Holiday Play

The semester is winding down, and the Christmahanukwanzaakah is almost upon us.  Assignments have been submitted (and received), last lectures have been delivered (or attended), and (hopefully) grading is nearing completion.  Everyone around the Play the Past offices is looking forward to a much deserved break in which (among many other things) we’ll forget the rigors of the semester and spend some time kicking back with a glass (or two…though, probably more) of our favorite adult holiday beverage.

What a perfect time of year for each of us to share a quick word or two about the game that we’re most looking forward to playing over the break.


There are two things that you need to know about my (digital) game playing preferences.  First, I’m nowhere near as much of a PC gamer as I used to be.  I far prefer sitting on my couch and playing my 360 (or the Wii if I’m playing with my son) on my large TV than sitting in front of my computer (the same computer that I spend most of the day working on).  Second, my tastes definitely skew towards games that have a rich fictional story (usually, though not exclusively, of the sci-fi persuasion).  I’m far happier playing a game whose design or mechanics aren’t particularly revolutionary or groundbreaking if it has a compelling and immersive narrative.

This is why I’ve been saving Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood as my “hey, I survived the semester” treat.  I fell in love with the first Assassin’s Creed (despite its well documented and discussed shortcomings), and have been a devoted fan of the series ever since (granted, the only other title in the series is Assassin’s Creed II). I’m completley captivated by the game’s rich (and vast) historical urban landscapes. The game’s par cour mechanic (which I find quite exhilerating) and the engaging story seal the deal for me. By all accounts, Assain’s Creed: Brotherhood is a great improvement on the previous games in the series – which means I’m going to be a happy camper over the holiday break.

On another note, I think this holiday break is the one when I’m finally going to teach my son to play Munchkin.


My family got a Kinect for “me” for my birthday right around Thanksgiving, and other than my Bioware playthroughs and my desperate need to get through at least some of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood because of its classical associations, it appears that Your Shape: Fitness Evolved is going to spend the most time in my XBox 360’s disc tray, with an occasional trade-off for Dance Central or Kinect Sports.

What can possibly be antique about the Kinect? Strangely, the enchantment the device brings doesn’t seem to me to have anything at all to do with the ludics of the games made for it; ludically, Kinect Sports is Wii Sports is e.g. the sports games included in MonkeyBall DX. No, the enchantment and, for me, the ancient connection, comes from the performative aspect of using your whole body to perform practomimetically and, in particular, identifying your player-character with that whole body.

Your Shape is to me the best example, precisely because its ludics, even such as they are, are so jejune. Strictly speaking, it’s not a game–and yet I would call it a practomime, because by playing it you perform, with every muscle of your body, the narrative of your achieving those heroic goals so near and dear to our culture today–indeed, to that absolute arbiter of culture, the First Lady. Your Shape is the freely recomposed epic story of fitness, and the fact that I’m playing that game instead of the TV tie-in Biggest Loser Kinect game is really only a contingent detail. If I had to pick a single detail of the game as an emblem, it would be that the arm workout I’m playing through is called the “Men’s Health Sleevebusting Arms Workout.” Yes, that’s right, I’m performing my own recomposition of the epic of busting my sleeves. I can’t wait for the dramatic conclusion, when I have to buy a new wardrobe.


Having just started my new job outside the academy I am a bit jealous of everyone’s time-off-for-gaming.  I don’t have the vacation time to take a long break and am thus not going to have the kind of time one needs to really get into some of the games I have stacked up, like Assassin’s Creed II, and both BioShocks. (I know, I am always several years behind in gaming.) While I would love to get into Civ V I think its in my best interest for both job performance and continuing to persevere in my doctoral program that I hold off on that until summer. With any luck, my wife and I will find some time to try and get my Druid and her Mage through up a few more levels in WoW. I will undoubtedly have time to get into some board games. We just received a copy of Settlers of Catan as a gift, and I ordered a copy of Carcassonne as something to play when my mom and her fiancé visit.


Thanks to a great Black Friday sale on Amazon, I ordered Civilization V for myself and when it arrived I immediately handed the box to my wife to wrap up as a x-mas present from her to me.  I don’t even want to think about the number of hours that I’ve logged playing Sid Meier’s games since the original Civilization game but I’m excited to dive into Civ V over the short break that I get.  I’ve always been fascinated with the potential that the Civ games could have in the classroom and Shawn’s latest post rekindled some of those ideas.

Other than late nights with Civ, we recently picked up Rock Band 3, so my wife and I will have some fun fighting over whether or not we should play Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” or Pink’s “So What” next; usually I lose those arguments.  I’ve also found myself completely and utterly addicted to Angry Birds Seasons on my iPad.  I don’t know if I like the game play or the sounds and animations more.  And, of course, I’m looking forward to some quality time in Middle-Earth, catching up on the latest instances and the Yule Festival.


Unlike Ethan, I never stopped being a die-hard PC Gamer. I struggle though with whether my favorite genre is strategy or RPGs. I want to say strategy, but that’s clearly not always true. The crisis point occurred when I threw myself professionally into strategy games — it makes it harder for me to use them for escape, which is one of the things I prize so highly in gaming. So RPGs fill that need to be heroic, important, and powerful in a world full of challenges. This season, I’m hoping to jump into Fallout: New Vegas. I really enjoyed Fallout 3, though I confess being frustrated when I had reached the end unexpectedly, all the while assuming my avatar could survive any possible situation in the narrative without meeting his demise. I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic setting enough to go back and play the original Fallout, and now I’m ready for the newest incarnation. The big question for me is how morality will modeled in the game, because making meaningful choices with consequences is a feature of RPGs I love. Will there be truly meaningful right and wrong choices and will there be more subtlety than the traditional RPG approach:

  • Right = selfless squeaky clean wimpy (yet powerful) goodness
  • Wrong = sarcastic, snarky, jerky to everyone, kind to none badness
  • Middle = Affably roguish Han Solo – like behavior

Given only these three options, as I am in most games (though they are getting much better and I do love them anyway) I generally want to play a good character since I want to be a good person in life and have trouble making decisions in an RPG that conflict with my own standards. The last time I tried to play the character as an independent character rather than as a projection of me in the RPG was Dragon Age: Origins. I found quickly that I did not enjoy the game as much because there I experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance as I had to think through which choice might be consistent for my character rather than just making the choice I initially wanted to make. I am waiting for a game that will cast evil more in lines of an ends-justify-the-means philosophy where the ends might be compelling, and evil can be attractive, not simply childish and cruel without purpose. Maybe then I could play an evil character by crafting a coherent rationale or psychological glue for the character’s behavior that I could understand at least. I suspect Fallout: New Vegas is not that game, though I have heard there are some excellent decisions to be made. If it is, terrific. If moral subtlety is absent, then I am going for some straightforward escapist fun being a goody-goody character cleaning up the wastes.


I have great hopes of finding the time to play Epic Mickey. The only game console we own at home is a Wii (yay Father’s Day!). I find I get odd looks when people notice me playing games on my office computer (“honestly, this is research!”). I really have to get some lectures written for my next class…

I haven’t read any reviews yet. I want to be surprised. I want to be delighted. I want to be confounded. I want to step into that world of cartoons that were smart and edgy and had something to say (Warren Spector hopes I break it). When I give my virtual worlds lecture, I point to Disneyland as the latest in a long line of virtual-worlds-made-real-on-Earth; that Disneyland itself informs the design of this game makes it rather ouroboros-like. (I confess; I just wanted to use the word ouroboros in a sentence). What I’m really intrigued by is the game’s treatment of Oswald, once the crown prince. The idea that our creations, our characters, our toys have a life of their own has been a nightmare of mine since I was a kid. What better way to exorcise that, than by playing Epic Mickey?

What I’ll actually end up playing is a whole lot of SuperMario Brothers Wii, because my toddler likes the bright colours and music. And that’ll be fine!


I’m going to cheat a little here and talk not about a game I’m looking forward to but the game that’s been getting me through grading and other end of the semester madness: the iPhone/Pad edition of Michal Oracz’a Neuroshima Hex! (and yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title). Based on the Polish RPG world of Neuroshima, NH! is a tile-laying combat game with a post-apocalyptic theme—just the thing for the holidays. Players control one of four armies comprised of factions like cybernetic robots or mutants or human survivors. The game is played on a tight hexagonal grid, with each player drawing tiles at random from her army deck and placing them so as to either defend her own “headquarters” or attack the opponent’s, which is how you win the game. Different tiles have different abilities like melee, ranged combat, and blocking, and each of them also has an initiative rating which means that when a “Battle” is declared some will act before others. The essence of the game is capitalizing on the random tile draws in order to set up your killer chain reaction combos–once the board fills up, a Battle is fought automatically, and, as one commentator observed, it’s like “throwing a ping pong ball into a room full of mouse traps.”

NH! began as a tabletop game and then got the iPhone port. Had I owned the tabletop edition, I would probably knock out a couple of games from time to time as a filler in between the bigger and longer consims I enjoy with some of my regular gaming opponents. On my iPad, however, I’ve already played many dozens of games against the AI. I’ve therefore been able to explore the depth of game play in a way that is rare in my tabletop gaming.  Anyway, NH! is smart, fast, and tons of fun. Cultural heritage? Well . . . not so much.


One of the many surprises of parenthood lies in seeing which of one’s hobbies, interests, and identities survive intact the transition from carefree youth to harried Daddy or Mommyness, and which get left behind in the daily triage of energy, time, and attention.  I would never have predicted, before my children were born, that I would essentially (if temporarily) give up PC and console gaming, yet somehow preserve space in my life for tabletop gaming. Yet here I am, with two small children, and in two tabletop RPG groups, and the most electronic my gaming is likely to get this Christmas is a couple of rounds with the Bop It.

You’d expect it would be easier to find time for computer games than face-to-face play, but I think it’s actually the fact that it takes some work to arrange a tabletop session–prepping scenarios, rolling up characters, and finding spaces and times when four or five human beings can gather around the same table–is what has led me to preserve a few nights a month for this strange and wonderful little hobby.

I’m in two RPG groups at present, although my attendance at both is sometimes shoddy. One group plays an old school Dungeons & Dragons campaign, technically AD&D 1E, but it’s so old school they refuse to acknowledge the existence of editions after the first. I joined the game about three years ago, but it is in fact the continuation of a single sprawling saga that has been going since the early 1980s. Hundreds of years have passed in game time, and the game setting is littered with epic history, in archaeological layers that contain both the heroic ages of a fantasy world and the life histories of its players, from prepubescence through adolescence and early adulthood to ripe old grognardia.

My other RPG group is not nearly so single-minded. We rotate through game masters and a stable of ongoing stories in a variety of systems and genres. On deck the next time we get together is the season finale of T.H.E.M., an imaginary TV show about neurotic supervillains that we created using Primetime Adventures. PTA is a great little game, one of many ingenious creations from the indie RPG scene of the mid-2000s. It is rules light and manages to be both focused and astonishingly flexible. If you can imagine a TV show, you can play it with PTA. And watching good TV actually teaches you how to play.


  1. You guys are lucky. 😛 I’ve still got two weeks of teaching left.

    I didn’t notice any Cataclysm takers. In terms of ludology, apparently the newest iteration of Azeroth has shaken up the very concept of the mmorpg (especially in regards to taking a constructed world and moving the walls and changing the rules on everyone who plays, even for those without the expansion).

    Although from the buggy versions I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t seem like a big deviation from the original — just repackaging and a couple new flairs for a new hat. That’s supposedly better than just a new hat though.

  2. Author

    You’ve got my sympathies (about the two weeks of teaching left). As for Cataclysm, I’m personally not much of an MMO player. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, the cost benefit analysis of monthly subscription vs. playtime comes out very much against the game. I simply don’t pay enough (monthly) to justify the cost. Second, most MMOs are pretty much spreadsheet games – something that I have absolutely no interest in.

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