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  • The Nature of Games in the 21st Century

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Title box Players want a reduced number of plausible choices, and not many pieces and items to deal with. Many popular strategy (war) games of the 60s and 70s involved moving dozens of cardboard counters each turn. There were many choices, much to think about. This has gone out of style: in a sense we're back to centuries-old traditional games where only one piece is moved at a time. This "piece," in video games, is usually the player's avatar.

    This helps avoid "analysis paralysis," where the player has so much to think about that he cannot decide what to do.

    This is related to entertainment. Fewer people nowadays regard a thinking game as entertaining. So they want a game of physical challenges, or a game with only a few plausible choices at any given time, perhaps we could even say, a game where intuition (which is quick) is just as useful as logic (which frequently is not quick).

    Not much down time. Players are less content with waiting for their turn than in the past. They want to constantly participate in a game. There is much less interest in patience, or in downtime that enables one to plan one's next move.

    Board games and card games can achieve downtime reduction with constant trading of resources (Settlers of Catan), with simultaneous movement, with small partial plays during an overall turn so that there's less time between each part of a player's turn, with interrupts (such as event cards) that a player can execute while another is playing. Video games are frequently simultaneous, all players playing at the same time, so the problem is rarely an issue.

    No look-up tables. Look-up tables, such as dice-roll combat tables, were common in board games of the 60s and 70s. Now, players don't want to look anything up. Often, cards are used to supply the rules/tables needed at a given time. In video games, of course, the computer keeps track of the tables and the rules.

    Episodic. People have shorter attention spans, perhaps because there are so many distractions, so many ways to spend one's leisure time. In any case, games tend to be more episodic these days. Many board games are a limited number of turns: you don't actually play to completion (where one player predominates), you play for a while and then rely on the score to determine who won. Many card games are naturally episodic, as you play one "hand" after another. In video games, the entire concept of "levels" is a way of making a game episodic. The end of each level is a natural point to pause or even to save the game and stop playing for a while.

    Dice versus cards. This is not something strongly related to video games, but is obvious in board games. Many people nowadays do not like dice rolling in games. The preferred method of introducing a random element is cards. Cards are more manageable than dice, and much nicer to look at as well. Yet there are still many popular games, such as Risk and Axis and Allies, that are "dice-fests." In video games the action of "dice" (random chance) is hidden away, but it's often there; nonetheless, many players don't like to feel that what happens is randomly determined.

    No player elimination. In most video games, a player is never eliminated; he can go back to his save game, or he simply re-spawns. In older non-electronic games, players were often eliminated, knocked out of the game, as they are in Monopoly. Of course, in a two-player game when one is "eliminated", the game is over; here I'm talking about games with more than two sides. Today, player elimination in board games is quite unusual.

    Players may have an inviolate area to survive in, or the game may simply have a time limit that will be reached before anyone can be eliminated. Moreover, in many cases, the game is designed so that most players have a chance to win at the very end of the game-do you want to continue to play if you have no chance at all? For example, there may be a progressively increasing scoring scale, or some mechanism allowing a surprise win.

    Insofar as the popular Euro board games have grown out of family games (some people refer to them as "family games on steroids"), it is not surprising that there is no player elimination, as that would leave someone out of the family fun.

    Simple and short. Games tend to be simpler and shorter. "Simpler" is related to a dislike of reading rules (many teenagers skim almost everything they read, rather than read it thoroughly). "Short" is a matter of attention span. This sometimes means games that rely on intuition rather than logic, as intuition comes quickly, while logic generally requires information-gathering and long thought (sometimes resulting in "analysis paralysis").

    Many people simply won't play a long game, or think they won't. They often find that if the game is satisfying, they'll play two or three hours, at times; but many aren't willing to try.

    The trend in video games toward short experiences (casual games) and toward episodic play, reflects these changes.


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