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Redefining Interactivity, pt 6 – Why Can’t We Be Friends (the Strategy Game segment)

September 6, 2011

(Core Objective: Acquisition)

Once again, sorry for the delay. My other projects are also being neglected; it’s not just you. All 14 of you.

Listen, most of you have probably forgotten my sexy genre chart by now, so I’m including recaps of the various Strategy Game breakdowns from here on out, starting with…

Civilisation Sim:
Description: 2D/Isomorphic resource management
Examples: SimCity, Age of Empires, Sid Meier’s Civilization

tl;dr Version: How would human history have gone if it followed easy-to-understand rules.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: While I have a small handful of friends who enjoy getting together and playing classic civilisation-building board games like Settlers of Catan of a summer Friday night, I don’t have many friends who genuinely like playing Empire/Civilization-building Simulation games (which I will henceforth refer to as Civ Games, for simplicity’s sake) to other forms of gaming; I DO know several of my friends have at least dabbled with them in the past, however, and I think we all agree that there’s something oddly compelling about looking down, almost doG-like, manipulating your people and their environment, giving, taking away, building up, occasionally tearing down, but generally trying to advance a society in what we know to be the Right Way To Do It. We all have a bit of that in us; an itch that tells us that, if we were in charge, Things Would Be Different. The beautiful thing about Civ Games is, we get to see just how right—or wrong—we actually are.

Boring Version: The catch, of course, is that Civ Games, no matter how sophisticated, AREN’T real life. Whether we play slow and careful or fast and furious, whether we play real-time or turn-based Civ Games, in the end, we can’t put our thriving, thousand-year-old space empire on our resume and go apply for a job at City Hall. In the end, it’s just a game, and for many of us, a game that eventually loses its appeal when we finally come to grips with the fact that, to be honest, they don’t really achieve anything, and you never really ‘win’ in any definitive sense. There’s always a new version, or a new campaign, or a new territory, or an old enemy, and really, anything approaching ‘end game’ in Civ Games usually rings a little hollow.

That’s probably the shortest ‘Boring Version’ assessment I’ve delivered in this entire series. That could have been the ‘Splain Lucy’ section. I don’t mean to make it sound like Civ Games are no fun, or that they aren’t important or worth continuing to play after the first blush of success has faded. I played Microsoft’s Age of Empires II for several months before I reached the conclusion that it wasn’t that engaging anymore. I tried Fraxis/Sid Meier’s Civilization III for a few weeks and kind of enjoyed that, too. Certainly the narrative value was intriguing on a certain level. However, the notion of playing all-mighty overseer just didn’t have enough personalized ‘emergent’ storytelling to capture my imagination beyond what I’d imbued it with in my own fertile little imagination. Plus, to be perfectly honest with you, I like the building and advancement aspects, but I’ve rarely enjoyed the combat aspects that these games seemingly must have. I know history is full of ‘glorious’ battles that helped advance civilisation and wotnot, but frankly, I’m largely a pacifist, and I don’t really get off on epic battles. *shrug*

However, that’s not everybody’s problem with these games. In fact, some peoples’ problems with Civ Games aren’t that they’re not realistic or meaningful enough, but that they aren’t fantastic or, let’s face it, bloody enough. Such people might actually prefer to play a Battlefield Sim or vRPG instead, but then, those games don’t always go as deep into the resource management and empire building that Civ Games do. I’m not invested enough in the genre to know whether better hybrids exist now, as I haven’t played a standalone Civ Game for any length of time in a few years.

I HAVE been playing an awful lot of Facebook-based Flash Civ Games, like (Disney) Playdom’s City of Wonder, (made it to level 39 before taking another ’break’), but I’ve sort of burned out on them, owing to a deliberate limit on how many people I add as ‘allies’ in these games (I refuse to add scores of strangers to my personal Facebook account just so I can continue to play a video game), and the fact that I’ve pretty much exhausted the current ‘free’ content. This in itself is kind of a sad statement on the depth and breadth of the game, but the fact that the historical periods are kind of jumbled all together without any real rhyme or reason, that the nature of the game more or less demands that you ignore the stated intent of the game (i.e. building a beautiful city) by overloading your city with numerous (illogical?) repetitions of the most powerful buildings in the game (aka ‘Borg Cities’), and that there are much-needed advanced items and mini-expansions that are denied to those who don’t wish to purchase ‘gold’ online (with real money) to unlock what increasingly turn out to be less-than-satisfactory amounts of additional content (considering real money is being spent; there is this a concept called value-for-money, guys. Look it up.) for amounts of gold that cannot be obtained in any other reasonable fashion*.

I DID install and start noodling with AoE III a number of months ago (yeah, I know, I was late, alright), which was very pretty, but I didn’t really have time or interest to go deeper and see how immersive it is, despite the seeming increased focus on narrative staging and greater reliance on resource management. Perhaps I’ll take another stab at it (and Civ IV or V, neither of which I can even remember playing, though I’m pretty sure I have copies of both around here somewhere), but then, I also just discovered that Age of Empires Online is starting in a couple of days, and CivWorld on Facebook has over 200K ‘likes’, so I may give those a try as well. If I do take the plunge, I’ll come back and revisit this section with any further insights I may have.

Battlefield Sim:
Desc: Isomorphic/3D battlefield simulator
Ex: Heroes of Might & Magic, Starcraft
‘scuse: (actually, I avoid them because I really don’t get it)

tl;dr Version: It’s like chess with hair on it.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: For as long as competitive games have existed (a VERY long time), there have been people trying to devise better and more intensive battle strategy games. While there have been many such games that have been played for centuries, in western culture, we tend to think of chess as being the ultimate expression of classic, civilized war gaming. However, with the passage of time and arrival of the innovative strategy board games of the 19th and 20th centuries (Risk, Battleship, Stratego, etc…), the rules and layers of gameplay sophistication increased. This kept serious-minded gamers satisfied for decades, but with the advent of the home computer, other challenges became possible.

Boring Version: There have always been two mindsets on the issue of battle strategy; i.e. those who fight the battles, and those who bravely order them into battle. In this same way, we have a division of mentalities on the issue of battle simulation. There are those who like to get out there on the field and crush their opponents, which we charmingly refer to as sport, and there are those who prefer to face each other on the higher plane of strategic gaming. There are arguments in favour of both mindsets, and proponents of each, but I most happily fall into neither category. I’ve been playing battle strategy games since I was a kid, and to be perfectly frank with you, I don’t see the point. At all.

At no time will a mastery of either football or chess maneuvers make you a superior combatant, and they certainly won’t, of their own intrinsic nature, make you a better person. That’s not to say they are bad games, or that people who play them are bad. Nonsense. I’m simply expressing my own personal viewpoint, which is simply that, whatever magical allure these games have for some is to my mind entirely based on the principle of proving yourself the better of the opponents. Fair enough. Maybe that’s not even a bad thing. I’m just not fully equipped to appreciate the benefits.

However, this article isn’t about why I don’t play certain kinds of games. It’s also, happily, not about why fans of these types of games choose to play them, perhaps to the exclusion of all other types of gaming. The question is, why would anybody NOT want to play them? And to my mind, the simplest explanation for not playing competitive, battle-oriented strategy games is simply that people don’t enjoy, as the Wide World of Sports use to call it, The Agony of Defeat.

Not so much losing the game itself. People lose in all sorts of endeavours in life, and I’m sure there aren’t too many who genuinely relish coming out the loser, no matter what the self-help gurus try to tell us. The point though, is that we’re all accustomed to it. Perhaps that is the single positive aspect of competitive sport and gaming being taught to children; it gets us used to the idea that we will not always succeed in all of our endeavours, no matter how sure of ourselves we are at the start.

No, the problem is more subtle than that. See, there are certain personality types that thrive on competition. I don’t know if it’s genetic disposition, upbringing, social conditioning (not precisely the same thing, though related), or a mish-mash of all of the above. I’ve seen enough stories told about the rich young heir who fails in his father’s eyes because he simply doesn’t have the same thriving spirit of competition, the edge of the winner, to carry off his own rise to glory. I don’t know anyone I can easily point to and say ‘there’s a perfect example of that dynamic in real life’. But I do know plenty of people who tend to avoid head-to-head competition, simply because they have never felt like they possessed that edge, and never really having had it, never developed a taste for savouring victory.

When I was a kid, I played all the games and sports with my bigger, healthier, more confident friends, and sometimes I even won a round or two. Perhaps they let me win. Perhaps I got lucky. Whatever. It was a long time ago. I do remember that, when I was a kid, I had a terrible time coming to grips with my burgeoning competitive streak, and the painful fact that, being a tiny, sickly little kid, I was more or less doomed to face defeat more often than not. Did that make me a born loser? Perhaps. I certainly haven’t entered into adult life with an over-abundance of macho self-assuredness. But that’s not everyone’s cross to bear.

What I did get from all of that disappointment was a much-needed realization: that competitive sport, and by the same token competitive gaming, are not all that important to the welfare of the human psyche. In fact, competitive spirit as a whole, though very much woven into the fabric of human society, doesn’t always yield results that are beneficial to all parties, or, really, any party, when you get down to it.

Great feats of personal accomplishment are important to all of us, but you can’t actually measure the importance or greatness of a human being simply by how many opponents they vanquished. Winning at competitive games and sports simply can’t be that important (sorry, Charlie. Good luck in rehab). Because they each reward a certain physical bias and single-minded disregard for the welfare and feelings of one another as people. I don’t know if that’s the same realization other people arrive at when they don’t find themselves particularly enamoured of the competitive spirit.

We don’t all have this insight, but I think there are a significant portion of us who at least sense that there is something unfulfilling about constantly trying to prove yourself to everyone around you, whether you’re a good player or not. And honestly, isn’t that feeling of fulfillment at winning what competitive games are all about? When you’re too old and out of shape, or too rusty and tired, to continue to compete on the level you became accustomed to, what is there left, really, but to accept the inevitability of defeat? Some of us spend our whole lives struggling to come to grips with that, and even try to wax philosophical about defeat, as if there is something noble in the pursuit for those who find themselves more and more on the losing side, until they are pushed out and replaced by younger, less-jaded players. Maybe philosophy at accepting loss and the passage of time and talent is required, inevitable, even.

But where does that leave those who derive too little enjoyment, or perhaps none at all, from the pursuit of victory, regardless of the outcome. They exist, you know. I know. With the passage of time, I’ve become one of them. For me, the only draw to play games that have even the patina of that team sport, ‘united we stand’ attitude, has simply been to help my friends have a good time. If I play well enough that the rest of the team are able to enjoy their game, that’s where I get my fulfillment. Actually winning? Well, not so much. Perhaps it’s semantic argument, but for me, it’s been about supporting my friends for a great many years. Any game that required me to be more proactive and competitive than that generally stopped being fun for me, and I invariably had to leave.

Somewhere in there, I think, is the answer to a question that it seems few think to ask. Perhaps it’s better to just assume that such creatures as me are, like unicorns, a mythological breed, not worth worrying about.

Life Sim:
Desc: Isomorphic/3D doll house simulator
Ex: Sims, MySims, Sims Medieval, Spore
‘scuse: Killing Sims got old; customization lacking

tl;dr Version: What if real life had logical rules that we could all follow on the road to success? Would we all be speaking Simlish?

‘Splain, Lucy Version: I’m not sure there is an explanation for Life Sim games. It’s not to everyone’s taste, that’s for certain. Sure, some of us have carefully boobie-trapped entire cities or rearranged homes just so we can arrange as many grisly virtual deaths as the game would permit. But for those of us who actually develop a taste for vicariously living through the lives of our nameless, faceless citizens, or our carefully customized and groomed three-dimensional avatars, life can seem just a little more tolerable when we shut it out for a few hours and spend time managing the resources and requirements of our virtual families.

Boring Version: Somewhere in the distant past (probably the 1970s), children who were not being groomed for olympic glory played with things like Tinker Toys and Betty Crocker ovens, Lincoln Logs and Barbie Dolls (or, you know, ‘action figures’ *snort*). We were all basically learning how to do basic life skills things like building and cooking and dressing up and socialising, skills that, to one degree or another, we all eventually have to use in our adult lives. These things are called toys, and while they taught us life skills in much the same way that games do, they were less social, more personal, and didn’t require nurturing a competitive streak. But that didn’t stop us from making games using our toys when our friends came over to play with us, did it?

Well, Life Sim games are a lot like that, only with bells on.

Okay, that’s pretty glib. Maybe a little more analysis, for those who haven’t played these games, or at least, those of us who haven’t over-thought these things yet.

Life Sims usually come in one of a few flavours; environmental and social. Many of these games try to integrate the two, but they generally start with one or the other as their main thrust, and the other gets worked into that. Will Wright’s The Sims franchise is a perfect example of this.

Originally, the Sims started as SimCity, which was a bird’s eye view city editor that operated in realtime. You could pause or speed up the progress of your city, but your resources and your need to determine if your plan had worked required that you let things happen that were entirely out of your control. All you could do was hope for the best and plan for the worst… and maybe invite Gojira to help with the urban renewal if things got too stale. The game was quite addictive, I assure you, but on a certain level, it was rather impersonal, and lost its sense of urgency after you’d succeeded in progressing your city into the bright, shiny future successfully.

Now, after a few iterations of SimCity, where the graphics became more complex and three dimensional, Will and his team hit upon the idea of actually getting closer to the action. Instead of making the player play City Planner or Mayor of a town, they would instead be given the power of a slightly undernourished creator deity. It would no longer be necessary for you to build up your town from scratch; Maxis thoughtfully provided you with a pre-made town that had some slots open if you still wanted to build things of your own. But the way you went about building things was more involved. Where before you simply got the money needed and cleared the space required for whatever buildings were most in demand, now you could tailor a building to suit your people down to the ground. You even got to tailor the people themselves. And when you were done building homes and the people who would live in them, you could take them out to meet their neighbours, find jobs, eat food, make friends, WooHoo, the works.

I’m sure fans of the original series were a little dubious of these radical changes, but the new franchise caught on, and now it’s hard to believe there was ever a connection between the two. Will has moved on from the Sims Franchise, which is still being made by Maxis for EA Games, and it’s still fun and charming and addictive, and has even attempted to squeeze in more of the old city planning gameplay while ramping up the social and ‘emergent’ narrative aspects of the game.

Though there is still a strong emphasis on building and resource management, there has been a shift in recent years. The Sims Online experiment did not prove to be as wildly successful as EA might have hoped. As well, Will Wright’s latest franchise, Spore, proved to be an interesting and engrossing expansion on his ideas about Life Sim gaming, but also did not yield quite the degree of success EA may have been looking for. However, another thread of the franchise was recently released, called Sims Medieval. This is a standalone game, based largely around resource management, emergent narrative, and lost of social etiquette. There isn’t much in the way of construction, and the game moves at a pretty brisk pace, with an almost constant flood of matters to be dealt with keeping you from making much in the way of personal progress. However, it’s a fascinating game, and proves once again that there are new ways to look at Life Sim gaming, even within the same company.

The latest innovation, brought on by the proliferation of Flash-based social games (many of which we discover through our friends on Facebook), is The Sims Social, which has once again shifted the gameplay, this time further along the gaming axis toward social gaming. You once again control resources and manage your self-made Sims, but your customization and construction mechanics have been streamlined to the point that they are almost superfluous. In the end, it’s who you know and what they can and are willing to do for you that determines how successful you are at this version of the game.

And these are just the games developed for EA. There are other companies that have played with a number of different takes on the concept of virtual people living in virtual environments, some designed by you. Second Life gave us avatars that inhabit vast households you built for yourself using resources purchased with real and virtual currency. Less a game than what they now call a ‘sandbox’ where you basically make your own entertainment within the environmental constraints of an open-ended, thematically consistent, persistent virtual world.

Some companies decided to make far less rigorous gameplay and environments designed expressly to emphasize socializing, such as The Palace and IMVU, with simple cartoon avatars customized before joining online chat-rooms in cartoon virtual spaces. Not nearly as intensive as proper Life Sim games, and yet working off some of the same basic dynamics. There were (and probably still are; I don’t get out much) virtual worlds dedicated entirely to virtual sex clubs, where avatars would attempt to hook up in what developers no doubt hoped would be an arousing fashion that would assist strangers in what is essentially self-love with a twist. I don’t know enough to really judge, but I’m pretty sure plenty of people enjoyed their virtual sex lives while their virtual sex club companies remained in business. I suppose I could do a little Googling to see what’s new in the world of virtual sex, but this article is long overdue.

The thing about all of these Life Sim games is, it allows us to live vicariously through the actions and reactions of our designated avatars in these virtual worlds. Some offer more control of the environment, while others offer safe methods of meeting and having social and even erotic encounters with curious consenting friends and absolute strangers alike, sometimes in exotic locations, all without leaving the comfort of your own computer den, home office, or bedroom (if you have a particularly comfy laptop tray).

However, these games have an invisible shelf date, after which they lose their charm and the players turn to torturing their avatars, before abandoning the game entirely. This comes down to the fact that, unless you’re particularly sensitive (most would say deluded) to the possibility of virtual beings having secret lives and feelings of their own, the unreality of the situation eventually rears its head, and we are left with the feeling that we have been wasting our time. Some move on to other Life Sim games, some give Dating Sims a try, but in the end, many of us just put our shoes on and go outside to see if they’ve upgraded the graphics in the Big Blue Room… and if there’s anyone outside who might actually want to hold us for real.

Because what it all comes down to is, what we both enjoy and yearn for in virtual worlds such as these is the opportunity to experience things we are unlikely to in our own lives… but without the threat of death, virtual or otherwise. But at the end of the day, what we really want is to be held. For real. Because nothing beats being held, and sadly, they haven’t created a virtual world where the hugs (and other forms of intimate contact) feel real yet.

When they do, most of us will kiss Life Sims and MMOs goodbye, because, while we’ve really enjoyed the building and the questing, and most of us love a good story, what we really want is to travel to some exotic land and find someone special waiting there to give us a hug and kiss and make us feel welcome. When developers get that hurdle licked, then you’ll see some serious changes in the way people look at ‘gaming’… and the internet in general.

But until then, the misadventures of Irkni Burr will continue in some virtual lost temple or ancient pyramid, because I need some way to pass the time until I can actually cash in all of these virtual hugs I’ve been given over the years.

According to my list, the next set is going to be about Combat Games. That should be fun. Come back in a week or three, okay? Thanks.

And thank you for reading. Comments are welcome. Even spam would be delightful at this point.


* That is, unless you think it’s reasonable to spend hours of time answering online advertising questionaires and other ephemeral money-making schemes to ‘earn’ artificial currency and thus continue to play an online video game; some of us actually have other things to do with our limited gaming time than doing surveys just so we can progress. I understand that this is the business model these developers have chosen to pursue, but it starts to gall when you consider the time lost to these games and their ancillary activities, many of which also ‘spam’ our ‘wall’ with soft ads for the game, to draw in other curious potential players/buyers. I’d probably welcome paying a straight membership fee over being subtly locked out of minimal additional content expansions

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