Roleplaying. It’s kind of like sex. Sort of. Except it isn’t…

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no way anyone could get a good idea of what sex is like from reading a written description. I’m sure they could understand the mechanics of insert tab A into slot B, but I doubt they could understand the all consuming compulsion or the nuances of the experience.

I’ve never found a truly satisfying written description of roleplaying games either. The experience is very difficult to capture. It’s a bit like the childhood game “let’s pretend” with rules. Maybe it’s more like an interactive movie. But it’s not like a movie at all – because no-one knows beforehand what’s going to happen. It’s almost impossible to define.

Whatever it is – I like it.

The most satisfying way to play is in an extended campaign in which the story unfolds during many sessions over a long period. Everyone at the table contributes, but one more than the rest. Someone needs to have an idea of the general scheme of things. Preparing for such a campaign is almost all-consuming.

First you need to understand the game system you plan to use. They all have their own rules and milieu Then you need to think about the story. The best way to prepare is to immerse yourself into everything you can think of from the genre of the game you want to run; music, books, films etc.

I’ve run some really satisfying campaigns that lasted for a long time. I ran a fantasy game where all the gods were based on the periodic table (with heavy metals as the bad guys and precious metals as the good guys). Another involved the players as spirits in the afterlife investigating hauntings and releasing ghosts from the ties that bind so that they can move on.

We’ve played in World War II, the Wild West with Zombies, the nautical world of Patrick O’ Brien, the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max, the time travelling pulp world of caddish archeologists and many others.

Right now, I’m preparing a game of hard science fiction. The players will crew a starship around a far future cluster of systems, trying to make a few credits without getting blasted out of the cosmos. I’ve hungrily devoured as many science fiction novels as I can. My choice in films has driven my wife mad. I’ve filled my iPhone with Holst‘s Planets as well as a number of  favourite movie themes.

I do all this because the more you put in, the more enjoyable the campaign will be. The build up is like foreplay.

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The cleanliness or otherwise of boots

English: Excel Cross Country Runner

English: Excel Cross Country Runner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone had a bogey subject at school. The subject that made them reluctant to get out of bed of a morning. Mine was Physical Education. I don’t know why they called it that because in the whole of my school career, I don’t think I learned anything. Unless you can count such valuable lessons in life such as not going outside in shorts and a T-shirt if there’s snow on the ground. Or maybe the fact that if someone twice your size tackles you, it’s going to hurt. A lot.

Childline wasn’t around back then otherwise the first thing on my to-do list of a Tuesday morning would be to ring them. It all seemed so illogical to me. Why do we play outside when it’s cold and inside when it’s warm? Why did the school swimming pool have no roof? Either masochism or economics. They swore blind it was a heated pool. I chose my sports day event based on brevity rather than talent.

It didn’t help that I was the youngest in the year, and therefore the smallest by some considerable margin. It also didn’t help that school rules said no spectacles on the sports field. It’s kind of hard to concentrate when someone’s throwing a rock hard cricket ball at you when you can’t see a thing.

But my nemesis of nemeses was the cross-country run.

I don’t like playing football or rugby, but I at least understand why people do. But why oh why would you want to pick a particularly cold day, especially if it’s raining to go and run 5 miles in a big circle. To add insult to injury, our cross-country route passed through a pig farm. For those who have never had the opportunity to visit one, they stink. Not only do they stink, but they collect mud. Sometimes it came up to our knees.

After 5 freezing cold, rain-sodden miles of traipsing through mud dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, you are cold, wet, tired and most of all miserable. And they had a special punishment for the ungifted cross-country runner. Muddy boots were not allowed in the changing room, so they were left outside for the bloke who came last to clean. And I always came last.

One day I refused. The sports master couldn’t believe his ears. I was a well-behaved, compliant student by reputation.

“If you don’t clean them – you’ll have to go and see Mr Foskett”

Mr Foskett couldn’t believe it either. Neither could the deputy head and nor could the headmaster. I stood in his office still in my muddy sports kit. He threatened to call my parents and when I still refused to clean the boots, he summoned my mother to the school.

She duly arrived and they explained my heinous crime to her. She looked at me somewhat incredulously before turning to the headmaster and saying;

“Clean your own *&£$ing boots!” and she took me home.

The Bowden Trophy

Laughing girl

Laughing girl (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Life is serious and taking it too seriously robs you of happiness, fun and productivity. A solemn outlook increases stress, squanders creativity and innovation, and stifles progress.  

Making a fool of yourself is often considered a brave or stupid thing to do. To expect the company to do it in unison every year sounds like madness and yet that is what happened every year at BP while I was there. The event, known as the Bowden Trophy took place in the restaurant of BP House. Teams of 10 people competed in a variety of challenges to find the true champions in the company.

Some took it very seriously. Most approached it with trepidation and a sense of humour. From memory, there were about a dozen or so events and a bar was on hand to offer liquid courage to those who needed it.

All of the events involved simple team tasks. There was an element of suggestiveness to most of them. The early rounds were uneventful, but as the evening wore on and the teams became less and less sober, co-ordination started to disappear making the tasks very difficult indeed.

Transferring a polo mint from mouth to mouth using matchsticks and balloons from knees to knees became almost impossible. Transferring a key on a piece of string inside everyone’s clothes becomes slightly easier because when the drink flows, inhibitions disappear. Winning was more about stamina than any level of skill. Most teams retired early to the bar.

People from all over the company took part. Senior management through to the most junior staff. Every department was represented, even the most reserved such as legal and personnel (as they were known before they became human resources).

For one evening of the year, everyone forgot about the hierarchy. We left all the stresses and strains of keeping the wheels of industry turning back in the office and just had fun together. New friendships were made. New contacts were found. Compromising photos were taken.

I have no idea whether the event continues to this day. I suspect it died out as a casualty of political correctness. But it was fun while it lasted. During the whole time it ran, no-one was seriously hurt (physically or psychologically). Discipline in the office didn’t break down. Oil was still drilled, refined and sold all over the world and the company still made money.

The games club

Magic: The Gathering card back

Magic: The Gathering card back (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The room was full of people, but eerily quiet. Feet were shuffled and looks were exchanged between everyone in the room.

Eventually… “Why don’t you do it?”

Despite waiting for someone to break the silence, I inadvertently jumped as the question came in my direction. The guy asking currently ran the games club and the pregnant pause came about because he announced that he wasn’t going to do it any more and we needed to find a successor.

“You like games. You’re down here every week. I think you’d do a good job.”

People around the room started nodding their heads, either agreeing or glad that it was me not them. I mentally tried the idea on for size and thought why not. So began my decade long tenure. There wasn’t much to do if I’m honest. Making sure we had a venue, collecting the subs and organising the Christmas raffle was hardly taxing, but technically, it was my first position of responsibility.

We played all sorts of games over the years. I enjoyed a collectible card game called Magic the Gathering for a little while. I used to get some strange looks from my colleagues when I used the free help line to clarify the rules. Well, the conversations must have sounded a bit weird;

“Say I lightning bolt his Hypnotic Spectre, and then he casts Giant growth on it, then I counter spell his Giant Growth and then…”

We got through some roleplaying campaigns too. I remember playing pirates in Freeport, battling drow in Dungeons & Dragons and fencing atop a zeppelin in Castle Falkenstein.

For a while, we played a lot of Formule De. A racing game that simulates Formula One motor races by using different sized dice for each gear. One of the guys bought every single track so we played out a full season timing the races to match the real races that played out on the TV. We played a Subutteo World Cup one year whilst the real one was on. I was amazed at how it brought out the worst in people. I’ve never seen so much cheating!

The really good thing about the club was that members brought down different games every week, so we got to play a huge variety of stuff. The sheer breadth and quality of board games on offer is astonishing, particularly from the Germans. I could never go back to Monopoly and Cluedo.

Often I would get phone calls from people wanting to find out more about the club. One day, a woman phoned. She was about to make a TV program celebrating the anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and wanted to know whether we would be willing to take part. I said I’d put it to the members. They agreed and I phoned her back.

“Can you describe where you play?” she asked.

“A cellar under the Old Town Hall. It’s fairly dark & dingy.”

“Do you dress up to play?”

“No!”

“Will you? We’ll provide the costumes and everything.”

“We might be sad, but we’re not that sad.”

Gamification

Andrew contacted me after reading my post about Jane McGonigal and asked whether I’d like to share his Infographic about gamification on this site. I’m impressed by his work and I’m happy to share it;

Please include attribution to OnlineBusinessDegree.org with this graphic

Winning at Their Own Game: The Business Benefits of Gamification

It’s not a draw! You all lose.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 44th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wargames is one of my favourite films. It came in an era when every teenager who was lucky enough to own a home computer spent their spare time plugging away at their keyboards. I wrote loads of games on my trusty Spectrum, so a film about a teenager skilled in the art of hacking just hit the spot.

I would like to think that nearly causing world war 3 by hacking into the NORAD computer is a bit more difficult than suggested by the film, but I found the story entertaining all the same. Our hacking protagonist starts off challenging the computer on the other end of the phone line to Tic-Tac-Toe and ends up playing a game of global thermonuclear war.

In the film of course, everything works out OK because our hero, Matthew Broderick, proves to the machine that it is not possible to win the game. The computer goes through every strategy it can think of and the end result is the same, the world is left a smoking ruin with no victor to share the spoils.

I love playing games. When a friend of mine suggested that we play a game called Supremacy, I asked him what the game was about. It’s about global conflict and there are nukes. We gathered some friends and cracked open the box. The gate-fold map depicted a stylised map of the world, not dissimilar to the schematic shown in the huge command centre from the film. We started setting up the board. Everyone had tokens to indicate their armed forces and there were cute little plastic mushroom clouds to show which bits of the world that were too hot for comfort.

My friend explained the rules, which were fairly standard board game fodder. You could make money by playing the commodity markets. With the money, you could buy conventional forces, nukes or defence satellites (which shoot down nukes). It all made sense until he read out the final rule; “…and if 12 territories end up with a mushroom cloud, every player loses.”

We all looked up. “You mean it’s a draw?”

The player reading the rules insisted “No. It’s a game about trying to achieve global supremacy without leaving the world a smoking ruin.”

“But that’s the definition of a draw isn’t it? Everyone getting the same result.”

My friend was resolute. If the world ended up a radioactive dead zone, we forfeited the game.

Turn 1, the first player crashed the commodity markets. Turn 2, everyone bought nukes. At the start of turn 3, someone landed an army in South America, which resulted in the South American player launching a nuke. Then came the retaliatory strike during which, one nuke went astray bringing someone else into the fray. In the end, we ran out of plastic mushroom clouds and the man who owned the game stormed out with the huff.

We should definitely get rid of all nuclear weapons, especially if the people in charge are anything like us.

I’m a sucker for a map

Die Zehn

Die Zehn (Photo credit: gringer)

During a particularly boring day during my two long years in a mundane job, I happened to sit next door to a colleague who was idly doodling in his sketchbook. It was obviously a map of some kind of underground complex with passageways and doors. When I asked him about it, he immediately clammed up and it took some persistent cajoling to get him to explain what it was.

“It’s for a game” he said curtly.

“What sort of game?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

“I can’t explain – if you really must know, you’ll have to come and play.”

So I did – and boy, am I glad I did. The game was Dungeons and Dragons and the first thing handed to me was a sheet of paper. On one side was a picture of a medieval figure complete with armour and sword. The other side was jam-packed with statistics. The second thing handed to me was a handful of polyhedral dice.

As I studied the character sheet, struggling to make head nor tail of all the statistics, my new friend told me not to worry about it and drew my attention to the table where he drew a map of an inn. He asked me where I wanted to be. Something in his tone told me that something was about to happen, so I chose to stand over by the window. He told me that the other patrons were looking at me strangely, so reluctantly, I took my place at a table.

A D&D game session in progress

A D&D game session in progress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It wasn’t long before a wolf came bursting through the wall and I became locked in mortal combat rolling dice like fury. The whole evening zipped by and at the end, I was desperate to play again. That evening was nearly a quarter of a century ago and yet I remember it in vivid detail. I have played role-playing games ever since.

I like every aspect of them. I love discovering new worlds and exploring amazing stories. The fact that many of these experiences play out over long campaigns of play make them an immensely satisfying experience. The things I like most though, are the maps. I am a very visual person and I find a map transports me to where the action is. Without a map, I struggle to take in what’s happening. I have a great collection of maps I’ve built up over the years and I’m always reluctant to throw them away.

So, am I still in touch with the friend that introduced me to the hobby. No, unfortunately, he was put away for attempted murder but that’s another story. I will always owe a debt to him for all the new worlds he introduced me to.

My brief career in the games industry

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the ...

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the aliens as they descend to the bottom of the screen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, the fair came to town. Some kids liked the scary rides. Some liked the games of skill and the bunco booths. For me, it was the amusement arcades that made my visit to the fair. I loved the synthesised music the arcade machines played. The stylised graphics (called sprites) on the phosphor screens that depicted both your character and the enemies intent on his destruction.

When home computers became affordable in the 80s, bedrooms all over the world were transformed into mini amusement arcades. Most successful games from the arcades were rewritten for the home computer format. The hardware in your home couldn’t hope to match the commercial machines, but they were recognisable imitations all the same. Somehow, the original games written for home computers were more far impressive than the arcade imitations.

I enjoyed playing those games on my trusty Sinclair Spectrum but after a while, my insatiable curiosity took over and I wanted to understand how to construct those games. Spurred on by TV programs of the time like Me and my Micro, I read the manuals that came with my computer. Before too long I had written a dozen or so programs.

Computer magazines in that time used to print listings of programs that you could type in. After several hours of laborious typing, you ended up with a lacklustre computer game. I spent time understanding how those programs worked. I tried changing things to see what happened. Sometimes I would end up with a broken program, but I always learned something.

Some women bloom when pregnant. My mum didn’t. I used to come in from school and ask dad what mum was like today. More often than not, the answer was “same as yesterday”, and I would go and shut myself in my bedroom with my computer. I spent hours programming. I spent even more time reading about programming. When I went to school, I used to talk to other kids about programming.

Eventually, I ended up with a half decent game. It was called “Political World. It was all about being Prime Minister. To win the game, you had to avoid riots, war breaking out and economic ruin, all at the same time as trying to keep your popularity high enough that you stood a chance of re-election. I showed it to all my friends, listened to their feedback and made small improvements.

I don’t think I was ever truly happy with it, but when the feedback turned from negative to positive, I decided to send it to one of the many games companies that had sprung up to ride the home computer wave. For a long time, I didn’t hear anything. Then, a letter landed on the doormat. I could see who it was from instantly by the logo on the envelope.

I eagerly ripped open the letter and scanned the contents. They had agreed to publish the game and wanted to talk to me about more work. Unfortunately, I had exams to pass, so I couldn’t take up their offer of further employment, but I was chuffed to bits.

Estimates vary about the value of the interactive entertainment industry today, with some saying that games have eclipsed the film industry. Whichever figure you look at, it is a huge industry. Today the games are much more sophisticated with a  cast of actors providing voices, artists providing gorgeous graphics and musicians providing more input than programmers.

In simpler times, for one tiny moment – I was part of that industry.

I once had a religious experience

10-sided dice are used for games requiring per...

10-sided dice are used for games requiring percentages. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to run a thriving games club in our local town hall. We mainly played board and card games with the occasional foray into a war-game or roleplaying game. The town hall is only a short walk from where I live so I used to walk there and back. We had no storage at the club, so I usually dragged along a large kit bag full of games that we could choose from.

One evening, I was walking home carrying the kit bag as usual. Up ahead of me was a man leaning up against the wall smoking a cigarette. He was a good 6 inches taller than me and he had big shoulders. He had a skinhead haircut and exuded menace. He might have been waiting for a bus except that the bus stop was 30 yards further up the road.

As I walked past him, he said something to me that I didn’t quite catch. I didn’t really want to get into any kind of exchange so I just mumbled something non-committal and hoped that inertia would keep him there smoking his cigarette. When I was about 10 paces ahead of him, I heard him stamp out his cigarette and start walking up the hill behind me.

I needed to cross the road to get home anyway and I wanted to know if he was following me so making sure the road was clear I quickly crossed the road. I heard him cross behind me. I was anxious now, running through the possibilities in my mind. What was I going to do if this came to an altercation? Mother Nature wasn’t very kind when handing out my physique, so there was little hope of me outrunning him and even less of me coming off as the victor in any kind of scuffle.

I came to a junction. Normally I would turn off the main road into a quieter residential street. This time though, I carried on up the hill. There was a petrol station up ahead and maybe that was where he was heading. We walked past the petrol station and he was still there behind me. His pace quickened and my stomach started to churn.

A plan formed in my mind. I would throw the kit bag at him and run like hell, hoping that he was more interested in the contents of my bag than in doing damage to me. I heard him close behind me and braced myself. As I turned to face him, a car careened off the road beside us and came to a screeching halt in between us.

The man ran off.

I peered into the car, my legs like jelly. The window came down and inside there were three nuns. Not women dressed up in fancy dress – honest to goodness – nuns. They asked if I was OK and told me that they had seen the man and they were convinced he was a sinner. I agreed and thanked them. They offered me a lift, but I declined and made my way nervously home.

If it hadn’t been for their timely interjection, it could have been a very nasty business.

The games people play

 

Game designer and author Jane McGonigal at Mee...

Game designer and author Jane McGonigal at Meet the Media Guru in Milan, Italy, May 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Picture the scene. You see 3 children sat on a sofa. Each of them is playing on some sort of electronic device. What thoughts come into your head? The chances are that the words “waste of time” are uppermost in your mind. Up until 24 hours ago, I would have agreed with you, but I was lucky enough to see Jane McGonigal’s presentation at IBM Impact in Las Vegas.

Jane is a self professed future forecaster and author of Reality is Broken. She has a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. An enthralling speaker, she rattles off facts and figures about gaming and the effect on society in convincing fashion. According to her figures, there are a billion gamers in the world today. Angry Birds alone is played for a total of 300 million minutes a day by the human race.

Wikipedia has become an exhaustive knowledge source for just about everything. At the time of writing, the site consists of approximately 4 million articles. Encyclopaedia Britannica contains about 85,000. If all the gamers playing Angry Birds stopped, and turned their attention to recreating Wikipedia (assuming they had the knowledge), it would take them just three weeks.

Interesting – but why does that make gaming anything more than a frivolous waste of time? Apparently, gamers regularly experience 10 distinct positive emotions ranging from curiosity to joy. They are more innovative. More creative. They are more resilient (chiefly because they spend 80% of the time during games failing). Gamers are also more likely to help other people.

There are medical benefits too. According to a Nature Reviews study, gamers with ADHD find that their symptoms are massively diminished or even disappear whilst playing games. Gamers with autism show increased social intelligence. In clinical trials, games give more positive results than pharmaceuticals in patients with depression.

She gave the example of a game called Remission. The hero in the game fights against the agents that cause cancer. Patients suffering from the disease who play the game have better outcomes than patients who just watch the game being played. Observation or brain activity whilst playing the game shows increased activity in the Thalamus (responsible for not giving up) and the Hippocampus (responsible for long term memory and habits). If you play the game, you are less likely to give up  and much more likely to continue treatment.

During her presentation, she told us that we were going to play Massively Multiplayer thumb wrestling. As I was surrounded by 9,000 other people, I decided in an instant that I was far too British to take part in any such nonsense. When the time came, I became wrapped up in the moment and I was thumb wrestling with the best of them and I won with one thumb, which apparently makes me a grand champion of thumb wrestling! Jane asserted that we would all feel a number of positive emotions afterwards, and I did, once I had composed myself and straightened my tie.

I can’t wait to read the book.