Monday, July 6, 2009

Experiential Game Players

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:

There is a need in certain quarters to categorize game players, whether it is to gather demographics for advertising, or to attempt to predict future sales, or to better enable fellow gamers to talk to one another. MOVES Magazine printed an article in 1975, breaking down board wargamers into the following:

  • The Military Establishment
  • The Military Historians
  • The Military Buffs
  • The Avengers
  • The Social Wargamers
  • The Mathematicians
  • The Supercompetitors
  • The Accidental Converts
  • The Shut-Ins
  • The Limited Interest Minority
  • The Wishful Thinkers
  • The Reluctant Gift-Receivers
  • The Elite Capitalists
  • The Reluctant Opponents

The categories, author Phil Kosnett admitted, overlapped. What he didn't admit in print was that the piece was probably meant as much as humorous filler as a serious attempt to define the wargaming community. As with all good humour, there was much truth in his descriptions. I recall turning a friend of the family into a Reluctant Opponent in a game of Wreck of the B.S.M. Pandora during a stay at his home. I think most of my early Squad Leader opponents were probably Reluctant Opponents, come to think of it.1

Twenty-five years later, Curt Schilling described the Advanced Squad Leader community as "cliques", breaking them down as "Competitor. Simulator. Historian. Socializer. Many of you may have seen wargaming broken down like this before."2

Somewhere during the intervening quarter century, however, it became possible to introduce a new dynamic into the mix; that of the Experiential Wargamer. The introduction of tactical level wargames, first person shooters, and legitimate solitaire gaming all helped develop that new category.

Early Roots and Shameful Pursuits

The first board wargames were intended to portray operational level clashes where the gamer filled the role of a general in command of an army group, army or corps commander. Tactical-level games didn't arrive on the scene until later - though miniature players had been recreating low-level tactical battles for decades by the time PanzerBlitz hit the scene in 1970. The "dirty little secret" among wargamers, however, was that the majority of gamers had always played solo. SPI began surveying its customers in the late 1960s with reader feedback cards and found in excess of 50 percent of those surveyed played alone - before the invention of board wargames specifically designed for solo play. "In the 1990s, the number of games played solitaire exceeds sixty percent."3 SPI recognized this phenomenon early on; in the very first issue of their "house organ", MOVES Magazine, they published a "how to" article on maximizing solitaire play.4

As the focus of wargames decreased in scope, however, the ability to picture one's self in the role of the commanders increased. It became possible to become personally involved in the events on the game board. It had been possible to picture yourself as the generalissimo of the Red Army in Tactics II, of course, but it was still a somewhat abstract experience to push entire divisions from square to square.

You Command The Action

In 1977, Squad Leader not only put the player into the role of a company commander, in charge of 100 or so men engaged in desperate battle, but with a unique Campaign Game and a set of blank "leader" counters, permitted the player to lend his own name and personality to the proceedings. For the first time, the 1/2-inch cardboard square represented one person - the player - and his skill at arms would have repercussions not just in the current game, but in a series of games, with the ability to rise in rank and ability.

Playing for Experience

What the Squad Leader campaign game permitted was the creation of another category of "casual" game player - the Experiential Player. Like the other categories that have been created (and none of these are set in stone, as they are creations of convenience for the specific purposes of those that create them) they freely overlap. They can be the bane of the Serious Competitor who wants to play him, or the Stolid Historian who wants to debate him. He might even be highly sought after by the Crass Commercialist who wants to sell extra historical modules to him because he knows he can "hook" him based on new "flavours" alone.

What the Experiential Player could do was actually relive some of the excitement the ad copy on the back of the box promised, which proclaimed "YOU are the Squad Leader." The game became less a function of calculating the chance of a 2:1 odds attack with three regiments at Quatre Bras, and more about whether or not he had the guts to order his last five men into close combat against that tank around the next block. Imagination became part of the game. The following was recently posted in an ASL-themed blog, and illustrates the imaginative approach still taken to Squad Leader's offspring:

If there's one hallmark that makes a good wargame it's the narrative generated from the game. This is something you're just not going to get out of a Euro like Agricola or Puerto Rico or whatever. For example, take the case of the Cursed MMG.
Early in the game, around turn 2, the Russians who would have been manning a MMG...ran off after taking fire. They left a perfectly good support weapon lying around and in the next rally phase I rolled a SIX -- what the HELL?! Pick the damn thing up you scrubs!
I should have known then that the MMG was cursed. Slick with the blood of the Russian who last held it, the MMG was to be an albatross on the neck of every German squad who managed to pick it up... By game's end, its bad mojo extended into the full hex and even squads who didn't pick it up were gunned down...5

Rise of the Individual

While SPI recognized early on the proclivity to play games solitaire, it did not result in a great number of solitaire titles, and of those released, success has been mixed. Games like Iwo Jima and B-17: Queen of the Skies were mainly exercises in dice rolling. Tokyo Express received greater attention, and the title most germaine to this article, Ambush!, was perhaps the most successful, spawning several sequels, including three follow-ups, a companion game with sequel, a two-player version, and a tank-based variant as well as a number of third-party variants and scenarios. Ambush! was perhaps the most intense expression of the notion that players sat down with wargames solely for the Experience - that is to say, to engage their imagination and to indulge in escapism, rather than emphasis on the other often-cited historical, educational or competitive aspects to wargaming which had often been used to "legitimize" the hobby in the early days when escapism was really not possible given the limited physical components and interactivity of the games themselves. Not coincidentally, Ambush! was a man-to-man level game, with each game piece representing a single soldier, and the player was given free reign to name each member of his squad as he saw fit. Like the SL Campaign Game, each "character" had the opportunity to advance in skills, rank and ability over time as the player campaigned his squad through several missions.

The rise of role playing games in the early 1970s must surely have had an impact on legitimizing how wargamers approached the experience also. The first military themed RPG was published in 1979 - SPI once again led the way, with Commando - followed by almost a dozen other titles in the 1980s, none of which came anywhere close to the popularity of the fantasy or science fiction RPGs. But it may have been a simple matter of technology.

In 1992 Wolfenstein 3D was released and began appearing on home computers; it popularized the First Person Shooter genre, had a tinge of history to it (there were "Nazis" in an underground cavern and the Horst Wesel song was accurate, if not slightly offensive to the sensitive), and there was no need to pull out cardboard pieces and paper maps. By 1997, Muzzle Velocity was offering something much more historical - accurate 3D models of historical equipment in camouflage paint jobs, first person tank crew and infantryman views, the ability to switch between the 3D world and a 2D map; not all that remarkable, given that M-1 Tank Platoon had done many of the same things in 1989, but with vector graphics and without the infantry. The games weren't about counting firepower factors, they were about being there on the battlefield and experiencing it. Just like role playing games, first person shooters and 3D battle games were letting wargamers set foot in other worlds.

 Knocked out Sherman tank in Muzzle Velocity (1997)

The focus on solitaire play and on individual achievement/campaign play would seem to have been influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the fantasy and role playing worlds. Real militaries emphasize teamwork and the necessity to work together to overcome obstacles. Basic training is an ordeal that takes weeks to accomplish. Divisions are commanded not by single commanders, but by staffs of officers trained in administration and logistics who wrestle with problems well beyond the ken of the uninitiated. The trend in military gaming is towards games such as Brothers in Arms which, while touting its "realism" because it occasionally asks the player to maneuver riflemen to a flanking position, still manages to ignore most of the realities of modern combat, specifically but not restricted to the complexities of command and control.

In actual fact, first person shooters are so unlike military practice, they are usually not considered "wargames"; but a new category has slipped in - "tactical shooters." These are man-to-man games set in the first person with a level of realism and fidelity superior to the "first person shooters." The differences are apparent; tactical shooters have no "health packs" or ability to magically heal, for one. Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault have been assigned to this category. They also claim to have actual restrictions on command and control, in both single- and multi-player mode. Kill ratios are way down in the tactical shooters, and just seeing the enemy is a real accomplishment - as it usually is in real life.

As the games increase in scale, to squad- and platoon- level, the level of abstraction also increases, to simulate command and control problems and various types of "friction." The Experiential Player becomes drawn out of the game, and makes decisions not just for one person, but represents in reality a syndicate of commanders. It's possible to lose one's self in the experience, but it doesn't become the entire point of the game. An example is the initial iteration of Combat Mission where watching the 3D "movie" is necessary to plan strategy each turn. Another is in ASL, where smaller "narratives" get naturally built around individual vignettes, as we saw illustrated above with the Russian MMG.

My Final Word

At the most basic level, every wargamer is an Experiential Player, given that the point of playing a game is to have fun or be entertained. The point of the article is to describe a player who plays for escapism above all else. Anyone who has fired up Panzer Commander just to maneuver the camera around one of the maps will relate to him. So will anyone who has used a map editor to recreate their own childhood neighbourhood.

My Question To You

Is it possible to sub-divide the Experiential Player class?

  1. Kosnett, Phil "What is a Wargamer?" Moves Magazine (Issue Nr. 19 Feb-Mar 1975)
  2. Schilling, Kurt "Can You Ever Be Sure? Historical Research and ASL" (ASL Journal 2)
  3. Dunnigan, James F. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition (Writers Club Press, Lincoln, NE, 2000) p.304 ISBN 0-595-15546-4
  4. Richardson, Jay "Solitaire Wargaming" Moves Magazine (Issue Nr. 1 Feb 1972)