By Nathan Barton
As the final episodes of Game of Thrones are being anticipated, it is fun to look at the way gaming has impacted our view of government today. (And by gaming, I do not use it in the South Dakota manner of “gambling” at all the little “casinos” which dot the state (the places in Deadwood are “gambling houses”) and bring in all kinds of money – that is a subject for another commentary.)
War games and role-playing games long predate our current computer and internet based gaming. Indeed, some of the earliest are beloved family games: Monopoly, Risk, and The Game of Life come to mind. But the complexity and elaborate nature exploded in the 1970s and 1980s.
They became “popular” (at least to geeks and a small community of interesting people) back in the 1970s: Strategic Simulations Inc. and Avalon Hill for wargaming, and Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) for Dungeons and Dragons, the first well-known role playing game.
Huge numbers of competitors and hobbyists sprang up over the next decade. Wargames, usually known by their German name “Kreigspeil” had been training tools for military and naval officers. Now they became a leisure activity for many (and vastly improved training tools, as well). I don’t know the origins of role-playing games – but they are clearly a way of taking fiction – novels – and making them interactive: letting the reader into the creative process and be drawn deeper into the artificial worlds of the authors.
Wargaming started in history, but quickly moved into science fiction and fantasy. Role-playing games went from fantasy into science fiction (Traveller being an earlier one), war (Twilight 2000 being an earlier example) and then into “real life.” (Game Designer Workshop developed Traveller and Twilight 2000.)
Originally these were played with models: “toy soldiers” and miniatures and models. But their rigorous development came with board gaming. Boards for wargames in the late 1970s would cover multiple ping pong tables, for example. With the rapid development of computers and then the internet in the late 1980s and later decades, it was natural for the board games to migrate to the new medium.
But the new medium of computers and internet allowed gaming to expand into other areas never dreamed of before. Wargames exploded into space and time, and role-playing games changed into things as different as SimCity, SimLife, and first-person shooter games, and actually DROVE the progress of graphics and displays and more.
It was also inevitable that these games have, full-circle, become both the tools of military and other government activities AND a new kind of fiction. Government has used these (as they do all tools) to gain more power, garner more wealth, and find better ways to treat people badly.
But that, too, is a subject for another commentary. What I want to discuss in this missive is how gaming has changed the attitude of people towards government, and changed (perhaps subtly) the way we interact with government.
Military operations, for example, were once an esoteric field of study and expertise. The interplay of logistics and strategy and tactics was (and is) confusing and complex, and very difficult to understand and manage – much less lead. The advent of very complex simulations, more and more realistic, has made that world much more of an open book. A general understanding of the concepts can be gained, really, as a fun leisure-time activity. Rather than taking decades of study and practice in the real world, at great cost in time, money (and usually, lives).
In a similar way, role-playing games and their descendants have helped people to better understand the interplay of the economy, government, and society. Still very much simplified from the real world, but much closer than anything possible 50 years ago. We can see, again often as a leisure-time activity, how politicians and bureaucrats and their minions and cronies are doing things that effect us every day.
In some ways, the mystery of esoteric professions is reduced – we can see sausage being made. And what we see is that government is even worse than we thought. And the “experts” that do these things exposed: they are not objects of awe and respect, but the incompetent purveyors of evil that make life miserable for billions.
And these games and the mindset – the computer and online massive multiplayer games, teach the idea that we do NOT need to have these so-called wise and benevolent rulers – nor their rules. We can, we see, do it ourselves. Not just in the world of games, but in real life.
And while life might not be as simple as all those games, the truth is, we CAN run our own lives. We do NOT need the bureaucrats the politicians and the celebrities and the media and the moguls to tell us how to live.
Mama’s Note: Amen to that! I’ve never played any of those games myself, not even much of the old board games. But I also never doubted that I could and should control my own life.