Rebirth of Gaming

Can gaming be a rebellious act?

An offline revolution is quietly retaking leisure from the videogame behemoths that dominated the gaming world in 2008. In the thirty years since their invention, videogame consoles have penetrated into half of television-owning homes in America by claiming to provide the ultimate gaming experience. And yet, a steady resurgence of screen-free gaming is taking place that promises to develop a viable alternative to the machines. A sense of excitement is building as fresh ideas are coming from a group of international game designers working within several genres. All are pushing towards a cultural shift by challenging the place of screens in our social interactions by having a fun time without them.

We are beginning to experience the effects of a global paradigm shift in game design that occurred sometime in the 1990s. It has taken a decade for their creative spark to be actualized in a playable format but a few independent geniuses, working alone and unaware of each other’s hard work, are now bringing their games to the market amid a groundswell of support. From the vantage point of a recent participant in this burgeoning scene one can see that the games as a whole represent a triumphant rebirth of face-to-face friendships. After all, the unifying characteristic of these groundbreaking games is that they do not, and never will, involve screens.

Game creators such as Klaus Teuber (Germany), Mark Rein·Hagen (Georgia), Andrew Looney (USA), Kris Burm (Belgium) and others are inspiring families and friends across the world to rethink the rites of leisure. Each has demonstrated that offline gaming is a viable alternative to violent and overpriced videogames. Simcity has been eclipsed by Teuber’s Settlers of Catan; Rein·Hagen’s storytelling World of Darkness is bringing imagination to bear against computer-generated visuals; while Looney’s Zombie Fluxx is taking on cardgames and Burm is overturning abstract strategy with Project Gimpf. Together these games are an affirmation of a future where the games we play positively change the world. The unstated hope of many ardent gamers in the new scene is that the dislocation in perspective accomplished by looking at one’s friends instead of a screen may offer a key to how we can relink our atomized communities.

Arguably, the most innovative game work currently being done is in the strictly imaginative genres. When played, these storytelling games exercise parts of the brain that otherwise lay dormant in the unimaginative or the visually bombarded. Storytelling games trace their genealogy back to the fireside stories that have been told since before antiquity. Currently breathing new life into the genre of storytelling games is Rein·Hagen’s World of Darkness. Each session of a storytelling game is entirely created by the players who act out the story by collectively imagining a haunted world similar to our own. The only equipment necessary is a handful of ten sided dice that can be used to determine the outcome of imagined actions. A good game is one in which the players have an enjoyable time sharing the burden of creatively imagining. Most first time players have the sensation that playing the game is mentally exhausting due to the work needed to lucidly dream without the aid of a television. The brilliance of storytelling games is that they enable players to look at the world askew, providing the creativity we’ll need to replay the world.

Guy Debord, the Situationalist philosopher, once thought that he would be remembered primarily as a game designer. An early visionary, Debord believed that games might provide the revolutionary impetuous and tactical training needed by a new generation of activists. In 1977 Debord founded the Society for Strategic and Historical Games and designed Kriegspiel (Game of War), a boardgame that simulates complicated, strategic battles. He was so optimistic of the game’s future that he once declared, “[Kriegspiel] might be the only thing in all my work--I'm afraid to admit--that one might dare say has some value.” Debord’s game failed for being untimely: the world wasn’t ready. But if the recent reissuing of Kriegspiel and the unexpected rebirth of gaming is any indication, times appear ripe for a game to come along that changes everything.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters Magazine and an independent activist. He is writing a book on the future of activism.

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