271: On the Origin of Games

On the Origin of Games

Tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and electronic videogames are both descended from simulations but they adapted to their respective mediums in different ways. Adam Niese posits that, like Darwin's finches, tabletop and videogames are similar but evolved to fill different niches.

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I have to say, as a biologist myself, I absolutely loved the analogy to evolution. Though if we're going to go the biology route, should we consider video games and tabletop games as separate species? After all, they were able to produce viable offspring (Baldur's Gate) which could produce their own offspring (Baldur's Gate II). In the classic species concept, this makes both the same species. Or am I overthinking this?

Great use of the tools developed for thinking about evolution to think about gaming! I think this analogy might also be powerful for talking about how games change over time in a way that acknowledges that change happens in an adaptive fashion without falling into the "newer = reflects more progress = better" fallacy.

Since we're all academics here, allow me to quibble about 1988 as the date for the first passable D&D videogame. Over at the OD&D boards I was surprised to see how far back the replies to "what are the most old school D&D rules you know of in a Roguelike or other computer game?" go; TUTOR programming on the dnd game seems to have begun the same year D&D was first published! I haven't played dnd, but I know that back in the early '80s the original Wizardry struck me as a more than passable representation of the part of D&D I cared about most at the time, as did Moria when I discovered it in '88.

As a gardener and conservation ecologist myself I know that Darwinian evolution is bunk. However there is adaptation within species to make groups more able to survive in different environments. The analogy in this article is more in tune with this idea than with the faulty theory of evolution of new species. As Crimson Dragoon mentioned, tabletop games and video games did "produce viable offspring" which could reproduce.

I liken the relationship between tabletop games and video games to the one that exists between Icelandic ponies and Arabian horses. Icelandic ponies have short stubby legs and a low center of gravity that make them extremely sure-footed on rocky terrain and a shaggy coat of thick, long hair to insulate them from the cold. Arabian horses are long legged and are better able to run on soft sand. They have short hair and slick, thin skinned coats to help them cope with the heat. They look and behave fairly differently and live a world apart from each other, but they are still horses. If you really wanted to, you could breed an Icelandic pony to an Arabian horse and get viable offspring.

Tabletop games are strategy and storytelling simulations that are adapted for being run by people without the aid of machines. In their "purest" form, they can be played with nothing more than the imaginations and communication skills of a group of humans. The dice, minis, maps, books etc. are all aids that help reduce confusion and arguements and help diverse people to imagine something somewhat close to the same thing (though in your own imagination, you can still envision something different looking from what you see on the table, but at least you have a common frame of reference when discussing what you think is happening with the other people).

Video games, in their earliest days, were still mostly about being aids to the imagination as the graphics and sound were so primitive that you had to imagine what the blob of pixels on the screen was supposed to be. Just try playing almost any Atari 2600 game without trying to imagine what those blocky things are supposed to be and you'll see what I mean. Without the human imagination, those games are little more than dull puzzles. With the advent of more and more fancy graphics and more realistic sound, video games are gradually squeezing out the need for imagination on the part of the player. Play most Xbox 360 or PS3 games and there is no doubt as to what the things on the screen are supposed to be.

Today, tabletop games are blending with video game elements to the point that it's getting hard to define one from the other. Is a play by post role playing game still a "table top" game if there is no table and the players are miles away from each other? How about the games being developed for Microsoft Surface? Will D&D on MS Surface be a video game or a tabletop game or something new?

I've played tabletop games in which the DM (or GM if you insist) had so many elements to create a shared look and feel for the game, that much less imagination was required. He had a music soundtrack playing in the background; recorded sound effects for spells and attacks; highly detailed minis for each creature; slick, highly detailed three-dimensional maps with walls, trees, water etc that emerged from the flatness of the table; and his rules were on "books" that were really .pdf files on his laptop (which was also running Firefox in another window so he could check the game's website for the very latest updates. He had set up the scenario we were playing with the aid of an encounter builder program and had created each of his creatures with a monster builder computer program. More than half of the players also had their laptops with programs that let them update their character sheets. They were even using a program that simulated dice rolls! If we hadn't needed to move our minis with our own hands and make decisions on what to do next, there wouldn't have been any "tabletop game" elements left. What kind of hybrid of video game and tabletop game do you call that?

I wonder if, in the future, there will be any distinction at all between these two types of games.

dukethepcdr:
As a gardener and conservation ecologist myself I know that Darwinian evolution is bunk. However there is adaptation within species to make groups more able to survive in different environments. The analogy in this article is more in tune with this idea than with the faulty theory of evolution of new species. As Crimson Dragoon mentioned, tabletop games and video games did "produce viable offspring" which could reproduce.

Genuinely not meaning to start a flame war, but I'm curious: did you mean "Darwinian evolution" is bunk as in there is another type of evolution that is not bunk? Or did you mean "evolution is bunk" as in the entire theory?

No. Wrong. I don't even have to finish the first page. Please, let us not allow our obsessive love of video games to cloud and re-write the evolution of same. Let us not pretend the modern gaming concepts of hit point count, levelling up, etc., arose separately from the tabletop world.

Please, let us not fanboi. Let us not allow me to use fanboi as a verb. Let us not claim that Steampunk was invented by the Japanese, and let us not pretend video games evolved tabletop-like features separately. They did not.

Though early video games shared with tabletop wargames the most absolute basic and raw of tactical simulation, in that a basic algorithm dictated odds of success or failure, they were not equipped with, nor had any inclination to embrace or develop on their own, the tropes that are now common to them. Even into the eighties - which, unlike many here, I am old enough to actually remember - video games were still strictly a "one-hit-and-you're-dead" and a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" proposition.

Tabletop simulation developed way beyond that, into RPGs, then eventually took those ideas back into wargames themselves, long before video games adopted those things. Video game designers clearly adopted much of what is standard today, from tabletop simulations.

A true biological analogy does not exist for this, except perhaps amongst apes, where two species might share a common ancestor in the deep, dark antediluvian past, but one has recently learned some kind of cultural behavior, such as tool use, from observing another.

Crimson_Dragoon:
I have to say, as a biologist myself, I absolutely loved the analogy to evolution. Though if we're going to go the biology route, should we consider video games and tabletop games as separate species? After all, they were able to produce viable offspring (Baldur's Gate) which could produce their own offspring (Baldur's Gate II). In the classic species concept, this makes both the same species. Or am I overthinking this?

As Adam's fiance and resident biologist, we talked a lot about the use of modern evolutionary science as an informing construct as he wrote this. I likened the sort of thing that you're talking about here to lateral gene transfer, but we doubted that the majority of the audience would understand, or care, about that reference.

Fantastic approach. I had never thought to see things from this angle, but of course when you loosen the analogy enough everything that changes freely over time suffers some kind of evolution. Cross-polination is little more than an attempt to succeed in an environment by adapting what works in others.

The idea of what exactly is a computer RPG is such a cloudy concept. Seeing videogames as a whole as a species, separate but linked to pen-and-paper RPGs, which are probably their closest counterparts, might, if not help shed some light in the matter, understand its (little) importance in the grand scheme of things. The Final Fantasy style RPGs are these amazing creatures full of vestigial limbs from the time when after someone threw a punch everyone had to wait for a guy to figure out how much damage the pottery in the room took. Deep down though there's not much difference between it and any shooter since damage and speed are still numeric stats as far as the computer is concerned. It's no wonder action games are reclaiming RPG features, as if several breeds left in a dwindling territory slowly came to coalesce into a single new breed.

Surely there are plenty of secrets to gaming as a whole to be glimpsed from this approach, so it's too bad I can rarely be arsed to actually purchase a pen-and-paper rolebook.

bruunwald:
No. Wrong. I don't even have to finish the first page. Please, let us not allow our obsessive love of video games to cloud and re-write the evolution of same. Let us not pretend the modern gaming concepts of hit point count, levelling up, etc., arose separately from the tabletop world.

Uh, that was kind of the whole point of the article. Maybe you should have you know read it?

There is only one thing that I can think of that I know both have in common. It is the desire for the creative staff, publishers, producers, and other crew to make a profit.

It started with tabletop games, and then computer games and video games were created, and then the two began to find ideas and common groups with one another, resulting in several hybrid games, where tabletop and video gaming blur. Sometimes elements from one feel out of place in the other, sometimes they fit right in. Ultimately each product must be weighed on its own merits, because there are just too many of each to lump into a single group like this.

Evolution? Sounds more like natural selection. Either way I think the convergence will continue and things like the iPad and the Microsoft table are the future for boardgames, wargames and table-top RPGS. A combination of analog and digital.

What an interesting read. I too am interested in seeing how things continue to develop in such close proximity to each other now. There are bound to be successes and failures. We'll see how they end up manifesting.

 

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