Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strategies, Tactics, and Turnovers

Brace yourselves: this week at Popmatters, I'm talking about football. Don't worry, I'm also talking about video games and board games.

This weekend I was able partake in all three areas: I watched the 49ers' heartbreaking loss, I played the deviously complex Game of Thrones board game, and I plugged away on a few video games I've been playing. The combination of the three started to help me crystallize the way I think about video games as a medium in comparison to its other ludic cousins.
This piece was a hard one, and even after trying to think it through over the past couple days, I'm not entirely happy with it. An email exchange with my always-helpful editor, G. Christopher Williams, actually helped clarify my article's point, so I'll paraphrase my own emails here:

"Essentially, I'm trying to say that many video games are more like sports [than board games] because pressure to perform and tactical challenges can upset your strategy to a greater extent than can happen in most (all?) board games.

Another good example [of the connection between video games and sports] [is] tennis: if you're serving and you fail to get the ball over the net two times in a row, your opponent gets a point. Any tennis player worth his or her salt can easily get the ball over the net, but random mistakes, mental lapses, over-thinking their opponent's next move, even the wind can mess them up. When this happens, their whole strategy needs to change: now that they're down a point, they might not charge the net, they might try to serve slower but more accurately, or they might have just given up the game. The best tennis players are good at overcoming the pressure and mitigating random factors and are thus able to implement their strategy without having to worry about tactical mistakes.

Most board games do not, and possibly cannot, simulate the feeling of your body betraying your mind. You're never going to throw the dice "wrong." You're never going to have trouble playing a card; even if it is the wrong card from a strategic sense, you'll never have trouble implementing your action. Very few games have "double faults" in the way tennis does; random bad luck is either purely random (in the form of dice rolls or random cards) or nonexistent (like in chess). Video games with any kind of action component require at least some minimum amount of coordination between mental and physical effort, which makes them seem more like sports to me.

[Playing a board game might elicit an emotional response], but I imagine most of the groaning comes from the strategic binds [the game] places you in, rather than the immediate challenge of making your decisions. Now, if you had a timer that was ticking, forcing you to quickly move your pieces around the board, shuffle your cards, or count up points, I think you'd be bleeding back into sports territory, as a sloppy tactical mistake (dropping your tiles, counting incorrectly, missing a card, etc.) could compromise your strategy."

Granted, the line can get a bit murky, but I think the video game/sport relationship is understudied. Again, this theory isn't fully formed, but I think there is something to it.

In any case, at least it took my mind off of the 49ers' inglorious end.


  1. If you haven't played it, Space Alert does the time pressure thing extraordinarily well. Obviously the making of your move doesn't really require any physical dexterity or skill, but internalizing everything that's going on, making sure you've accounted for everything that will affect your move, etc all under a giant ticking clock.

    It's hard to explain but easy to demonstrate. There's a Shut Up & Sit Down about it, check it out.

  2. I'll put that on my list! Honestly, I would probably add a timer to almost every board game out there. Slow-moving board games tend to bore me (hah) and I find thinking under pressure to be a fun challenge.