The Answer to Everything

The Answer to Everything
The Revolution Began With Paper

Greg Costikyan | 25 Apr 2006 12:01
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When the press looks at games, what they see is a multibillion dollar industry filled with glitzy graphics, interactive stories and armies of geeks in huge sweatshop teams laboring for long hours to create the Next Big Thing. And to be sure, that's a fair description of the modern digital games industry today. But it's a remarkably incomplete view of what games are, how they've become a major cultural force - and how and where innovation and growth in the field can be sustained.

In the last 25 years, we've seen an explosion. Games have grown from the passion of a few into the casual entertainment of the many. The popular perception - one shared by many game researchers who ought to know better - is that the explosion has been fueled, in the final analysis, by Moore's Law: The arrival of processors cheap enough to include in arcade cabinets, game consoles and desktop PCs has created this multibillion dollar marketplace and a novel popular art: the game.

It's not that this view is completely wrong, but The importance of computing for games is, instead, that digital media permit mediation of an interactive experience in a way that hides the underlying complexity of that experience from players, thereby making it possible to offer rich and complicated games to people who would not have the patience to learn and master them if that interaction were provided to them in non-digital form. In other words, if you want to play a boardgame, you have to read the manual and perform whatever computations are required yourself. Videogame players notoriously do not read manuals, and they don't have to, in most cases, because the rules are embedded in the software.

If it didn't begin with Pong, where did it begin? Let me suggest some key moments.

In 1759, a British publisher of hand-tinted, cloth-backed maps named Carrington Bowles published a game designed by John Jefferys called A Journey Through Europe. It is the first known game that we can ascribe to an individual designer. In other words, prior to that time, all games were analogous to the anonymous epics that spurred the rise of literature; they were what Dave Parlett (in The Oxford History of Board Games) calls "folk games." A Journey Through Europe was, in essence, a line extension by its publisher - a way of reconfiguring a map (in this case, of Europe) to provide a game rather than a reference, thereby appealing to a different audience. As a game qua game, it is nothing to get excited about; it's a straightforward track game, with players advancing by the use of a teetotum (a sort of top with multiple sides, each side numbered, the player advancing as many spaces on the track as the number on the side on which the top comes to rest - a common component of early boardgames, since dice were viewed as gambling instruments and hence not to be permitted in respectable households). The players begin and end in London, and many spaces advance players or transport them to other portions of the board, e.g.:

"He who rests at 28 at Hanover shall by order of Ye King of Great Britain who is Elector, be conducted to No 54 at Gibraltar to visit his countrymen who keep garrison there."

or:

"He who rests at 48 at Rome for kissing ye Pope's Toe shall be banished for his folly to No 4 in the cold island of Iceland and miss three turns."

A whole series of games, most but not all travel games associated with maps, were published in Britain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries; we may imagine that they were pricey items, given the need to hand-tint and hand-mount the maps. It wasn't until the mid-19th century, with the arrival of (relatively) cheap color printing, that original board and card games obtained what we might consider a mass market, with the rise of such publishers as McLaughlin Brothers, Milton Bradley's eponymous firm, and George Parker's vehicle, Parker Brothers (his brothers Charles and Edward handled the business side).

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