Vidkids

Tom Shippey

  • Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best, Machines by Martin Amis
    Hutchinson, 128 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 09 147841 3
  • Dicing with Dragons: An Introduction to Role-Playing Games by Ian Livingstone
    Routledge, 216 pp, £3.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9466 3

Agonistic, aleatory, vertiginous, mimetic: those are four classes of game, or more accurately four game-elements which can be combined in different ways to create different genres. Mimetic games, obviously, are games in which the players pretend to be someone or something else. In their developed form we don’t call these ‘games’ any more, but ‘plays’, and furthermore hardly any of us now participate in them. We watch them all the time, and that gives one kind of fun, but the fun of mimesis itself is much rarer – regarded, even, with some suspicion. Charades are no longer popular; and while it’s OK for little boys to run round wearing Liverpool shirts or shouting ‘I’ll be Trevor Francis,’ this is strongly frowned upon for even slightly bigger boys. One remembers the games teacher in Kes who ran the whole football session so he could pretend he was Bobby Charlton. Everybody does this in their heads, just like Walter Mitty, but let it show and it’s classified as perverse, immature, not an acceptable form of fun at all.

Vertiginous games are much simpler and can’t have changed much (except for water-skiing) from their primitive ancestors. They’re games that exploit the thrill of falling, or not quite falling: skating, high-board diving, driving sports-cars, whirling small children round and round and round. Aleatory ones are games with a strong element of chance built in, dice games, card games, most of them dependent on gambling even if it’s only for matches. Finally, agonistic games are games with two sides. Chess is one, football another. They don’t look much alike, but in both you must ‘start fair’, both depend on tactics, and in both, like it or not, a major thrill is not playing or even winning, but beating someone else: ‘beat’ is first recorded with this sense in a sporting context in 1770, with reference (significantly enough) to cricket.

The classification above may not be the best possible – people still don’t theorise about games very much – but it does turn up several points of historical and psychological interest. One is that, over the last couple of centuries at most, the world has turned strongly towards agonistic sports and away from all the others. Football, hockey, volleyball, water-polo:these are the kind of game that people play most all over the world. Even athletics, though it has held out against the trend, is often organised so that it’s club against club, or nation against nation, with points awarded in such a way that track meets can be scored as if they were basketball. What does it mean? Is it a response to crowding and competition? Is it an urge to quantify everything, even failure and success? Surely the team element in all these games shows some kind of parallel with production lines and time-and-motion studies. Whatever the interpretation, it remains a fact that a hundred years ago most people didn’t behave like that, while even this century the idea of playing to a decision, like war-for-fun, has seemed peculiar or abhorrent to some non-Western cultures.

Game styles change. Could they be changing again? That’s the thought which emerges from reading Martin Amis’s Invasion of the Space Invaders, about the microchip games possible only since 1978, and Ian Livingstone’s Dicing with Dragons, an introduction to RPG or Role-Playing Games, these latter theoretically possible ages ago but in fact not invented till 1974. Can that late invention mean something, such as a shift in public taste? And while the advent of the Space Invaders can’t mean anything except that new inventions bring new possibilities, could it do something, like create a shift in public taste? More immediately, what kind of fun do you get from these games and how do they compare with water-skiing, darts or snooker?

Getting an answer to any of these questions from either of these books is fairly difficult, if only because their introductory stances are so repellent. In the case of Martin Amis this is obviously deliberate, and the author would be disappointed if you weren’t forced to confess it was successful. It is successful. In the first few pages of his book Mr Amis makes it very very clear that he is young, rich, well-connected, cosmopolitan, instantly sensitive to future trends, and at home in places where most of his readers would never venture. He has so many home electronic games he has lost count, he thinks nothing of lashing out the odd ‘few thousand francs’ to learn a new variant, and when he confesses disability – ‘Please repeat in a hoarse, hushed whisper: “I am not very good at Missile Command,” ’ or ‘I can’t seem to find any girlfriends’ – it’s done with exactly enough insincerity to make it clear he’s being kind to feeble competitors. Just in case anyone fails to get the message he’s likely to add that his top score on Missile Command is only 35,000, or that he’s never got higher than 37th on the all-time greats of Tempest, from want of practice.

It’s a relief he doesn’t say what his score is on girlfriends, but to those who get scores like 22, and who could only scratch together a few thousand francs by embezzling their daughter’s new bicycle fund, the rest is quite daunting enough. What Amis’s sprezzatura is saying is that most of his readers are out of touch, old fogies, Prufrock retreads, switched-off. His heroes are a new wave: the kid (‘kid’ it has to be) who kept the One Step Beyond Arcade in Illinois open all night while reaching a score of 16 million at Defender, all for an outlay of 25 cents; the unsung geniuses who defeated the programmers of Space Asteroids by developing the concept of ‘lurking’, thanks to which – if you are fast and skilled enough – you can play for ever and drive the manufacturers into bankruptcy; even the child prostitutes who sell themselves in car parks (allegedly) for £2, or ten goes of Space Invaders. This is real addiction, it’s implied, mental not physical, a Zen state only the pure in heart can reach, a new, unforced absurdism. ‘We live in a time of extraterrestrial hopes and anxieties,’ declares Amis. ‘I read a report somewhere that claimed that an incredibly high proportion – something like one in three – believe that all their thoughts and actions are determined by creatures from another world. And these people aren’t cranks.’

That’s why everyone plays Space Invaders, you see: they’re an icon for a new belief-system. Except in the first place the report can’t be found, in the second place its conclusion is garbage, in the third any people like that are cranks, and in the fourth Amis knows all this perfectly well, and stands by the theory only long enough to affect lunacy himself and slide ironically away: ‘The Martians have been getting out of hand round my way lately. I must get down to HQ and resume my mission. I must get back to defending Earth.’

This is a coy, coy book. It is funny, though, and what’s more there is in the middle of it a really useful account of how these games differ from each other and how you can learn to win. The appeal of PacMan is brilliantly conveyed in the vignettes of great loutish bruisers reduced to ‘helpless giggling nursery-talk. “ ’Ere, look, that red bugger’s munchin’ after you ... Hoo-hoo-hah-hoo! Whoops – he nearly got you then. Cheeky.” ’ Dead right, Mr Amis. Considered soberly, PacMan ought to create much the same amusement as Defender or Missile Command. What’s the odds if it’s Munchers chasing Lemons, or Mutants and Swarmers v. Defenders and Humanoids? But the difference is there. In all the Munchman variants the combination of childish bizarrerie with extreme complexity has a strangely crumbling effect – it’s farce instead of primary epic.

Still, when it comes to fun, where do these games fit in the four-way classification proposed earlier? What Amis’s evidence seems to indicate is that they aren’t really agonistic at all: you can score them, you can go for a record and your initials on the screen – but people don’t usually bother. It looks as if Space Asteroids and the rest are mainly vertiginous. You’re always on the edge of falling, or dropping your humanoid, or dodging Fatboy to run into Pimple, but if you’re good you can go on for ever, just like water-skiing; and then the fun is to do it on one leg, or (like my elder daughter with her portable Invader game) using only your toes.

Amis’s book has spectacular pictures, and a middle section written with love. A lot of the rest is padding if not rip-off, but that’s the style of the games themselves. It’s worth adding that all these electronic games, to be any good, have to have a ‘deep structure’ as well as a ‘surface structure’ – and that’s the way the designers talk about them. They want every muggins to play as long as he’s got a coin. But they also want the appetite to be whetted by a glimpse of possibility, an awareness that if you keep on feeding coins you’ll get good enough to play on longer, go for new tactical variants, find out how to ‘count’, ‘lurk’ or use the Smart Bomb control properly. Even Amis’s vidkid heroes are suckers to the men who run the arcades and sell the TV-attachment cartridges. For all that, I still feel an urge to embezzle the bike fund and play PacMan till its microchips wear out: the machine feels beatable, though it isn’t.

Dungeons and Dragons, with its whole spin-off family of Role-Playing Games, is much easier to categorise. It’s essentially a mimetic genre, with a strong aleatory element, and the agonistic reduced almost to vanishing point. What happens is that some four to ten people meet. They then roll dice to determine the limitations of the characters they will adopt, giving themselves scores on ‘strength’, ‘wisdom’, ‘intelligence’, ‘dexterity’, ‘constitution’ and ‘charisma’. If you score high on ‘strength’ and ‘dexterity’ you are likely to choose a ‘fighter’ role, if high on ‘intelligence’ you may go for ‘cleric’ or ‘magic-user’, high ‘constitution’ is the mark of an ‘assassin’, and so on. Within these constraints, however, and within the rules of the ‘dungeon’, or imaginary world and game-setting, you can let fancy rule: be an elf, be a demi-orc, be a warrior-priest of the jaguar god, whatever you like.

At this stage the Dungeon Master comes in, providing the faint touch of the agonistic mentioned above. He tells the players about the world they’re in, organises their choices of roles and equipment, and gives them a quest: to retrieve, it may be, the amulet of the Flayed God from the hall of the Nameless Ones beneath the sea-bottom, using whatever combinations of spells and weapons the players can put together. And then the players have to act this out co-operatively and against the DM, describing what they’re doing to him and to each other all the time and, as the session warms up, talking more and more in character and less and less in their own right.

This comes very close to being a child’s game of ‘let’s pretend’, as the uncommitted see with some unease. What saves it is the aleatory element: the players and the DM all have sets of dice, which are rolled at critical junctures to see if a plan works. The demon-powered assassin rushes at your group from the jungle: but you had,forethoughtfully, said you would have a sentry on guard. You roll dice against the DM (who launched the assassin at you) for ‘initiative’, and the winner gets first strike. Allowances are made for type of weapon, weight of armour, the dice are rolled again for whether the arrow/dart/garotte hits or misses, and the whole thing is calculated once more against the targets’ constitutions. The same is done for spells, prayers or probabilities, and the players’ joint unrolling fiction is adjusted accordingly.

Does that make the game rigorous enough to be respectable in this agonistic age? Perhaps, just. But Ian Livingstone’s book provides powerful ammunition for an attack. Its first few pages, written in the form of a scene from a ‘dungeon’ as it takes place in the players’ minds, are embarrassing to wriggling point. ‘Four were dead before the orcs had drawn their swords, and two more went quickly silent as Ragnar picked them up with his bare hands and smashed their skulls together with a dull crunch.’ ‘Dull crunch’? ‘With his bare hands’ – would it have been easier with gloves? ‘Went quickly silent’ – what a paraphrase for death! Replayed a little later in the book, as an event in someone’s sitting-room, conversation included, the wriggling point gets left way behind:

Ragnar: I drop my sword and, in true barbarian fashion, try to pick up two orcs to smash their heads together.

DM (referring to the Grappling Table): OK, you pick up two orcs, crunch their heads together and soon see that they are not going to wake up again.

What is disturbing here is not the violence – of which you would see a great deal more at any Rugby League match – but the players’ self-consciousness. In this example, as in most RPGs, the central motif is combat, and the players choose aggressive roles from a limited and stereotyping repertoire (after all, there must have been little skinny barbarians and slow subtle ones as well as the ‘true’ variety ‘Ragnar’ appeals to). However, the players never forget that they and their characters are very far apart; it embarrasses them (maybe because of the low status of mimetic games); and they respond with terrible, corny, wise-cracking pseudo-hard-boiled humour. ‘Alright, Mephisto, if you are so smart, what do you suggest we do? Politely ask the orcs if they would like to go camping with us’ – that’s Morri the Dwarf, from the ‘sitting-room’ section of Dicing with Dragons. And what does his colleague reply (Morri, you remember, is a dwarf)? ‘Stand up when you are talking to me.’

These are Livingstone’s examples. The impression they give is indeed that the imagined scene from the ‘dungeon’ is part of a fantasy novel or film: but one that has been produced by someone with no talent whatever. Most people, after all, have much less creative drive than most writers, or else they’d be writers. What fun is there, then, in a soap-opera scripted by a random group of the talentless? The answer, I suppose, is that it’s no fun to watch, but it can be fun to play, and that feeble invention isn’t noticed if it’s your own. Why do people play scratch games of football even when they know they’ll probably lose?

There’s something of an argument there, and yet the question of invention comes up more sharply in RPG than in football or even in chess. Livingstone notes that there can be boring dungeons, and tries to work out some rules of creation for budding Dungeon Masters. You have to have ‘believability’, he says, and ‘interest’. ‘Believability’ means that constraints have to be considered, like how you get a ‘stone giant’ into a room with an ordinary door; or how the stone giant relates to the party of orcs round the corner. As for ‘interest’ – but at this point Livingstone backtracks and says it’s ‘more or less the same’ as ‘believability’. And you have to have ‘balance’ as well, so your players don’t get excessively easy rewards, or, alternatively, get eliminated early on by unplayable dangers.

It all sounds like Goliath of Gath inventing the novel. Is the concept of RPG, you wonder, intrinsically childish; or is it just this book; or maybe the overwhelmingly fantastic component of current RPG games? Could you have a ‘dungeon’ called ‘Middlemarch’, in which the players rolled dice to be Casaubon or Rosamond Vincy? No one has tried it yet, though they will. And here one can venture a mild defence for RPG, which is that in the hands of a strong Dungeon Master with good players, you can get a developing feel for the realities of character. What would you do? What would you have to do? Could you withstand the pressure, the temptation, the pay-off, for a little compromise? Mimetic games like that have been used therapeutically, and it’s not impossible they could be used creatively as well. Maybe a strong Dungeon Master could use his team of players to help him write a novel – as it were, Dos Passos-style. Already some players are using computers to help them play against each other in PBM, or play-by-mail gaming: the novel in which all the characters have their own programmes working independently of their creator is becoming a possibility.

There is still far too much in Dicing with Dragons about how to paint your Gandalffigurine, or where to buy your copy of Fiend Folio, Deities and Demigods, or the other printed aphrodisiacs for the flagging fantast. The present conclusion has to be that if you compare RPG with the novel, or Space Invaders with snooker, you come, in both cases, to a much firmer understanding of the merits of the older amusement. The aleatory element in Dungeons and Dragons is a flimsy substitute for the many constraints and repressions in even the dimmest apprehension of reality. As for Space Invaders, its weak point is that, unlike D & D, it’s a game you have to play against something: but no logic-board, however cunningly programmed, has as yet reached the subtle malevolence of another human mind. Space Invader games must repeat themselves. Have there ever been two identical games of snooker? Or of cricket? Maybe the attraction of a good game lies in a balance between simple rules and complex permutations. The permutations of electronic games are too simple, the rules of RPG too complex. They can both be fun, though, and both are fairly innocent pastimes – even if Amis would like his to be naughty, while Livingstone puts you off innocence for ever with his warble about interacting personas, non-competitive satisfactions, developing personalities and together creation. As books, finally, these two are far apart. Only a devotee could like Dicing with Dragons. My copy of Invasion of the Space Invaders has already been snatched and recovered several times.