No human being is innocent, but there is a class of innocent human actions called Games. - W.H. Auden
I adore games; I always have and I always will. And while they aren’t terribly unusual things to be fond of, there are three limiting factors which will give you a better picture of what I’m talking about before we really start.
1) I don’t really care for games played by oneself. To me, a game is a social interaction between two or more people rather than something one does to amuse oneself alone. I’ve never been a big fan of either solitaire or masturbation; they both always seemed a bit pointless to me. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with either one, or that I look down on those who enjoy them, or that I didn’t engage in both at times (especially as a teenager, though far less often as the years went by and barely at all after 30); it’s just that, what I’m looking for most in both games and sex is something I can’t get from either myself or a machine.
2) I don’t care for games in which I’m not a participant. I find watching other people play games even more dreadfully tedious than I find playing them by myself. Here again there is a sexual parallel; porn and football leave me equally cold. Ditto for fight scenes in movies unless there is something else interesting about them (if, for example, there is some witty repartee or at least one of the participants has some unusual abilities). What I’m looking for most in both games and sex is something that requires direct participation.
3) I don’t care for games in which the stakes are either too low or too high. To me, a game is a safe microcosm of life, a space in which the unfathomable complexities of existence can be distilled into a set of rules which allow win or loss through solving the problems by which the game is defined. The players of a game based purely on chance (with no skill involved) are nothing more than glorified spectators; the dice roll, the pieces are moved in the only way they can be and the game ends in the same way as it would if different people were playing. On the other hand, a game in which the stakes are too high is not a game at all; it’s real life, with real consequences. No, thanks; I’ll leave that sort of thing to the professional gamblers and the Count Zaroffs of the world.
As you can see, these criteria eliminate a large fraction of what most people think of when someone says the word “game” (most prominently gambling, spectator sports and solo computer games). Of the remaining types, I like most of them – word games, thinking games, card games, board games, role-playing games, etc – and quite enjoy nearly any of them if I like the people I’m playing with. There are some games at which I’m not really competent to compete (chess, drinking games and most sports fall into that category), and others which are far too complicated for my tastes (tabletop war games come to mind). But by and large, I learn games very quickly and before too long can offer moderately-experienced players an interesting game. Of course there are some that, all things being equal, I enjoy more than others, and I’ve divided them into five categories for this discussion.
Of all the field games, my favorite was hide and seek; it’s the only one I still enjoy as an adult, though unfortunately it is rarely suggested in grown-up company (though I did play it on a call once with the client and two other working girls). I always prided myself on coming up with hiding places nobody else could think of, and on being able to figure out others’ hiding places when I was “it”. As for children’s board games, when I was very small I was quite fond of Cootie and a race game called The Happy Little Train Game, but since both are games of pure chance I outgrew them quickly (though I still own both and have played them on occasion just for giggles). The only children’s board game I still enjoy for itself (rather than for its nostalgia value) is Sorry!, a Parcheesi variant in which moves are determined by special cards rather than dice.
I’ve already described Switchboard in “My Favorite Things You May Never Have Heard Of”, but I’m sure you’ve heard of my other favorite board game: backgammon, one of the oldest (5000 years or more) games still in existence. While nearly any competent player can trounce me at chess, I have never met anyone who could consistently best me at backgammon. I discuss several more board games I enjoy in the next section below.
Though I am quite fond of both Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, neither of them occupies quite the place in my favor as good old twenty questions, a game which can be played anywhere with no special equipment at all. I suppose it’s my librarian’s zeal for classification, but I just love the process of cutting the whole universe down to one specific thing with only twenty well-chosen yes/no questions (for you information theory guys, recognize that’s only twenty bits). My friend Terrance was the all-time champ at this; I could pick anything, no matter how specific, and he would be sure to get it. In one memorable game in my late teens, he was able to arrive at “Raquel Welch’s left nipple” in only about 16 questions. Another favorite in this category is Therapy, which is similar to Trivial Pursuit in that players must answer questions to collect pegs in different categories; however, the questions are all about psychology and there is a further game mechanic in which players are asked about opinions or life-experiences and other players have to guess what the first player answered.
I was never a particularly big fan of card games, though as I said above I like them just fine if I like the people I’m playing with. One of the few fond memories of my marriage to Jack was our friendship with another couple I met through their son, a regular library patron. Every Friday night for several years we would go to their house, have dinner and then play spades until midnight or later. It was always the wives against the husbands, and though we always beat the menfolk they never wanted to change the teams (to couple vs. couple or wife-swapping). I don’t really like cutthroat spades, but I really, really like partnership spades. The only other card game I would consider a favorite is the first collectible card game, Magic, which Frank taught me after Jack left me at the beginning of 1995 as part of a general strategy of giving me something else to think about other than my myriad problems. Unlike traditional card games, each player in Magic has his own deck constructed from cards chosen from among thousands (only hundreds when I started) of cards created by the publisher, each with rules that govern the way that card interacts with others; constructing decks is half the fun for me.
Role-Playing Games (RPGs)
Nowadays, many people think of these as games played on a computer, but it originally meant pencil, paper, rulebooks and sitting around a table with friends playing the part of a character one created within the rule structure. Jeff taught me how to play Dungeons and Dragons just after my 14th birthday, and I was hooked; I was running my own game within a year, and slowly built up so many new rules and rule changes that my version is practically a different game from the official one, now in its 4th edition. I still enjoy this game more than any other; if I could count every happy hour I spent between the ages of 15 and 30 I have absolutely no doubt the majority were those spent either playing or game-mastering D&D. Once I started dating my husband I taught him to play, and though his travel schedule has made it difficult for the past few years we still have a (technically) active game going. I have created several game worlds, two of them extremely elaborate; my story “Empathy” actually takes place in my most complex one, which (if you’re at all familiar with D&D) may give you some idea just how far I’ve gone from the usual sword and sorcery setting. It isn’t the only role-playing game I really like; Champions (in which one plays a superhero) is a lot of fun as well. But D&D was my first and greatest love in the RPG multiverse.