Friday, September 09, 2005

Gaming in the Park

(The following ran as an "Infinite Lives" column in Vue Weekly)

"There were people in the park, playing games in the dark" -- Lionel Richie

Damn, for a videogame column this thing's sure been unplugged lately; maybe I oughtta replace that joystick graphic with a picture of, I dunno, a bowl of chips or something. Between the sin-simple pleasures of Carcassonne, the board-game-based-on-a-video-game-based-on-a-board-game intricacies of Civilization and the majestic return of Dungeons & Dragons to my life, there hasn't been much call to fire up the consoles... though I did spend a big chunk of time with Nintendogs before I had a moment of clarity and sent that spooky pup simulator to live on a farm where it can be happy and have lots of space to run.

Part of the problem: summer sucks for games. It's part of the Christmas-centred marketing tides of this sick industry and there's no way of getting around it. Yeah, there's always something to get into if you must, even if you have to force yourself to pretend you like a third-tear nothing like Fullmetal Alchemist 2 (for example), but why go out of your way? Like, I got a package the other day, the first in weeks since the summer promotional stream is a dry creekbed, and in it, courtesy of Disney, was a stack of Kim Possible, Lizzie Maguire and That's So Raven GBA carts. I mean, fuck it; let's go out to the park and play board games.

I've always been a fan of gaming in public, bringing the hobby out from the basements and into the bars, you know? Some of my best gaming times have been in crowded campus drinkeries. Like this one time, my friend Thor and I were playing Monopoly in RATT when these two first-year grils from Lister came up and... and that's a story for another day. Today, we're talking about a hot, heavy afternoon, clear as a bell and made more precious by its proximity to the chill of autumn. On a day like this, what is there for a bunch of game-crazy kids to do but drag a sofa and a coffee table out into the playground next door, pour a bunch of Lucky Lager into an iced-tea pitcher, and settle down to a whipcrack game of ZOMBIES!!!

A trifle like ZOMBIES!!! is perfect for this kind of gaming. Importantly, it's damned simple... but it looks complicated; once you've built up the map a bit -- it's an emergent board, players adding new map tiles on each turn -- you'll have this very impressive city laid out, covered with dozens of little plastic zombie figures. Through this swarm of PVC undead your little dudes -- the Shotgun Guys -- must fight their way to the escape helicopter. Cards are played, dice are rolled, opposing players are fucked over... a decent afternoon of shouting "fuck you!" to be had. It's no masterpiece of game design -- the event cards are shockingly unbalanced and the endgame can become a tired slog -- but it does the job.

As we play ZOMBIES!!!, our little outdoor livingroom becomes quite the party centre-- we have a big ol' dawg with us, a chocolate Lab, and that never hurts. People walking by give us the thumbs-up, dudes wander past and share their hash with us, pretty girls perch on the arm of the sofa and laugh like angels, two couples decide to break out the bocce balls... and down the street, the cops watch carefully. They don't know what to make of us, with our comfy couch and our huge coffeetable under the tree by the soccer net... is there a law against what we're doing? Watching them circle the block you can feel them wanting to move us along simply 'cause what we're doing is different and weird.

In the end, they decide not to hassle us -- whether because the fuckin' Fringe gave them better things to do or because they figured nobody sitting on such a ridiculous heatscore as a Harvest Gold chesterfield in the middle of a soccer pitch would dare to break open-container and pot-possession laws, I guess I'll never know -- but their attention illustrates the downside of public gaming. It's unusual, and unusual things puzzle people, and puzzled people get angry. Spread out a boardgame of a coffeeshop table, and unless it's an accepted parlor game like cribbage you're gonna get nasty looks, folks are going to demand to know what you're doing. They may insult you; before I got totally, heterosexually laid as a direct result of that RATT Monopoly game, I think I was called "fag" thrice by the chiefs at the next table.

I'll keep at it though; this is a fight we can win, public gamers! We're where breastfeeding was, like, ten years ago; as long as we keep rolling dice and laying down cards, making ourselves known in public spaces, we'll be the norm rather than the exception, and we'll never have to hide in the basement again.

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