How to Win at Games

While I want to bring a singular focus and direction to this blog, I promised long ago that I would tell you, my readers (all both of you), about a graduate-level course I took on video games. I have decided to keep my word and add one more entry to the random, personal file on the soon-to-be-renamed Weary Productions.

 The class I took was entitled  “Communication in Virtual Worlds.” It had nothing to do with programming video games, which might seem to lend itself more to graduate-level coursework. This class was about what makes games engaging, how they help us learn, how they motivate us, the roles they have played throughout history and the different audiences they can reach today. This class was, hands down, the best class I took in graduate school. And I don’t even like video games.

The first two weeks of this class, before we dove into video games, we focused on card and board games. One of our assignments tasked us with creating a card game (not necessarily with a standard deck of playing cards, though that was not off-limits.) Most of us chose to create games with original cards, along the lines of Citadels or Mille-Bornes or Magic or Uno. One thing you learn really quickly when designing and testing your own game is cards you thought would be fairly mild can be very powerful and vice versa. You also learn that without some sort of balance, the game is over toute suite. That might seem obvious but the creation of the games sent even the smarter gamers in the class back to the drawing board several times.

I have found, thanks to my wonderful husband, that there are a lot of atypical card and board games that are really fun. I particularly like Dominion, and Agricola is also fun. Ditto Settlers of Catan and Carcasonne. And what I learned from the class is that the reason these games appeal to me is that they are part strategy games but they are also part luck. So those that are better strategists can be knocked down by luck and those that are not so great can be elevated just the same. The playing field is evened out and everybody has more fun. Regular card games like poker are mostly luck and are more fun for gamblers, and board games like Risk are more fun for hard-core strategists.

But here’s what haunts me about games and ruins many an otherwise fun evening. I am not the strategist I want to be. I am actually quite terrible at strategy and, because I have a Master’s degree and because I am, I hope, slightly better off intellectually than a bag of hammers, I think I should be better than I am. This frustrates me. 

My husband, also better off intellectually than a bag of hammers, is quite good at strategy. Really awesome, in fact.  If there were schools for strategy he’d hold the Master’s degree and I’d be in kindergarten. Like many of the “hard-core” gamers in the video games class, including the teacher, my husband just gets it. He can play any game with little instruction and be good at it. This really frustrates me.

The older I get the more I understand about the ways I think, the ways I learn, what I’m capable of and what I’m not. I think that’s probably true of most people and for the most part, it’s good. But the sad part, the really irritating part for me, is not all things can be researched, written up, reasoned out and learned. Some things boil down to instinct or innate, natural ability and we’re all, let’s say “blessed,” with different talents. I realized about ten years ago that not only could I not read a map, I was never going to be able to read a map. Man, I tried. I really, really tried. I was in London and I had my A to Z and addresses of where we (the study abroad class) were supposed to meet.  I didn’t think it would be easy – I’d already had years of practice at getting lost. After missing a class or two because I simply couldn’t find the meeting place, I sought help from classmates. Watching others navigate the maps – watching how they figured out where they were and how to get where they needed to go  – it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to do that. It’s difficult to describe but it’s a feeling of emptiness, like part of my brain is blank. Some neurons went missing and if there were directions on where to find them, it wouldn’t matter because I can’t read a map.

The other area where I come up noticeably short is in strategizing. The part of my brain that’s supposed to think three moves ahead and analyze the possible strengths and weaknesses of cards or actions just doesn’t light up. I’m knocking on the door, I’m ringing the bell, no one’s home. I do think I’ve learned a thing or two from playing all those games with my husband. I might be able to out-strategize a complete noob. But by and large I feel I’m mimicking what he does and if that’s the scenario, he (or someone else) will always win because he can think creatively. Strategizing is effortless to him, as natural as breathing and as unforgettable as riding a bike. Oh well, at least I’ll always win at Guitar Hero. What can I say, the combination of button-pushing and time-keeping just comes naturally to me.

So I write this tonight as an apology for blowing up at my husband while having my ass repeatedly handed to me at a new game we were playing (Penny Arcade.) In addition to being a poor strategist, I am also a bit of a hot head. I’m like Sonny from The Godfather. Ha, just kidding of course. But I bring it up because though my husband has never seen The Godfather, I’m quite sure it wouldn’t take him 14 viewings to figure out what the hell was going on, like it did me.

So I’m a few cards short of a full deck. I admit that I’m not the most determined person in the world, but nor do I think I’m crazy to realize I have limitations. How about you? Are there any areas where your brain fails you? Not only where it fails you but where you are noticeably upset or frustrated that it fails you? How long does it take before you just give up? Inquiring – and strategization deficient – minds want to know.

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About suitejen

Writer. Video Editor. Mama.
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