Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wargaming and Computers; or, "Just what exactly is a 'gamer' anyway?"

Since a very early point in my involvement in the gaming hobby, I've been a frustrated wargamer. When I say "wargames," I'm speaking of course about those boxed games that come with a 3'x4' map covered in hexagons and two or three sheets of punched cardboard counters with various NATO symbols and numbers printed on them. As I've written about before, I got into RPGs right at that cusp, that transition, from the last gasps of "old school" gaming (the end of the 80s--and yes, I know there are many out there who would argue that old school had died long before that, in much the same way that some would argue punk was dead by 1979, but let's just set that aside for now) and the "new school" as heralded by such games as Vampire: the Masqerade and AD&D 2e.

The end of the 80s didn't just herald the passing of a certain phase of RPG gaming, it also brought about the final effective death, I think, of an even earlier facet of the hobby, the granddaddy of them all, wargaming. The mass-market board wargame we know today was developed in the 1950s by Charles S. Roberts; his first game was called Tactics, and it sparked the creation of a whole new hobby that hadn't existed before (sound familiar?).

It was, of course, out of wargames and the associated hobby that RPGs and miniatures games grew, and it was the wargaming community that allowed folks like Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, Dave Arneson, Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, Rick Priestly, etc., etc., ad nauseum, to network and grow the nascent offshoots that later eclipsed wargames.

It's interesting and worrying to me that D&D and RPGs followed a similar trajectory to wargames: start with a small, self-published game that spawns an entire hobby; said hobby quickly grows from a small cadre of dedicated enthusiasts to a much larger phenomenon; phenomenon leads to all sorts of new blood coming in to hobby; said new blood takes hobby in strange new directions; hobby eventually shrinks back to its original size as the "grognards" keep carrying the torch forward and the new blood takes their new interpretations elsewhere, particularly into the world of computers, where the hobby is reborn in an even bigger fashion.It's that last bit I find a bit worrisome, and it's why I'm ultimately somewhat prejudiced against CRPGs and MMORPGs.

Like I said before, I was a frustrated wargamer. I bought Tactics II on sale at a mall game store (The Gamekeeper, if anyone remembers those places), and bought several more games over time for years after that. This at a time when you could still find wargames in a mall--hell, when you could still find gaming stores in a mall... It immediately spoke to me. It appealed to my interest in strategy. It appealed (very much, obviously) to my interest in military history, and my interest in "what if" scenarios. It appealed to that slightly OCD side of me that liked seeing serried ranks of squares and hexagons laid out like a military map showing main lines of resistance, breakthroughs, routs, and so forth. Yet, try as I might, I could not get my gaming friends interested in 'em. They just didn't see the appeal of pushing a bunch of cardboard counters around a paper map when computer wargames would do the same thing and offer better graphics and take care of all those fiddly rules for you. Now, my friends (Philistines that they are) aren't the best representatives even then, because they were never really interested in computer wargames either--they were much more of the "Warcraft/Starcraft" school--but I know that computer wargames in general sort of what put the nail in the coffin of the board wargame hobby (which had been in decline anyway).

This is why I'm a bit wary, as I said, of role-playing iterations of computer games, especially since the RPG hobby seems to still be following that wargames trajectory. Add into this the co-option of the term "gamer" by video game players (a huge pet peeve of mine), and you've got a recipe for a cranky young grognard. I know these are hardly new or revolutionary sentiments. And I know that wargames map to computers much more easily and readily than RPGs ever will (and even moreso for miniatures). But still, I worry--will I one day have to clarify what I mean by "RPG" ("Games you play in person with other people, involving dice and books...") like I did for "wargames" at the outset of this post?

I guess it comes down to the fact that, just like a feel a bit sad over the fact that I just missed out on the old school era of RPGs (as I define it), I also feel sad that the age of wargames had passed me by as well. Even sadder is the fact that I've recently come to realize that I simply no longer feel the urge to play wargames. I guess you can only carry a torch for so long. Like so many others, I scratch my wargaming itch with computer games these days.

(And for what it's worth, I have played board wargames online via the various "gamebox" applications one can access (VASL, Aide-de-Camp, etc.); it's just not the same as the real thing. Nor is solo play, which doesn't hold a candle to those few times I've managed to cajole a friend or two into playing. Also, interestingly, every time I've resolved to start playing more solo wargames, I've gotten a girlfriend or my social life has gotten suddenly much busier soon after, as if the universe is saying, "No, I won't let you go down that road--here, here's a bunch of stuff to keep you otherwise occupied.")
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