Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Gaming Weekend

Sometime next month, my old college holds Gaming Weekend. They also hold gaming Fridays every week. And we're not talking computer games: everything at these events is a board, card, or tabletop game, with some LARPs thrown in for kicks. (I was upset when Guitar Hero made an appearance, even though it is a good game.)

This rare dedication to live gaming is, I think, why WPI has one of the best game design curriculums. Of course, that's not really saying much, but at least it's saying SOMETHING. MIT is also big into games, to the point where Singapore pays them loads of cash to teach Singaporian students how to develop games. Harvard is just getting into the act with a bang-up new game club...

But the big thing about these places is that they don't simply focus on computer gaming. Sure, they're all into computer games, but they have other kinds of games they specialize in as well. MIT tends to specialize in the totally hardcore games like assassins and go, whereas WPI tends to do a lot of LARPs and economic games.

Whenever I see these things, I think "This is important."

Because you can't learn how to make computer games by playing computer games.

You can learn how to make computer games by making computer games, but computer games are extremely hard to make.

On the other hand, game design in general can be picked up pretty rapidly via live games. Not only are they faster to design and test, but while you play them you are learning game design.

"While you play them?"

When you're sitting around a table with four or five other people playing a game, the rules of the game are not the only rules in effect. For example, while playing Bang! it is always assumed that John and I are on the same side, even though we have no way of knowing that. It's certainly not a rule written up in the game. It's not even a "real" rule, in that half the time it turns out to be wrong and we open fire. However, it does change how the game progresses.

Live games are full of this kind of silliness - these "meta rules". Boyfriends aren't likely to try to make their girlfriends lose. The guy everyone hates is going to be slammed regardless of how well or poorly he was doing. The house rules say you can't use Lucre cards. You know Bob's weaknesses because you know Bob.

Because these rules change with every play (even with repeated plays involving the same people) they offer players a huge, ever-shifting variety of rules. Each play-through is functionally a new, tweaked version of the game.

This is not something which translates well into even multiplayer video games. While some of it translates ("Hey, Vega's cheap! Don't play him!"), it's not nearly as deep or wide. It's a puddle instead of a river.

Also, I think that these short games (but not too short) are better for learning from than longer games. For example, weekend long LARPs and RPG campaigns are fun, but the final experience is not as focused or repetitive, so you learn less.

This is why I think that clubs like the assassin's guild and the Sci Fi club (really the "board games and BSG club") are critical to the success of the computer game sections of these schools. Most of the people I've met from MIT who are involved in games were part of the assassin's guild. Most of the good/popular designers from WPI are either Sci-Fi Society members or Game Design Club members - usually both.

So play them live games! Over and over and over.

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