Remembering Where I Started

Seeing as the library over-due notices are starting to pile up, I figured this week would be a good time to write my third and final post reflecting on my experience reading Jim Rossignol’s auto-biographical industry analysis tome This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities. As you may recall, in this book he discusses his experiences with the gaming culture in London, Seoul, and Reykjavik.

This week I vicariously explored Reykjavik though as you will see I ended up a long way from Iceland.

Reykjavik

Rossignol focuses the Icelandic portion of his narrative around his investigation of Eve Online, the innovative, eclectic and sometimes esoteric space MMORPG developed in Iceland. His descriptions of the game itself and his analysis of its implications for the future direction of games were interesting in and of themselves. As a space and business nerd (yay markets), I found his descriptions of emergent game play via in-game corporation building particularly fascinating.

However, for me the best thing about reading this section was not the knowledge I gained. Instead, I found myself surprisingly inspired even though I don’t have any particular connection to Eve Online beyond a basic appreciation for its monstrous complexity. This feeling of inspiration all started with Rossignol’s explanation of games as mental models. He states that games “model things born of imagination” (146). Game creators may have a certain vision in mind when they create a game. However, anyone who plays it will have something slightly different in mind when he or she plays it. In this way, everyone gets something slightly different out of the game.

Reading this talk of games as models made me wonder exactly what it is that I get out of games. Reading this book, I had found myself feeling a bit alienated from gamers at large. While I have always thought of gaming as a big part of my formative years, I did not feel as connected now when compared to the passionate people Rossignol described. In truth I’ve even found this hesitancy creeping into my work on AOTW from time to time as I’ve found myself feeling like I’m not as into gaming as our potential fans and customers likely are.

Fortunately, the last section of this book came to the rescue. It may seem like a self-evident point, but in discussing some of the implications of Eve Online’s  innovations, Rossignol notes that gaming is an essentially experiential pursuit. He quotes an article from Wired: “Imagine that all you knew about movies was gleaned through observing the audience in a theatre—but that you had never watched a film. You would conclude that movies induce lethargy and junk food binges. That may be true, but you’re missing the big picture” (146).

This phrase really struck me. I realized that if I am going to be promoting a game, I need to actually play games again. At some level I’ve been telling myself that having a history of gaming is enough and that I don’t have time to game. But I think I’ve been wrong. If gaming is in part a mental model unique to the player, then that model changes along with the player. I need to experience that model again now in my current state of life rather than just thinking about “back in the day.”

Shortly after this realization, I got on Steam. First, I looked at Portal and contemplated buying and playing through it. After all, it’s a very highly regarded game in most circles. I may still do this, but it didn’t feel right. Not for my first foray back into gaming. Instead, I went back to my first love – Age of Empires II.

Words cannot express how much joy I felt. You might even say that it felt like the very first time.

I grew up with this medieval RTS. It defined my notions of what PC games should be for years and taught me everything I needed to know for World History class. But more importantly, I just always had a lot of fun playing this game. I threw myself back into the action and opened up a two front war against some AI-controlled Saracen  and Aztec warriors. As I watched my Byzantine Cataphract cavalry lay waste to one opponent’s barracks whilst Aztec priests harassed my villagers on the opposite side of the map, I knew I was back into gaming – at least in my own way. It was 1 am and I had to be at work for an early call the next day, but I couldn’t have been happier.

On a side note, it was interesting returning via Steam to a game that I had to purchase in person in a retail store back when I first played it in third grade. I know Steam is controversial in some circles, but I can’t help but be amused at the thought of my third grade self, equipped with “modern day” Steam access and a credit card: “You’re telling me that I don’t need to convince mom to take me to Gamestop anymore?! You’re saying that I can just click a button and play the game I want RIGHT NOW?! THIS IS AMAZING!”

Anyway, the medieval battlefields of Age of Empires are a long way from Iceland and even further away from the space realms of Eve Online. However, inspiration seems to come in unexpected ways, and I’m extremely grateful for the dose of inspiration I’ve received from reading This Gaming Life. It’s an honest, insightful and ultimately uplifting book. It has helped me get in touch with my gaming roots and remember why I love gaming in the first place. I sincerely hope that AOTW will one day provide some players with the same sense of joy that I have recently re-discovered.

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