TheBoardGame


Page Created: 6/24/2014   Last Modified: 6/5/2017   Last Generated: 12/11/2017

I've studied games more than I've played them. When I was young, my neighbor had a subscription to Games magazine and had had all kinds of games from the 1960's and early 1970's. Kinetic games like Milton Bradley's Roller Coaster and Ideal's Mousetrap were especially fascinating.

We used to build cardboard vending machines and I became more fascinated with the game as a system, rather than the fantasy role of a player.

To me, the fun was in tweaking the system (the game itself) to produce different outcomes for the players.

When 8-bit home computers arrived in the early 1980's, I was introduced to the DungeonCrawl and then bought Dungeon's & Dragons at a local toy store called Toy Chest. I did not know anything about it, except that it was some sort of text-based fantasy game.

Around 1983, my grandparents got me a TI-99/4A computer for my birthday and I wrote a program to use the random number generator to create, or "roll", a character. The D&D books were almost pure rulebooks, and I read the game system in detail but never knew how to actually "play" the game.

When I got older, I found some friends who played D&D, and tried playing once, but it was one of the worst experiences of my life. The idea that you assumed a fake "role", and acted out in front of your peers was horrifying. If I wanted act I would do it elsewhere. And the gameplay seemed to be generated from the whim and imagination of the dungeon master. "No wonder I could not figure out how to play!" I thought. The D&D world was not so much objective, as it was a subjective world of the mind of the dungeon master. This was horrible! It was as bad as playing the board game Scruples where you are judged subjectively. I wasn't there to be judged by someone else, or to act in a way someone else wants. I was there to challenge this world and see what it offered.

Like the Eamon adventures or Ultima, I wanted to go into this objective world, a world with the physics and consistency that only a machine could provide, not in a world with a childish puppeteer making me dance. I played a lot of graphic adventure videogames during those days:

  • Out of this World (Amiga)
  • Future Wars (Amiga)
  • Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (Amiga)
  • Myst (PC)
  • Riven (PC)
  • Timelapse (PC)
  • The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time (PC)

But I realized that the world I was seeking cannot be found in these types of games.

So I spent many years trying to capture the feeling of the dungeon crawl experience on a board game, because a board was a physical thing, something that ties us to the real world. A computer simulation is a virtual thing, and there is something lost in the translation.

My brother had the game Dark Tower when we were young, a wonderful game that I studied, and I also studied Stop Thief, a different genre, but similar in spirit.

I began to work on designs to incorporate microcontrollers into electro-mechanical games. I began studying game design, ordering catalogs from different game companies, one of which, R. Talsorian Games, spurred my interest in CyberPunk.

It was around this time when I realized that I was capable of not only designing and building these systems, but building the machines and systems necessary to mass produce them, and building the company that could sell them.

I finally built a working prototype after 23 years since the cost and power of tiny microcontrollers re-ignited my interest. It's a computerized dungeon crawl with text descriptions, using a physical board or tiles, no computer monitor needed, and it combines elements of the RogueLike and InteractiveFiction. I liked the design ideas of paper role-playing games, but not the subjective human "game engine".

The Dreamcast Shenmue series, which I played in the early 2000's, gave me a clue how this might be done. The key is linking the story, recursively, into a player's actions. Shenmue is full of places within places, games within games, branching into detail like the real world. It also has an epic storyline and was full of a lot of face-to-face interactions with non-player people, and the world changes in response to your choices.

Recursion, choices, storyline, people to talk to, and a changing world. I've been gradually trying to deconstruct narrative structure and deconstruct the RPG to obtain the core elements and then recombine them procedurally.

I fantasized about being a museum or theme park designer when I was younger, but what I really want is a cross between a museum (with some structure) and a nightclub (without any structure). Perhaps that was why my father built his discotheque in the 1970's, adding his works of art to it--he was trying to achieve something similar. Although he never seemed satisfied with his work, regardless of its beauty, since the physical world couldn't match the ideal in his mind.

I guess what I am trying to create is a form of lucid dream, where you realize this new world is not real, but the possibilities of experiencing and shaping this world are only limited by your imagination. Shenmue taught me the wonders of Japanese culture and led me to find anime, a wonderful form of animation, much of it containing amazing story lines and visual beauty. It reminded me that when I continue to dwell in my mind, with my mind's eye, I often forget to look outward, into the world, with my real eyes. But the two are intertwined.

When I walk around Washington University or the Missouri Botanical Gardens, I pay attention to the structure and placing of objects, the spaces that are created. These are wonderful spaces, and, like many forms of architecture, have a great effect on the mind. As I walk and my parallax↗ changes, I am constantly reminded of 3D engines of first-person videogames and VR headsets and how the whole thing may be a beautiful simulation.

A trek through 3D space is really a trek into the mind; the mind external, and the mind internal. It is a trek through information.

If language is a symbolic or abstract representation of information, artificial spaces are spatial representations of information. If the two are combined, and just different expressions of the same information, then the experience can be profound. This is the domain of the play or stage, but it is limited in that we are not inside the play, but just an observer. A LARP is such a play, but it is a role-play more than an artificial space. Sets are difficult to create and change, but clothing and roles, very easy. And my goal isn't to have people take on new roles, but to let them enter a new world.

But how do you create something that is comfortable for the public to enter, where they don't feel like they are wandering into someone's private world, yet contain a story within, something more real than a film or MMORPG videogame?

I built a fairly elaborate real-life treasure hunt game in 1995, and in recent years there has been a real-life room escape game↗ fad, and as of 2016, there are several venues that have popped up in my city of St. Louis. It reminds me of our haunted house fad that started back in the late 1990's. For over two decades, we have been home to a gigantic haunted house theme park called The Darkness↗. But this isn't what I'm talking about.

And neither am I talking about a similar nationwide fad of edutainment museums that have supplanted many traditional ones, to my dismay, being dumbed-down to the point of obsolescence.

I have been studying Minecraft↗, and find its complexity and sandbox elements fascinating. It is a game? What is it? I don't know. But it demonstrates that properties don't have to be engineered, they can emerge, and they can even magically come into existence when we simply impress our assumptions from a higher context atop of it.

Perhaps what I am looking for is a form of kinetic sculpture, a mechanical videogame where the objects are real, the world is complex and not just a theme park, where one is not in threat of their safety or livelihood, like the holodeck in Star Trek. It may even become an educational tool. The point when a videogame becomes a simulation/learning device is not clearly delineated. At some point a "game" may become a tool, affecting a different part of our "reality", but conversely, might reality itself be a game that we don't realize we are playing?

Consider the concept of sociological roles, for example. As children, we learn how to live life through observation of important "role models", and even adults can benefit by using the behavior of other adults (successful, ethical, etc) they admire as a basic scaffolding for their own development. Roles are philosophically mysterious things↗ and form the core of the RPG game genre. I have no doubt that, in the future, my written inquiries and hypotheses will seem primitive to the people of that time, as it has only been a few decades since we have been able to study the implications and meaning of virtual realities, as it requires immense technology.

We don't have the technology yet to create what I envision. People have been working on technologies like Oculus Rift, CastAR, Magic Leap, Google Glass and Cardboard, but these are virtual and augmented realities.

I'm talking about something totally different.

Somehow, life itself must generate the structure and the script. For life itself is the only thing complex enough to create awe and wonder. I tire of artificial worlds very quickly and instead become fascinated with the machinery that underlies them. But some of the simplest things can hold my attention forever: collections, numbers of things that reveal new properties when they interact. For some mysterious reason, we always see "new" properties even though the central rule is unchanged.

This is one reason I have incorporated elements like chemistry, physics, fire, water, and light into my creations. These patterns are not scripted, and not fully controlled, yet they have a regularity.

They are windows inside our artificial spaces where we can look out into the real world.

Imagine if you knew what your purpose in life was and were assured you had the means to accomplish your goal and that your death was not permanent.

Maybe this has already been done for thousands of years as mankind sat around the flickering patterns of campfires glowing in the dark recalling past stories, like the Viking Sagas, being in the very same world as those epic stories recited from memory, and reflecting on this.

Perhaps what I am talking about is simply the real world, if we were to find our path, suspend our fear, and follow our dream. Maybe I am not seeking a game at all, but trying to find purpose and meaning in life.

But there is something missing... something more... and we would need some sort of validation from a higher being that it won't all be in vain.

There is another avenue that I cannot yet see but know is there. It is a problem my mind is actively trying to solve.

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