Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Game of Life

Just how much gaming is too much? I love playing games of all types, so much so that it often encroaches into the rest of my life. At times, I find Life to be one big game. Something as simple as driving across town becomes a game to me. Each time I drive I will try to optimize my route from point A to point B in order to “win” the game. Simply finding the most reliable route is not enough, though. I can increase the complexity by trying to take into account time of day, whether the local university is in session, and other factors. I can even introduce luck into the equation, one direction might have a couple left turns and a stop sign or two, but the other route may be shorter but have several stoplights that can wreck havoc with a good run. Things can become even more complicated as I introduce optional side-routes depending on the situation. At one point, there are two traffic lights that can be bypassed by a stop sign and a bit of driving, if I note the stoplights will be red, I can peel off into the “alternate” route and gain a bit of time as long as traffic isn’t too heavy. If I get to my destination in pretty good time, I feel like a “win”. Little tiny wins can happen if I note a light is about to change to green and I break well before the stoplight so I can coast through right when it changes. As in any game, rules must be followed – no dangerous actions, obey the speed limits, etc… Although I will admit that at times I am glad there are no acceleration limits.

I think the main reason I view driving as a game is that I hate to do it. I find moving a little wheel around to get me to my destination a complete waste of my time. I’d rather be reading a book or playing a game. (Even in high school I would let my little sister drive me to school when I was a senior so that I could spend my time on more “worthier” pursuits. Some may enjoy the status given by driving yourself to school; I found it more useful to be chauffeured.) Trying to drive the “perfect route” gives me something to do while I am driving and (usually) shortens the time I have to drive. Of course, I do the same thing when I am walking around from place to place at school or on a campus – try to optimize my route, but I can still claim I’m just trying to shave off the time I spend “between” places. The main drawback occurs if I take the whole thing too seriously and get upset at losing my game. Being grumpy about arriving at my destination a couple minutes later than planned is no reason to be upset. Thankfully, I have a very short emotional reaction time and never stay upset for long.

This love of optimization comes into play in many of my favorite games. A game is much more attractive to me if I can analyze my actions once the game is over or even when I am away from the gaming table. Card games like Bridge or Spades are great examples of this. In a typical hand, each play can be analyzed to determine if I played the right card. At times, I will lose even if I play each card correctly, but I can console myself with the knowledge that I did the best I could. Other games, like Puerto Rico or Caylus, can offer up specific mistakes under post-game (even mid-game) analysis. They have enough complications that specific mistakes may be hard to identify, but a more general analysis of strategy can still be performed to see if I choose a poor overall strategy for the situation. This criterion is often the basis for me to dislike luck in games. I have no problem with luck in a game, I like Risk (the newer ones best), Axis & Allies, Bootleggers, and even Can’t Stop. However, a game that has a large amount of chaos (sort of uncontrolled luck) will typically rub me the wrong way. Take, for example, Poison. There are clearly opportunities for players to make mistakes, but (especially in games with more players) so much depends on what the other players do, that I can play a nearly optimum game and still lose. This wouldn’t cause a problem – I could console myself with the fact that I played as well as I did – but the chaos present in the game is such that it may be very difficult for me to decide if I did play an optimal game. If I can’t tell my good moves from my poor moves (bad moves are easy to spot), I don’t enjoy myself as much. Now, Poison is a game, and so by definition I would definitely be willing to play it – games = good. However, given the chance, I would prefer to play something else.

Now if I can just post this column onto the Gone Gaming site with a minimum of mouse clicks, I win…

3 comments:

huzonfirst said...

I do the same things, Matt, automatically optimizing routine tasks in my mind throughout the day. I wonder where this really comes from. It could be because I'm a gamer, but I'm also a mathematician, which easily lends itself to optimization, so that seems to enter into it as well. I also wonder how much gender has to do with this. A lot of men seem to be obsessed with shaving seconds off their daily commute (or any drive), whereas most women I know merely shake their heads and mutter, "Boys!" under their breath. Could this be part of the competitive nature society supposedly teaches our sons, while girls are taught to be consensus builders (so who cares how long it takes you to get to the damn store, as long as you get there)? Sorry to introduce dime-store sociology into the subject, but I really do see this pink/blue division a lot with this issue.

Melissa said...

But how many comments do you need to get to max out that particular VP track?

Scott said...

I do the route optimization game, too. Other mind exercises that I do when driving are calculating average speed and estimating time to arrival. I've got my daughter doing the latter as well. "How many minutes to get to our exit (mile markers are great inventions) if I average X mph?"