Monday, March 22, 2010

Three Decades Later, The Future Arrived!

Electronic entertainment has been a part of my recreational repertoire since I was a child, when my dad drove me out to the lobby of the Edmonton International Airport to play the first coin-operated Pong machine. Dad worked in air traffic control and so was no stranger to technology in theory, but a computerized game that you fed quarters to was quite the novelty to him at the time, and a real eye-opener to me. I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old.

Later on, friends of ours would get home versions of the same game, and commence burning the borders of the Pong arenas onto the cathode ray tubes of their televisions, many of which dwelt on the floor in wooden (or wooden-looking) cabinets. Sometime after this, cartridge-based video game systems, like the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision would come along, but the closest thing that came to our house in Leduc was the TRS-80 colour computer.

I learned how to program in Basic with the old "Trash 80", and while there were some fun games available for it, the real joy for me was when the system facilitated play between myself and other carbon-units. If you asked anyone I hung out with in Junior High or High School, the best game for the TRS-80 was unquestionably Gangbusters by Prickly Pear Software, a game with terrible sound and virtually no graphics to speak of, but which allowed 13 year olds to infiltrate unions, open stills and 'houses', bet on the ponies and most importantly, take out contracts on the other players. You knew you were out of the game when the message "They got you at the tollbooth!" flashed onscreen.

One of the other uses for this early personal computer was as an assistant to pencil and paper games, such as the clumsy programs I wrote to design Car Wars vehicles or the Battletech damage application that sped up large games significantly by removing the need to look at multiple charts.

Intrigued by what friends had told me of the emerging BBS scene, I also got my first modem for the TRS-80, a 300 baud only one step up from the acoustic couplers we had seen in the movies of the time, and logged on to some local bulletin Boards, most regularly Edmonton's The rrrrRock. It was there I first tried online games, mostly text-based RPGs and the occasional ASCII-driven strategy game like Barons, but they never managed to hold my interest. More fun was to be had, again, just connecting and conversing with other people.

What graphics there were back in those days were primitive and blocky, and stayed that way in my eyes until I picked up a Commodore Amiga while I was going to college at Augustana in Camrose. This was the first system I had seen displaying realistic images, and also the first one that required a dedicated monitor instead of a television with an RF switch hooked up to it.

Although the Amiga was renowned in its day for its graphic abilities, I mostly appreciated it for its word processing software (tremendously advanced compared to what I had used on the TRS-80), and for its games. Once again though, my fondest memories are of multi-player games like the futuristic sport of Speedball or the early flight simulator Falcon. I was nothing short of spellbound watching my roommate Rob re-wire a serial cable which enabled us to hook our two Amigas up and fight head to head with no delay. Let's remember that in 1990, the next LAN party was a helluva long ways off, so this was a big deal to us.

You would think that with all that preamble I would be only too willing to try out modern online gaming, like the initial EverQuest, or World of Warcraft. There is an online role-playing game for nearly every genre now, from superhero to sci-fi. Or if that's not your speed, strategy games like Warcraft, Starcraft or Dawn of War let you pit your mettle against your computer, or against your friends or even total strangers over the internet. But I just can't be bothered.

It's not that I don't like video-games, and unless this is your first time to this blog, you are already painfully aware of this fact, but the online multi-player games feel like they simulate socializing as opposed to actually doing it. I know there are advocates out there who say their online friends are just as close as those they have in the 'real world', and that's fine, but I wonder, what kind of friendship is it? Have they ever helped you move? Have they ever cooked you a meal when you were sick? Have they ever given you a hug when you desperately needed human contact? Did they ever set you straight when you did something stupid? Not everyone needs these things, but these elements and a thousand other smaller ones are the means by which I define and measure friendships, and the games that we play and the way in which we play them together are a big part of that.

So imagine how shocked I was this weekend, when a half-dozen of us sat down to our pencil and paper, tabletop D&D game, and with not much more than a laptop and a webcam, we were able to include our friend Colin, who moved out of province over a year ago.

Like me, there is certainly nothing preventing Colin from diving into a computerized RPG, or even trying to find a gaming group out on Vancouver Island where he currently lives, but it's something I have never done either. I play games as a means of spending time with my friends, my friends are not a means by which I play games, and the idea of being a middle-aged dude and finding out which of my co-workers or social peers would not be embarrassed or horrified at the prospect of playing such a marginalized pastime is intimidating at best. And that is for someone without Colin's street cred as a published and paid RPG designer and writer, for pity's sake!

The session was not without its awkward moments, but not nearly as distracting as you might think. I would say it would have been about the same if you had a friend lose the use of both of his arms who wanted to play: someone else rolls his dice and moves his figure, and that is about it. Occasionally someone would have to pick up the webcam and give Colin a bird's eye view of the tactical situation, but that was about it.

And no, it wasn't quite the same as the real thing, but that wasn't the point; the point was that it is as close as we can get, and that proximity is something that as little as two decades ago I would have told you was science-fiction. By means of what is now everyday technology, we were able to bridge a gap of some 1200 kilometres, including a number of mountain ranges and a major body of water, and bring a distant friend to our table for some fun and fellowship.

Now that is what I call a 'social network'.


  1. It was a great deal of fun. I'm not sure if Skype is the ideal client for this, and I need to be louder, but beyond that, it was pretty cool. Of course, the best bit was actually seeing and hearing my old friends.
    I'm not a person who makes friends easily, and I'm, really uncomfortable with the whole talking to strangers about D&D sort of thing. And I'm not interested in putting the sort of time required into online games. So this was a good alternative. I'm looking forward to the next time I can get away to my basement, and play games with friends 1100 km away.

  2. This post was excellent, Steve. Really well done.