Mark, from his place in France, has written about computer games. But first he tells us where it started:
I suppose it started at uni, with Dungeons and Dragons. This role-playing combat and treasure-hunting game is based on a map, figurines and rolls of the dice. And lots of rules, looked up in a book, for how armour, weapons, magic spells, and everything else in the fantasy world actually work. (How much time, magical energy and money does it take to develop a micro-fireball oven?) We'd collect together of an evening around the boards, dice and a considerable amount of beer, and play through the night.To which I respond: Boards? Figurines? Before settling down and remembering the thousands of hours I spent playing the game. And playing didn't just involve turning up for a few hours and rolling some dice (well, absolutely thousands of dice if truth be told) - we also created the dungeons from scratch including new monsters, traps and fiendish puzzles. I once designed (I think that's the term we use these days) an entire assassin's guild complete with its constitution - my career direction was set even then!
The idea that you could create a functional model place into which players could bring their own imagination, creativity and very large two-handed swords may seem unremarkable in this age of on-line gaming, but back in the 1970s Gary Gygax's innovation was quite the opposite - remarkable indeed. Never before had there been a game that put those childhood make-believe games into its system. And, though there'd been plenty of team games, Dungeons & Dragons was the first game to have both team and individual competition - you worked with other players to slay monsters, solve puzzles and run your fingers through the loot while acting as an individual player. D&D even provided a framework - the alignment chart - to allow such individualism to range across all the variations in human character.
D&D begat a host of other 'role-playing games' (RPGs) from Traveller, which involved romping about in space, through other fantasy games like Runequest, and even a Japanese samauri game called Bushido (with by far the most over-elaborate rule book). RPGs were designed based in the wild west or capturing the incipient madness in H P Lovecraft. All these took the same model - create a character, place that character in the game when he, she or it interests with other players, and explore scenarios created by a 'game-' or 'dungeon-master'. But, while each of these games picked up flaws in D&D, the basic combat and magic system remains hard to beat (and the basis for combat systems in a pile of popular computer games).
For me, the biggest thing about D&D was - and is - the character you create as this is central to the game's ethos (not, of course, that slaying bug-eyed monsters controlled by evil priests isn't fun). I wrote about it some while ago:
What you have is a cardboard cut-out character that would suit the typical Hollywood blockbuster based on some comic book. But this is Dungeons & Dragons and you can do better. Your level one male ranger (OK you chose that because you fancied Aragorn maybe) has to round out by interacting with the other players - perhaps he's a bit grumpy when he doesn't get his way, maybe he never buys a round, or has a tendency to quote bad poetry. While doing this, of course, you have to stay alive which means you need to co-operate - even with the righteous lawful good cleric.Looking back it sometimes seems childish to recall long conversations about what an imaginary character might do in a given situation - indeed, I'm sure that the worldly folk who though D&D was naff would make this point strongly. The thing is, however, that those conversations explored - through the medium of a game - a pile of concepts (what we mean by good and evil, the search for power, the benefits of collaboration) that would otherwise only get considered in the abstract. You learn more about evil by asking what a supposedly evil character would do than through argument, however reasoned. And it isn't simple, you quickly get past kill everyone and take all the gold (although I've done that too).
By the time Aerosmith (or whatever your ranger's name is) has survived to be 4th or 5th level, you know what he's like, how he'll respond to other sorts of character, his foibles and preferences. And with his recently acquired Sword of Daemon (+2, +3 vs evil things from hell) you have a real character. For sure, some of the character is the player themselves (we aren't all Constantine Stanislavsky, after all), but you'll have wrapped your mind round how to develop a character. And the wonder of this is that, for all there's a dungeon and a dungeon master controlling the game, the success or otherwise isn't just about the quantity of goblins slain or giants hacked to pieces but about having created, with a few others, a game within that game.
Dungeons & Dragons stretched the boundaries of the game (or at least the formal game - children had always, and still do, play games of imagination, what we'd now call RPGs) by allowing fantasy, in its widest sense, to arrive into the board game. The game became about personality, conversation, survival and growth rather than, in the old board game sense, winning or losing. Nobody dies when boys play cops and robbers but the idea of death is there as is questioning what is right and what is wrong. The child giving her dolls names, characters and roles does the same and we see it as a valuable way for that child to explore what it is to be human.
But, when children get to big school or thereabouts all this childishness has to stop. Games are either an entertaining means of passing time or else a simple matter of who wins and who loses. Outside drama classes and the school play there's none of this role-play and even the drama class wants you to be the person the playwright wants you to be not the role you want to try out. In the 1970s, for a bunch of mostly boys, mostly a bit nerdy and dorky, Dungeons & Dragons allowed them, without embarrassment, to play those games of imagination again. By making the games of young childhood fit with adult themes, D&D reinvented what grown-ups understand by a game, helped pave the way (along with complex war games from the likes of Strategy & Tactics) for computer gaming, and placed imagination right back at the heart of play where it belongs.