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Playing Out Stories
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A new issue of The Orphan Scrivener has been posted. By coincidence, Mary and I both ended up writing about board games this time. My recollections can be found below, but don't miss Mary's Games for the Bored . Warning: scrolling away fromt the essays may result in exposure to small amounts of BSP! (Blatant Self Promotion)

Chairman of the Board

Maybe the reason I've always been fascinated by games is because they allow us to make up their own stories while keeping us in suspense about the final outcome. When we used to play Clue as kids what I enjoyed most wasn't solving the whodunnit puzzle but choosing the directions my quest would take as I wandered at will, going from the billiard room to the conservatory or the study or any other route I pleased. The story of how I conducted my investigation was more interesting to me than whether it was Mrs Peacock with the candlestick in the library

The first games I played, like Chutes and Ladders and Uncle Wiggly were simple races to the end. We threw dice, drew cards, or flicked a spinner and advanced space by space along a track. We experienced the story as it unrolled and it could become pretty intense if we ran afoul of the Skeezicks who lurked near to the end. But, as with a book, we weren't allowed to influence events.

Monopoly was more sophisticated. Our journey around a preset route was still governed by chance, but we could make strategic decisions about property acquisition. In essence each Monopoly player makes up a different sort of story. Mine was always the same: Turn nose up at low and medium priced rental properties. Dream big instead. Accumulate $500 dollar bills surreptitiously under the board. Aspire to build hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. Go bankrupt. It was a suitable story for the fifties, not unlike those Gold Medal style crime paperbacks about scheming losers with big ambitions who invariably come to a bad end. Not that I was reading those back then. Detective Comics was about as noir as I got.

The more flexible the game, the more it allowed players to do their own thing, the more I liked it. Park and Shop offered a map of streets and stores and let players plan their own itinerary as they tried to see who could complete their chores first. Careers went even further, letting players choose what goals they wanted to achieve by selecting some combination of love, money, and fame and then pursuing the appropriate professions.

I loved Stratego also, where each player tried to hide his or her flag piece from the opponent. Usually the flag would be protected by bombs deep in one’s own territory, which left open intriguing possibilities, putting the flag practically on top of your opponent's front lines, for example, or placing it far away from where the bombs were clustered. Like particularly outrageous murder mystery solutions these ideas didn't always work well but were too intriguing to pass up. We could admire ingenuity as much as winning.

War games demanded players write their own histories by pursuing strategies which resulted in victory or defeat, not unlike what occurs in the real world, sad to say. When abstract games of conquest such as Risk were joined by simulations of actual conflicts and battles, players could write alternative history. What if Germany had invaded Britain? Could the Confederacy have won the Civil War if it had fought differently?

By the time Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games came along I had become too busy playing life -- that game about getting an education and a job and a family -- to pay much attention. I guess today's computer games give players a nearly endless range of story options. One can fight, go on quests, create worlds, or live a fabricated life. I would've loved those computer games when I was a kid, probably too much.

I did make a foray into games ten years ago. On the Internet I ran across text adventures which were briefly popular back in the eighties before computers got powerful enough to support decent graphics. In a text game the player types in commands to direct the actions of the protagonist and reads the results off the monitor. Text games are really interactive books, potentially a perfect melding of game and story. I even tried to write a few myself, with less than inspiring results given my lack of programming skills.

Books and games have a lot in common, not the least of which is they allow us to forget for a bit the not always perfect and all too real game of life. Which, come to think of it, was not a bad game itself. I especially liked the three dimensional plastic mountains the board's track ran over. The Game of Life wasn’t a favorite of mine, however, because I usually ended up in the Poor House rather than Millionaire Acres. It was much too realistic. I prefer escapist fare.

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