Gaming: Practicum ‘Reflection’

    Design a game sounds to me like an undertaking bigger even than our class project. I thought I’d reflect on what kind of game I would think of creating instead.

My ideas seem to come out of knowledge of the kinds of games I personally enjoy and have played. Most of the topics I considered involve things like conquest and empire expansion: very popular just as McCall mentioned in our JDH readings. He suggested that the question of why this is a popular subject for games is an area worthy of enquiry, but I think it might be simple. The short answer is probably that conquest itself is inherently gamic and games as we typically know them are inherently about conquest: we talk about tactics and strategy and many of our oldest games are about war (chess, go). The game is inherently competitive, whether playing against a computer or a person. We get game theory from games, especially from chess, go, war, and economics. Winning and losing is considered as a sum; it is computational, quantitative, metred. One of the problems I saw posed in the readings relates to how we can use such games to do history as we do it today. From the readings: we can do some kinds of history this way, yes (select for history as determined broadly by single events), but others are harder to get at (select for individual experience, a la Stefan Tanka, week 10, or unlimited complexity, a la McCall this week on complex agencies), to balance between a computational mode and human content.

Matthew Kishenbaum, an English professor, wrote a post to this point, “War, What is it Good For? Learning From Wargaming” in Play the Past. He discusses wargaming as a specific gamic mechanic set, focusing on the historic sand-table game Kriegsspiel practised still in the Pentagon, major corporations, and Beltway thinktanks. These sessions involve many players, literally or figuratively around the sand table and counters of popular imagination. They are (far beyond chess and go) complex, multimodal, in which not all players have all the available information, determine probabilities by dice or equivalent, and allow a game master to change the whole scenario of play by entering entirely new factors by surprise (I both desperately want to participate in one of these and am having paranoid Ender’s Game fantasies: if I played a war-game at the Pentagon would it really be limited to the gamic space?!?)

Kirshenbaum deals with two mechanic systems broadly for war-games. Games that have a phenomenal array of constraints that both enhance complexity and enforce some degree of historical accuracy (I think it’s one of the Napoleonic games he describes where the player must count their water ration per number of troops as they play). And games of the simplified, generalised format (like the Macedonia conquest game described by McCall in his discussion of oversimplification of the agency of enslaved individuals) where the experience mimics only that of the primary agent and complexity is hidden within the mechanics of bodies of sub-agents (i.e. whatever factors included are calculated towards how the group handles as a single entity, ergo the problem with representing slavery).

These games are not used exclusively to model and play war, but also anything we can conceive of as “war” by like computational terms: pandemic response, resource management, other related disaster management. Kirshenbaum poses the question about modelling water management in Yemen with war-games vs other gamic modes: what might we learn from the war-game that we cannot by other means? In turn this asks: what is a war-game? What is essential to its mechanics that we can differentiate it from other modes and redeploy it to contend with other questions?

What this seems to return to is Chapman’s comment in JDH readings this week: again, ‘history is inherently referential and representational’ (see my last post); games do not eliminate the choices we have to make for the book length narrative. What may be causing a bit of anxiety in the community over this matter is the simulation aspect of the game, the completeness of the picture of a historic or “historic+” (to borrow from Antley) that goes far beyond what we know for certain, produces an illusion of wholeness: we expect the game to do much more perhaps than what it is able to by its conventions and mechanics? Antley’s suggestion (again, last post) that we explore the unique epistemological possibilities of the game as complement to, not replica or replacement of, written text.

I made a list of alternative structures to war/conquest game mechanics that answered questions, responding to Kirshenbaum, in ways war-games could not that was far too long for this reflection post. But, in short, it included linear type RPGs that I enjoy (like the famous FFVII and franchise) that are dreadfully good at imparting ethos even as you are forced through the storyline (in fact it draws you through). We’ll call this a given narrative, very top down. At the other extreme, the open world RPG, in my opinion, dreadfully good at imparting an existential crisis… and I’m being snarky but serious (and they really are my least favorite kind of game): the problem with teaching history with a game of too many liberties is that far from asking the player to replicate a complete narrative interpretation, they allow the player to subvert, or avoid entirely those narratives, which also teaches nothing (I’m just not in the corner with those in favour of counter historical reasoning as a key problem solving skill).

I have no real conclusion to these musing, but I am curious about an in-between mode and its potential. There was a phase of games before Skyrim and the latest Fallout, I think including an Elder Scrolls or so ago (Oblivion?), that offered less of an open world and more a multiple set of crossing linear paths, complex enough to mask itself as such. Could such a game allow, through repeat play, the reproduction of facets of past events that upon repeated play would produce the sort of complexity we might desire in a simulation?

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