Sunday, January 9, 2011

Games People Play (Or Not)

I am both familiar and comfortable with the notion that most bloggers write for an 'audience of one'.  The main reason for my keeping a blog is because I like to write, but could never be bothered to keep a diary.  Also, because I thrive on pats-on-the-head, I am extremely gratified when someone tells me they enjoyed a particular post, or leaves a comment.  While I may sometimes address serious topics, Confessions of a Middle-Aged Adolescent is largely a long-winded justification of my refusal to adopt the norms of maturity, hence the high proportion of posts devoted to divertimentos like movies and games.

Games are a big part of my life, and I guess they always have been.  From games of tag and hide-and-go-seek of early childhood, through Go Fish, Operation and Monopoly, to party games like Balderdash or Cranium or pursuits like poker or chess with their infinite opportunities for competition, you can probably mark a lot of the milestones of your life with the games you played at the time. 

In addition to games like the ones above, starting in junior-high I also got involved with things like wargames played on boards featuring hexagonal spaces instead of the more familiar grids (courtesy of my friend Brent), and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.  Right around the time Audrey and I got married, Island Mike (who was still Edmonton Mike at the time) and I got into miniatures wargaming with Warhammer 40,000,  and while we both still play two decades later, I have added quite a few other ones as well.  In fact, I was even fortunate enough to spend 11 years working for Games Workshop, the British company that produces Warhammer 40K (as it's known) as well as the fantasy counterpart it derives from, Warhammer.

Having parted ways from the company in 2007 after a re-structuring, and having established myself now in what will hopefully be a fulfilling (if somewhat more mundane) career, I still couldn't really tell you if I should have left years before, or if I wished I could have stayed working with the company in a different capacity.  A number of changes have occurred since I lasted worked for GW, not all of them for the better, and they do not even have a Canadian office any more, so staying would have meant either more travel, or moving, neither of which have any appeal for me at this point in my life.  Still, I met and got to work with a number of truly excellent people from diverse backgrounds with similar interests, who were passionate about what they did, so I still count my time there as a privilege.

When GW first established a Canadian office in Mississauga and called me for an interview, I was pretty thrilled.  None of the jobs I'd had up to that point had any appeal as a career, so I had made a real effort to get one with even their American office in Baltimore, surveying retailers who carried their products and sending them a report with my thoughts and suggestions.  Being flown out to Ontario for a job interview was a very big deal to me, and I had no idea what to expect, but I was a little surprised when they outlined the day for me.

There were currently two managers sharing the responsibilities of running the Canadian operation.  They said they were both going to 'have a go at me' individually, and in between, I was going to play a game with some of the other staff.  They had a new game, Necromunda, and wanted to get my impressions of it.

It's possible there were other people there that I don't remember, but know Bill from Mail Order was there and so was Aaron, one of the warehouse supervisors.  It was my first time playing a skirmish type game, where the figures moved independently instead of as part of a unit, and the game came with a number of multi-level terrain features with catwalks spanning between them, so it was a real departure from what I was used to.  We all had a pretty good time, and I figured it was a good way to see if I actually played miniature games or just read the books, as well as seeing how quickly I could pick up on things like new rules.

About six months later Audrey and I had moved to Etobicoke, and I was adapting to life with the new company.  Pretty much everyone I worked with was excellent, but as in all work places, there were a couple of exceptions.  One evening, I saw one of the exceptions get called into Ed's office, along with Aaron.  A short while later, he left, red-faced and wordlessly, and it was obvious to the handful of us around that he had been sacked.  Ed came out and told us that this was, in fact, exactly what had happened, without going into the hows and whys of it, but then shocked me by saying it never would have come to this if they had simply played a game with him first.

"Seriously?" I gaped.

Ed nodded.  "You can tell a lot about people from the way they play games, even ones where no money's at stake.  Are they fair, are they sporting, are they greedy, all that sort of thing.  The first time we had a big staff game, that one," cocking his head to the door the sackee had left from, "made a complete arse out of himself."

"But that's not why you sacked him," I asserted nervously.

"Of course not!" Ed laughed.  "But everyone treated him differently after that, and it became obvious pretty quickly that these were not little quirks any gamer might have, or maybe an off night, but telltales about flaws in his character.  We're big on character here, so after that game, it was really only a matter of time."

"That makes sense," I agreed, and then I finally twigged.  "Wait, is that the reason you had me play with Bill and Aaron?"

Ed looked at me with a puzzled expression.  "Of course."

While I wouldn't want to judge a person solely on the manner in which they play a game ("So, you always play a thief in D&D?  Are you naturally inclined to deceit and backstabbery, or are you just greedy?"), I know that there are many people in the world who I get along with just fine that I would not want to play games with.  Some are morose, others too distracted, still others way to intense.  Some people are way too competitive, and others are just not competitive enough.  It can be very subjective, but games can often provide us these insights into what other people consider important.  It's also a great way to express what is important to you.

Now that I am a parent, games are an incredibly valuable tool for Audrey and I, and not just for developmental benefits like fine motor control or literacy or numeracy (although these are all good things), but also as a way of developing character.

Games are one of the best ways to learn about things like:
  • Taking care of things
  • Waiting your turn
  • Sharing
  • Thinking ahead
  • Being a good loser
  • Being a gracious winner
  • Not giving up
  • How to play fair
  • How to play to win
  • When winning isn't important
The adults I know who don't enjoy playing games have often had a bad experience with them, sometimes at the hands of a family member, often dealing with a mis-application of something from the list above. Even these folks can enjoy the right game in the right context, especially if you make it clear that your goal of having fun is not intrinsically linked to your winning the game.  (Although, let's admit it; it is awfully nice, eh?)

Sadly, these things get overlooked regularly in the school curricula, so it is up to parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and mentors and friends of the family to come to the kitchen table (or the basement or the rumpus room television) and show them how.  We'll all have some fun, and some of us alleged grownups might even learn something.

The best thing of all is when children model those lessons back to you.  After missing an easy dice roll in a game with the girls, I let out a dramatic "Arrgh!" and brought my fist down on the table in mock fury.  Glory reached for the dice with one hand while patting my shoulder with the other.  "It's okay, Daddy," she said in the serious tones that only an eight-year old can muster.  "After all, it's only a game."


  1. I remember when Pete told me you had got that job. I was living in Winnipeg at the time. Though I was happy for you, I was also incredibly jealous. After all, I had sold you those first Warhammer 40k minis, after I tried to make heads or tails of the beautiful, but badly-organized Rogue Trader book. A career in gaming would have been a dream job for me.
    For me, games have always been an excuse for social interaction. Being really bad at small talk, less structured gatherings always left me with nothing to say. Since I'm not particularly interested in sports, cars, or whatever the hell it is people talk about about, games provided me with a topic.

  2. Actually, I started with the 40K second edition boxed set, asked Boog if he still had his models, which he didn't, but he referred me to you, and I think I traded you a bunch of stuff (Gaming or sci-fi oriented maybe, but also including an ice scraper mitt and a battery powered lock de-icer) for a Mk I Land Raider and Chaplain on motorbike.

    I also don't think you are bad at small talk, you just don't appreciate the mundane variety, same as me. Hell dude, if by small you mean 'inconsequential or trivial', I would argue that is the lion's share of what we *do* talk about! Sports and weather need not apply.

  3. I felt very bad when you and Games Workshop parted ways, but clearly your love of gaming still provides you with value every day. I, too, love a good game, both as social lubricant and mental stimulator. A good game with friends and family is a joyful thing.

  4. And I wondered how I should feel about this part:
    "So, you always play a thief in D&D? Are you naturally inclined to deceit and backstabbery, or are you just greedy?"
    As Hicks would say, "none taken."