On the Origin of Games

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Most gamers would agree that there is a relationship between tabletop games and videogames, but defining that relationship is tricky. When Super Mario Galaxy inspires Mike Krahulik to carve Styrofoam planets for a D&D game, we might call it romance. When Final Fantasy uses the Vancian rules popularized by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for consumable spellcasting, we might call it theft. We might liken Jack Chick’s assertion that D&D encourages suicide to Jack Thompson’s accusation that videogames teach murder.


However, these relationships have no predictive value. D&D combat maps inspired the isometric playfield in Shadow Sorcerer, but that romance didn’t really soothe the game’s pathfinding flaws. ZODIAC: The Final Fantasy RPG directly borrows from its namesake, but it has never achieved the same breakout success. No amount of ribbing Jack Thompson and Jack Chick will predict the next gaming scandal.

The problem is that romance, theft, and other pithy parallels are just-so stories, ad hoc explanations that don’t actually explain anything. They miss the nuances that make videogames and tabletop games simultaneously similar and different, so you can’t reliably leverage them for the next great idea. Fortunately, just-so stories are hardly a new problem and they certainly aren’t limited to games. Biological science tackled this sort of storytelling with evolutionary theory, and it’s possible to lean on that work to help understand that common heritage is the tie that binds tabletop games to videogames. If you trace their pedigrees back far enough, both grew from simulations.

D&D and all subsequent tabletop games have roots in war simulation. As early as the 19th century, military officers were using figures and topographic maps to simulate battles. They used dice to determine battle outcomes and war games helped train new officers. These simulations fascinated 19th century military men but in the 20th, it spread as a hobby amongst civilians. In Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, one group’s familiarity with war games and a fascination with the fantasy stories of Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard (Conan) eventually became Dungeons & Dragons.

Modern videogames also have roots in war simulation, if a more fanciful sort. Although other electronic games preceded it, the first widely influential game was Spacewar! Steve Russell designed the game to demo the processing capacity of the PDP-1, a 1960s era computer that would barely fit in a kitchen. Being science-fiction geeks, Russell and his team decided to simulate a space battle, complete with inertial physics, a central gravity well in the play field, and two armed spaceships. The idea caught on, inspired copycats, and ignited the game industry.

To see the impact of common heritage between videogames and tabletop games, consider Darwin’s finches: a common ancestry that branched in different environments. Darwin observed that, although finches inhabited all the Galapagos islands, the finches on each island were distinct species. He theorized that their modern differences rise because they occupy the same niche in separate environments. Videogames and tabletop games have also developed on what amounts to different islands. Videogames developed to run by CPU, whereas tabletop games were run by people. Speciation makes each kind of simulation different, because each environment has different resources.

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The computer “island” has abundant computational resources, but you can only access them through highly structured means, i.e. code. Games that thrive on computer island are good at efficiently handling complex rules. A videogame can process the actions of eighteen warriors and thirty-seven goblins in real time without struggling. It doesn’t matter if each combatant has varying stats and special abilities that, say, alter initiative order, because it’s just crunching numbers. You can add an elemental affinity system, real-time experience advancement, and physics-driven combat without taxing a processor. Wargamers lose entire weekends meticulously tracking similar statistics, but computers can transform Spreadsheet: The Game into the Active Time Battle system.


Meanwhile, over on the human island, tabletop games need to run on a conceptually simpler rule set as well as one that players can adapt on the fly. Without simple rules, a game will stall while everyone calculates the shrapnel trajectory from a catapult shot. Adaptive rules are important because some player inevitably makes an insane diplomatic attempt to culturally assimilate the goblins of De’thtr’p. When they happen to critically succeed on a Diplomacy check, it should be relatively easy for the Dungeon Master to improvise rules for goblins in a service economy.

Videogames and tabletop games evolved largely in parallel for a decade or two. Ideas that worked well in one setting eventually appeared in the other. Where the consumable spellcasting mechanics in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons worked well in Final Fantasy, the MP mechanics in Final Fantasy IV worked well in D&D 3rd edition as power points for Psions. Although it’s impossible to establish a direct inspirational relationship between the two series, primacy is irrelevant. In the same way hedgehogs and echidnas both acquired quills because sharp barbs make an effective predator deterrent, Final Fantasy and D&D share mechanics because both need a way to regulate powerful abilities that threaten game balance. What matters is that the same mechanics work for both systems because they share the same goals and needs. They fill the same niche in different ecosystems.

This would make for a simple rubric for discussing the two game formats, but something happened to games in 1988 that never happened to Darwin’s finches. The gulf between islands narrowed; computer technology had advanced enough for a passable D&D videogame. first “gold box” game, let you choose a fighter, thief, mage, or cleric to lead a team of six adventurers. Your party explored the world through a first-person slideshow that switched to an overhead map for strategic combat, like switching out of Street View in Google Maps. Glorious EGA graphics allowed remarkably high-fidelity renderings of art from the D&D Monster Manual. Other videogames had mimicked tabletop roleplaying rules, but Pool of Radiance was the first to license the D&D name and officially adapt the rules for use in a computer game. It was highly limited, but Pool of Radiance was unmistakably D&D.

The release of Pool of Radiance heralded a shift from parallel evolution to convergent evolution. As technology shrinks the gap, resources on the two islands become mutually accessible and the islands become more similar. When ecosystems converge, so does evolutionary pressure.

In practice, this means that some traits can express with the same fitness in both ecosystems. Baldur’s Gate demonstrated that the D&D game mechanics can work in videogames with virtually no concessions. Much later on, MMOs like Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited brought voice communication to the videogame representations of D&D.


The same convergence is happening in tabletop games; tabletop games like D&D adopted qualities previously unique to videogames. Probably the biggest shift was the adoption of the d20 Open Games License. The OGL was essentially a game engine: a set of basic rules and tools distinct to D&D that could be adapted to any game setting. Like the Unreal engine created by Epic and used by a number of videogames, the d20 OGL offered tabletop designers a toolset to allow them to create their product.

As with biological evolution, the acquisition of traits isn’t uniformly positive. The OGL’s successor, the Game System License, has incorporated the restrictive characteristics of intellectual property in videogames. The new Game System License adds uncomfortable strictures to the license, like mandatory permission requests and limited scope of modification. It fills the same niche as digital rights management in videogames, limiting the liability of the company through oversight and keeping the licensors in the loop about how their product is used.

You can even see the effects of differentiation in the places where the two media fail to effectively adopt each others’ traits. Neverwinter Nights tried to tackle the tremendously attractive tabletop feature of creating user-customizable campaigns in a shared social space. The implementation, the Aurora Toolset, accommodated a wide range of possible roleplaying scenarios. However, to accomplish this in a videogaming context, the Aurora Toolset required a degree of scripting complexity you’d expect of a fully-featured programming environment. This crippled the toolset’s accessibility, allowing only individuals who were well-versed in both creative and technical pursuits the full ability to appreciate Neverwinter Nights. (Many gamers still enjoyed the single-player campaign’s more typical CRPG experience.)

The parade of parallels between D&D and videogames is not romance; it is survival. The similarities between the two formats rise from common ancestry, and their differences rise from unique ecology. Understanding that, it may be possible to anticipate whether what is good for the woodpecker finch is also good for the warbler finch. It requires identifying the pressures that produced the idea on one island and understanding the resources that will limit the same idea across the water. Perhaps as computer technology advances and video communication becomes ubiquitous, we will see more cross-pollination between what are two very distinct eco-systems. For now, the sea that divides videogames and tabletop games is passable, allowing species to co-mingle, but it will be interesting to see what happens when that divide narrows to imperceptibility. What new games will evolve?

Adam Niese is making the obvious career change from research psychology to games journalism at www.pixelsocks.com.

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