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Solitary Soundings

Musings of a solitary gamer. "The advantage of conversation is such that, for want of company, a man had better talk to a post than let his thoughts lie smoking and smothering." (Jeremy Collier) Comments welcome.
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The Joy of Learning How

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"This is no time to be making new enemies." --Voltaire
"Drizzle, drazzle, drozzle, drome; time for this one to come home."
Patrick Carroll wrote:
I'm starting to realize I'm kind of a living paradox: I've loved games all my life, but I don't like playing games that much.

It's the same with another hobby, languages. I love delving in and starting to learn the grammar and vocabulary, but I have almost no interest in gaining fluency and joining another language community. I like using other languages just enough to prove to myself that I can. No more than that.

For years I just bought wargames, learned how to play them, and then set them aside. Just playing one, after having learned how, didn't appeal to me. It seemed almost like a waste of time. In any case, I'd be much happier learning another new game instead.

In the case of Magic Realm, I do have a lot more I could learn (not to mention all I'd have to relearn). So it's appealing in that sense. But my interest is dampened when I stop and think about what the game is: a multiplayer adventure that can, incidentally, be played solo. I don't especially want the adventure, and only RealmSpeak makes it a convenient solo game. If I play again, it'll probably be just to work my way through the rest of Jay Richardson's tutorial. Once I feel I know all about how to play, I'll never want to do it again.

I did finally download VASSAL several months ago, but I've delayed doing anything with it. Now I think I know why. I don't like playing games that much; I just like learning how to play them. (Teaching someone to play might interest me. I just seldom have the opportunity for that.)

My real passion, it seems, is for acquiring know-how in (relatively) closed systems. Show me a game, a code, a language, a personality-typing system, or anything that looks self-contained, and I'll plunge in with delight, wanting to know how to do the thing. But once I've got the know-how, don't ask me to put it to use or apply it to anything. I'll feel I'm done and ready to move on to something else.

I wrote the above in response to a thread reply in VGG. But it seems to belong in this long-running blog too.

I don't know what it means exactly, or where it will lead. Maybe nowhere. But right now it seems to shed light on what's been going on with me all these years. I've had myself confused for a long time: If I'm a gamer, why am I so often reluctant to play games? Why do I put so much time and energy and enthusiasm into learning a game, then let it sit on a shelf ever after? Why are invitations to play rarely welcome? Why have I been disappointed with social gaming? Any why do I seem to be on a different wavelength from all the other gamers around here?

Well, it's just as I said above. My real fascination is with (relatively) closed systems. In my youth I got into things like astrology and numerology and the tarot, just because they were purported to be closed systems that encapsulated universal truths. Along the way, I got into games and languages (both human languages and computer languages, as well as other coding systems). In more recent years, personality typing has taken up a lot of my time and interest. Anything that smacks of being a possible means of holding an ocean in the palm of my hand is immediately fascinating to me.

Conversely, anytime someone points out the artificial or arbitrary boundaries of any closed system--or the shortcomings in it, and the way life refuses to be contained--I just want to plug my ears. I know there's truth in that, but it irritates me. As far as I'm concerned, life inside my bubble is as good and rich and important as life anywhere; and I want to just bloom where I'm planted. I quite enjoy thinking inside the box, and I'm easily exasperated by people urging me toward outside-the-box thinking.

So, a game, to me, is basically a delightful closed system. It's a lot of fun for me to read the rules and learn how to apply them as I monkey around with the components. It's like being a kid and getting a new toy for Christmas, except that the toy doesn't run on batteries--it's activated by the mind. It appears to offer endless possibilities, and yet it's encapsulated within a specific set of rules and components.

By myself, I could have no end of fun experimenting with a game (or a language, or a code, or a personality-typing system, or anything of that kind)--unless I got to a point where I felt I knew all about it and had seen all it could do. But put the game (or whatever) on a table and invite other people to also play with it, and my fun drops off a bit. Suddenly others are doing very different things than I'd do, and I get the impression they're misusing the thing; they're not appreciating the design the way I do--they're just doing their own individual things. That bothers me.

If I like the people, my disappointment is only slight and short-lived. Then I half forget the game and focus on the people instead. Just chatting and sharing activities with people is also fun, and I can get into that. Still, in the back of my mind I'm stuck with the impression that these other people are misunderstanding, misusing, and somehow cheapening the game I love. Maybe they're not; maybe they're appreciating it as much as I do, or more, but just perceiving it in a different way. Yet, they're nudging me toward outside-the-box thinking when I had wanted to do something inside the box.

I don't know why, but I just get a lot of satisfaction from that. In the past two or three weeks I've taught myself Morse code, just because it bugged me that I'd never done so. I was introduced to it back when I was a Boy Scout, but I never learned more than three letters. Now I know all the letters and numbers. On my drive to work this morning, I practiced by translating license-plate numbers into Morse code. It's completely useless, but it makes me very happy. It's something I know how to do that most people don't know how to do. Just like knowing how to play Advanced Squad Leader and Magic Realm. I many never play those games again, but I don't care; learning how to play them was my goal.

All the joy of gaming, for me, comes from learning how to play.

So it's ironic that, for years, I've complained about how many games there are and how I have to learn a whole new set of rules every time another good game comes along. In the 1970s I wrote to The Avalon Hill Game Co and told them they should come up with a standard set of basic rules for all their wargames. I was annoyed with SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.) also; they produced some series of games, but too often it seemed that every new game had another complicated new set of rules.

I guess I was complaining about the very thing I was thriving on. I thought I wanted to get past the rules learning and up to where I could just intelligently play the game--the way I did with chess and other, simpler games. But as a matter of fact, I wasn't playing chess. Nor was I playing any wargame after I'd learned how to play it. My real fascination was with learning the rules and how to apply them.
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