Why Games Matter
By Geoff Barton
Gaming. To those who remain uninitiated to this hobby, that word can represent one in a variety of interests, from playing console video games and arcades, to participating in sports, to secluding oneself in front of a computer screen and playing online titles such as World of Warcraft and League of Legends. For those of us in the know, gaming has little to do with those exploits. It isn't a label or social identifier, it’s a calling, a passion. It is a pursuit that gets into the blood. It forges relationships and brings out some of the best qualities in human nature. Fellowship, competition, cooperation, mutual respect and most importantly direct human contact.
Since the earliest age of civilized man, amongst the constructs of pagan temples, paved roads, grand arenas and forums, there have always been games. Let us exclude for a moment the spectacled combats of gladiators, and the races of charioteers; some of the earliest archaeological discoveries were of gaming boards and pieces. These leisurely distractions were not reserved simply for the noble class, or wealthy traders. Even migrant workers, bonded serfs and slaves, some of who would never know how to read or write their own name, were able to play. Entombed with the God-Kings of Pharaonic Egypt were elaborately carved boards and pieces to games played even in the camps of the pyramid builders themselves. We can trace the predecessor of Checkers back to Dynastic Imperial China, and the forerunner to modern chess to the peoples of Ancient India. The first sets of polyhedral dice, similar to ones used in Dungeons and Dragons, were discovered in the remains of a soldier's barracks along Hadrian's Wall dating to the settlement of Roman Brittania.
We must therefore ask ourselves 'why?' Why would ancient cultures across the globe with various levels of technology and culture place so much importance on a colored board, with pegs, chits, and tokens? Why would kings and commoners, slaves and soldiers all gather around a table for a hand of cards, or a cup of bones? What common thing brought them to the table? It wasn't out of boredom to be sure, as most work in the ancient and medieval world was measured in weeks, if not months, rather than mere hours. After a span on foot, marching, tilling the arable earth by hand or plow, carving and pulling tons of stone in the heat of the day, why would anyone, ever, sit down to play a game? In a word: CONTACT.
Contact, interaction, rapport… whatever you want to call it, it has been a driving force for the human race for millennia. It is the reason we communicate, why we write and speak, but it goes beyond the exchange of information. It is diplomacy, trade and literature. Contact is one of the most important things to the human race.
This brings us into the here and now. We stand at the dawn of the 21st century. In the eyes of our most ancient ancestors, we would be likened as gods with what we have achieved, with what we have taken for granted. Plagues and famine that destroyed generations are remedied with genetic research. We travel by car in minutes and hours rather than days and weeks by horseback and carriage. We send and receive packages anywhere in the world in less than 48 hours and we can telecommunicate almost instantaneously with anyone, anywhere. We can split the atom and travel amongst the stars; plumb the depths of the oceans. What then would possess us to participate in the activities that the ancients found so fascinating? CONTACT.
Most people have a cellphone or smartphone, almost everyone has access to the internet, and with social media we're able to keep up with the comings and goings of dozens if not hundreds of 'friends'. But how often do you experience a worthwhile pleasurable social interaction anymore? Outside of family, school, or work, how often do you have meaningful contact? In this so called 'Age of Information', we have nearly instantaneous communication, immediate information, but what about personal interaction, discussion, exchange of spoken word, face to face? Despite all of our advances in science and technology and the wonders of the digital age, we crave face to face personal, human contact. To gamers, the games themselves are fun, socially engaging and intellectually stimulating. They satisfy the need of thought and strategy that they crave. It is a distraction, an escape, a moment of respite from the daily grind. Or is it something more substantial?
Regardless of title or style or complexity of rules, be it a card game, board game, pen and paper or live action roleplay, there is contact and proximity to another living breathing human being. There is a shared experience. Gamers have worthwhile experiences with memorable people all across the globe, in comic and game stores, coffee shops and libraries, and in conventions of all sizes and interests. Not only are they enjoying physical proximity, but are able to partake in something that has been enjoyed by countless generations across the span of years. They are able to pass along the spirit of gaming and interaction to their friends, family and their own children. Gamers form bonds of fellowship that go beyond gender, nationality, age, education, money or religion. They span entire time zones, cross borders and go beyond all preconceptions. This is what makes gamers the most civilized people of all.
It is often forgotten that during the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the years of the Cold War, despite diplomatic communications and political posturing between the two superpowers, both sides conceded to hosting chess matches between their respective masters and grand masters. It was during these chess games that diplomats and spies were able to talk to each other and continue communication between the two nations, even though the powers that be were not able or willing to do so. In the midst of potential nuclear annihilation, millions of lives were held in the balance over the terms of a chess match. If a board game could succeed where politics, diplomacy, and military means proved unsuccessful; just think of what it can do for you, your friends, your family, even your community...