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  • The Nature of Games in the 21st Century

    [03.05.09]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Title boxPositive scoring mechanisms that reinforce success and encourage the player to continue. A great many board games now use point scoring to determine success, and this was adopted by video games decades ago. Moreover, have you ever seen a game take points away or run points into the negative? The purpose of points is to immediately reinforce what a player has done and to encourage the player to continue. In contrast, an older game like Monopoly uses money as a substitute for points, and you lose money almost as often as you gain it. Other old games such as chess and checkers have no reinforcing mechanisms -- you lose pieces and rarely gain them.

    Disinclination to plan or study. Games tend to be more active, more frenetic, than in the past. People want to do more than they want to think.

    In the video game world, simpler games can include the rules within the game, with minimal reading. More complex games such as Civilization IV have manuals, but few players read them, even though those who do read learn enough to become experts long before the players who don't read the manual.

    In non-electronic games this tendency manifests in "sequence of play" rules. In older games, rules were written to be read thoroughly before play. They were organized to be easily referenced when a player forgot a detail.

    Now most rules are written in sequence of play style, on the assumption that the players will try to play the game while reading the rules for the first time. If that's true, then the rules must follow the order in which the players will try to do something in the game. This makes for a poor reference, unfortunately. But the fact is, most game players want to be taught how to play rather than read the rules, and if no one can teach them, they often try to learn the game as they play.

    Players won't write things down. Many non-electronic game publishers want nothing that requires written records in a game, and that's a given in video games. The typical mechanism used in non-electronic games is a scoring track where a marker indicates the current score for each player.

    My board game Britannia, originally published in 1986, had always required use of a score sheet to write down victory points. When the second edition was published in 2006 by Fantasy Flight Games, the company did not want to require players to write anything. At first they were going to use a scoring track, but I suggested that in a four-to-five hour war game, likely someone would bump the game board or otherwise foul up the scoring. So they decided to include scoring counters in three denominations. As players score, they receive appropriate counters.

    Many Britannia players, given a choice, will still keep score on a score sheet. But when players agree not to keep track of the score separately, then the counters provide some uncertainty about scores, and consequently about who might be ahead.

    Players won't do even simple math. People are now very poor at doing math in their heads --"new math" and calculators have had a lot to do with this. I've seen intelligent young people count up the dots on dice one by one rather than quickly make the sum. And I've known intelligent young people who could not figure out the amount of a 10 percent tip at a restaurant (let alone 15 percent).

    If this is true, why would people want to do math as part of a game, unless it was specifically a mathematical game? Video games take care of this automatically, of course, but board game designers have had to adjust how they do things.

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