Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Talking about Games

Holiday gatherings bring people together for meals and mingling, an ideal time to introduce friends to gaming. Professor Scott Nicholson’s book Everyone Plays at the Library (2010) might not seem relevant, but it offers a framework for evaluating and discussing games in a social context to help determine what kinds of games are idea for different kinds of audiences and venues.
EveryonePlaysOne might not think a scholarly publication focusing specifically on libraries has any merit outside the halls of academia (including stodgy old brick-and-mortar libraries); but Nicholson’s approach provides insight to anyone open-minded enough to port his findings and advice to other venues. His strategy focuses on the concept of “gaming experiences” rather than games themselves: this model includes the game, but also incorporates the social experiences revolving around the game between the players and even observers within the physical space where play occurs. (I’m limiting my discussions here to analog games, as opposed to digital. Nicholson covers both in his book, but, given my background and the general themes of this blog, I’ll focus on games with physical components.)

Nicholson offers a categorization of games, each with detailed discussion regarding the kinds of games falling into the category, considerations for the space in which the games are played, the demographics they appeal to most (including pitfalls for various groups), and the general library goals they fulfill (easily re-interpreted for other venues or groups where one might try introducing gaming). His “SNAKS” model categorizes games as social, narrative, action, knowledge, and strategy, each with its own concise definition, including a solid if academic description of roleplaying games in the “narrative game” section:

“In a tabletop RPG, players create characters for use in the game world through a set of rules. After they have created their characters, one participant -- the game master (GM) -- sets the stage and presents the challenges while the players respond  in the way that their characters would.”

Each category of game draws from a different aspect of the overall gaming experience: social interaction between players, the external knowledge players bring to the table, player manipulation of the “game state” (the board, pieces, etc.), and hence their interaction within the game world. The “SNAKS” model isn’t as specific as some of the mechanics-based game categories in works like R.C. Bell’s classic Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations -- it’s far better at helping people determine what kind of game fits in which category, rather than compartmentalizing specific historical games according to mechanics -- but, like most of Nicholson’s suggestions in the book, it helps readers determine what kinds of games are best for certain demographics and social gatherings, creating some basic definitions to help people evaluate their own games. Nicholson offers several other resources for gamers seeking to introduce their hobby to others, from game suggestions in each category to tips on planning and facilitating the gaming experience. It’s all solid advice not just for libraries, but for other public venues, like museums seeking to expand their programming offerings, as well as gamers seeking to introduce their hobbies to others.

In my own experience the book helped me realize one of the reasons I don’t particularly enjoy the superficial kinds of games frequently offered at holiday social gatherings. I’m always up for a challenge and take my gaming where I can get it these days, but I often find the gameplay bordering on the meaningless with more emphasis on shallow social interaction. Far too often these games fall under the heading of knowledge games which appeal to perhaps the most general adult population willing to engage in games. Sure, it engages participants in perhaps the easiest and most readily available gaming skills -- one’s own knowledge base, quite often of trivia or other esoteric fields -- which remains most appealing and accessible to a broad, non-gaming audience; but that rarely fulfills the need for a deeper sense of strategy, storytelling, or even social interaction.

Yet the book also helped me better judge what games are best given the participants, the time, and the location. I have a vague recollection of gathering my cousins during a holiday visit, sitting down after dinner to run the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons scenario A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity. I don’t recall getting much farther than passing out the pre-generated character sheets and muddling through an initial encounter before my cousins (and my very tolerant brother) wandered off, got bored, or simply fell asleep. Granted, I was a very naïve teenager at the time, but I realize now that starting such a roleplaying game scenario so late at night would not lead to any successful sense of gaming fulfillment…it was not a good match given the participants and the time available. (I have a similarly vague memory of one of my cousins trying to get us playing the Avalon Hill Dune board game one holiday…we didn’t get very far.)

I’m considering pitching a one-time game-related event to one of the historical institutions in my area -- a region rife with American Civil War history -- and found Nicholson’s book to offer sound advice and approaches, even though these venues are not libraries.

Nicholson based his book on a summer 2008 online video course he offered through the University of Syracuse, where he’s an associate professor at the School of Information Studies; he also incorporated several studies and surveys he conducted over the years with libraries offering gaming programs for a variety of audiences. I watched each video as it went live and -- though I enjoyed the format and style -- looked forward to the print publication of the information presented as a more easily digested and referenced resource. Everyone Plays at the Library belongs in the hands of librarians, museum directors, educators, and any serious gamer seeking to increase their circle of new gamers and expand the hobby in general.