RTS/CTS or Xon/Xoff flow control, and how to negotiate connection speed (e.g., only settle for 28,800 or abort, aim for 14,400 and step down if line conditions require it, accept anything above 9600). US Robotics, on the other hand, had a different set of commands to do the same things. And Motorola, the Johnny-Come-Lately, had its own bizarre backslash AT commands - fortunately their modems were never really popular. I learned over time to listen to modems as they connected, and I could tell a little bit about what was going on in the negotiation sequence... at least until 56k modems started coming out and the sounds were just a cacophony of pain as the modems struggled to reach speeds that normal phone lines couldn't handle. Hayes with its k56-flex, USR with its X2, and neither becoming the industry standard... but I digress.

Why go into this much technical detail to talk about gaming? Exactly. I was obsessed with the game, and I learned everything I could about the technology to make it work so that my buddies and I could spend more time playing and less time scratching our heads and being mad at our computers. And the effort I put into playing the game translated directly into the skills needed to do tech support. I could set up a network, I could make modems connect, I could open a computer case and plug stuff in, I understood low level hardware problems like IRQ conflicts, and I was up on the current trends. All from a game. All from play.

With these skills, and nothing more that a highschool diploma and history of flipping pizza, CompuServe hired me for my first desk job, where I learned the skills I used in my next job, where I met a man who read the same books as me. Because of a book laying on my desk at work, he struck up a conversation with me, and we later became friends. A few years after that, he offered me my current job at AEP. The initial spark and the final leap all stemmed from play, from stuff I did in my downtime.

So don't discount the benefits in life you can get from engaging in play. Or obsessing about something until you "get" it. Like pure science, play has no inherent goals, but applications can be extracted from it. For me, chess gave me patience and the ability to read people and speak to them (and scare cats), FPS games gave me a career, and Settlers and Eurorails have started to give me more reasons to get people over to the house, to keep in touch with old friends, and to try to convince the wife that I'm not getting boring and stale. Yet.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, that old and stale thing is a constant concern. You never know when you are going to turn the corner and BAM!, you are old and stale. Perhaps teamwork is the key, as we are both faced with the same primary issue (wives that are still going to be young when we start gimping around).
    I can't remember if it was you or someone else that I was discussing QuantumLink with. It was a very early C64 internet application that seemed to pioneer much of what we now take for granted online, i.e. shopping, real time chat, etc. Whoever I was talking to had never heard of QL, and was somewhat incredulous that such a thing existed in the 80's on C64's. If it was indeed you, here's a link: