So that I don’t sound too miserable and pessimistic, we’llstart with the good stuff. Which is pretty obvious really - access toonline games means I can play more of my favourite games, play longergames and, perhaps more importantly, it gives me a chance to try outgames before buying them. Playing by email is particularly greatbecause whilst I might not be able to find space in my busy schedule oflying around drinking beer to allow enough time to play game X, I cancertainly find five minutes per day, pretty much at a time of mychoosing, to make a PBEM move. It might be slow but it allows me toexperience many games, such as monster wargamers, that I wouldotherwise never get the chance to play. How could any of this be bad?
Well, anyone who has spent any amount of time online will be awarethat interacting with other human beings over the internet in any way,shape or form carries its own pitfalls, and online gaming is noexception. Freed from the social norms and potential physical threat ofan actual face-to-face interaction, people online are often far ruderto each other than they’d ever be to someone in the same room. There’salso the potential for people to pull the online equivalent of flippingthe board - dropping out of the game - with less retribution and lesspotential for you, the polite gamer, to spot the miscreant coming andavoid them, since you don’t get the chance to see the greasy, unkemptlocks and thousand-yard stare on your online opponents. Wait - thatactually might be a good thing. But you get my point.
But when it comes to playing games online, I find I get caught up ina whole slew of issues besides these common ones. I suspect a number ofthese are personal to me and my peculiarities - indeed part of myinspiration in writing this article is to find out whether any of youlot have had similar experiences.
When I was a young lad I got pretty interested in playing Chess. Myparents eventually, after waiting long enough to ensure it wasn’t amere passing fad, bought me a cheap little Chess computer to practiceagainst. It was a pretty neat thing, with actual physical pieces thatyou moved around from peg-hole to peg-hole in the board. But playingagainst it I discovered something terrible: I could hardly ever beatit, even on the simplest difficulty setting. At the time I put it downto an inability to properly analyse the position on a small, crampedboard. But as I’ve become older and more self-aware the truth of thematter has emerged: that when I’m not sat in front of another humanbeing, my powers of concentration go out of the window. I’m impulsiveat the best of times: I usually avoid analysis paralysis because aftera couple of minutes, a built-in timer goes off and I make whatever moveI was thinking about at that moment. But being at a computer absolutelybrings out the worst of this impulsiveness. Online games often havefast, slick interfaces which just encourages me to click along just asfast to keep up, and an online session against strangers is a thing ofno great value: entertaining enough but without the social nuances andbragging rights that make gaming with a well-established group such ajoy. So I loose. A lot. Even at games that I’m pretty good at because Ijust can’t be bothered to concentrate. And if I can’t be bothered toconcentrate then I’m not really learning anything about playing betteror even engaging my brain to any great degree: I might actually bebetter off playing a twitch game.
Of course another reason I loose a lot at playing online games hasnothing to do with my lack of concentration in the medium. As Imentioned, these games have fast, slick interfaces which often meansthat dedicated obsessives can play a hundred sessions in a day withoutbreaking a sweat. The upshot of this is that a significant minority ofthe people you find to play against on sites like BSW are really, reallygood at their favourite games and will beat you, poor unregisteredpunter that you are, into a bloody pulp, again without breaking asweat. Between this phenomenon and my inability to focus, I’ve quicklysoured on a number of games I learned online because I came awayconvinced I was utterly, bloody awful at them only to find that whenplayed against regular games in real life I was perfectly competitive.
Becoming convinced that you don’t want to buy a game because you’re badat it isn’t the only potential pitfall of judging games by online play.Dominionplayed online is a fast and often satisfying experience wheras in reallife it can sometimes be excruciatingly slow and fiddly. Imperialplayed online is a deep game of hard analysis with little, if any, ofthe wheeling and dealing that characterises face-to-face play. Playingboth online does nowhere near as much to inform you about whether youlike the game or not as you might imagine. And of course, beingfair-minded gamers that we are who feel we ought to support designersand publishers in our niche hobby, most of us do the decent thing andbuy physical copies of games that we play mainly online. Which then sitaround unplayed, clogging up our shelves and gathering dust, oftenbecause the online version is both easier to use and easier to findopponents for. Makes you wonder if the Days of Wonder system of buyingonline licenses isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Which brings us on to the Ticket to Ride games. The finalthing that irks me about online games is the temptation to play a lotof a game that I don’t particularly enjoy just to ease some boredom,and I can think of no better example than Ticket to Ride, agame which I view as nothing more than a competent family friendlydesign but for which I’ve racked up a considerable number of onlineplays on occasions when I had nothing better to do. The interface isslick, opponents are plentiful and games are astonishingly quick andlightweight enough not to let the lack of concentration bother me. Sowhy not play to my hearts’ content? Because the answer is that thereare almost certainly better ways to fill that time: twitch games areprobably more fun, and I can think of a host of activities (such aswriting boardgame columns) that are rather more productive. Yet becauseI like boardgames, and Ticket to Ride is a boardgame, and theidea of playing against other human beings, however anonymous, appealsto me I fritter away hours of my time doing something which amounts tolittle more than time-filling. I just lack willpower, I guess.
Lest I start to sound too much like a grumpy middle-aged man (which,however much I might wish to deny it, I actually am) you have to stackall this up against the good stuff I opened the piece with. And inhonesty it’s quite clear that the advantages at least balance, if notoutweigh, the disadvantages otherwise I, and thousands of other gamers,wouldn’t bother doing it. I have pretty much stopped playing online inreal-time except for a few very favourite two-player games such as Twilight Struggle:in multiplayer titles I miss the social interaction too much. But Icontinue playing PBEM a great deal because it actually avoids most ofthe pitfalls I’ve mentioned - you can play regularly against chosenopponents rather than strangers, and I find the slower pace moreconducive to concentration. Indeed for some of my top-rated games, suchas Through the Ages I’ve never actually played a face-to-face game and instead have racked up ten plays and counting purely through email games.
But I remain fascinated by how the advent of easily available onlinegaming has changed the perception and habits of us, the gamers. It usedto be that every game night was a minor special occasion: people woulddiscuss it beforehand in excited tones, gather, play, and keep onplaying until they could play no more, and discuss it afterwards forthe whole week. Now a game is nothing more than a mouse click away, andthere’s no need to worry about troublesome things like actually talkingwith or relating to your fellow gamers - the experience of playing hasbecome as meaningless and throwaway as far too many other things in ourmodern, disposable culture. Which came first: the empty game, or theempty online gaming experience? I have no answer - you tell me.