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Entry updated 5 March 2017. Tagged: Game, Theme.


For games as a theme within sf, see Games and Sports. This entry deals with games based on sf and provides a gateway to the extensive network of game entries added in the third edition of this encyclopedia.

Games are an ancient form of entertainment which have been part of human culture since at least 2600 BCE, when the Royal Game of Ur was played in Mesopotamia (see Board Games). The long history of Board Games and Card Games has, however, little connection to the development of science fiction or to that of such allied and precursor forms as the Utopia, the Gothic, the Fantastic Voyage and Fantasy in general. The first suggestion of such a link appears in the early history of miniature-figure-based Wargames in the first half of the twentieth century. While none of these games were sf, the most important figures in their evolution as a form of recreation for small groups of hobbyists – Fred T Jane, H G Wells and Fletcher Pratt – were all science fiction writers. With the appearance of board and counter Wargames in the US in the 1950s the form lost its connection to sf, but began to develop a larger audience. It also gained a sense of itself as a creative enterprise with a unique aesthetic – the concept of "analytic history" formulated by James Dunnigan in the early 1970s, meaning that such games could be used to explore possible alternatives to real events (see Wargames). This was in marked contrast to the view taken by contemporary designers of Board Games, who typically saw themselves as updaters, revising such old standards as the naval guessing game Battleship to include nuclear weapons or rocket ships. The early 1970s, however, saw an explosion in both the numbers of new game forms being created and the quantity of individual works which employed science-fiction or fantasy settings.

New forms included the Gamebook (the first mass market series of which was Corgi Books' Tracker line, beginning with John Allen and Kenneth James' science-fictional Mission to Planet L [1972]) and the Role Playing Game, of which the progenitor was Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's Sword and Sorcery game Dungeons and Dragons (1974 Tactical Studies Rules). Meanwhile, science fiction and fantasy became a popular subject for board and counter Wargames with the release of Starforce: Alpha Centauri (1974), and types of Videogame which lend themselves to science-fictional speculation – including the Adventure, the Computer Wargame and the Computer Role Playing Game – emerged as freely available works on academic mainframe computers in the US and the UK. As with board and counter Wargames, the designers of these works typically saw themselves as creators of novel forms of game, very different to those that had come before. It is possible that the appearance of all these game forms in the two decades from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s is related to increasing familiarity with computers and other complex systems in some Western subcultures. Certainly the sophisticated algorithms and emphasis on simulation seen in board and counter Wargames and RPGs are reminiscent of computer software, while the Gamebook precursors produced by the Oulipo group in the late 1950s were explicitly influenced by the structures of computer programs (see Choose Your Own Adventure). The connection between computers and Videogames, meanwhile, is obvious. If there is (or was) an inherent link between these modern game forms and science fiction, it seems more obscure. There may, however, be some connection between sf's affinity for logical extrapolation and "structured fabulation" (see Definitions of SF) and the complexly simulative rule systems which underlie many recent games. Certainly sf readers who play board and counter Wargames or Role Playing Games may find something familiar in the way they function as machines for modeling imaginary worlds, artificial universes which are often explicitly derived from particular literary subgenres. Players of Videogames are typically not exposed to the reality of their rules at such a fundamental level, but these systems are certainly apparent to the creators of such works.

Perhaps the two most prominent themes in the evolution of such games since the 1970s have been the relentless rise in the popularity of Videogames – often at the expense of non-computerized forms with similar gameplay – and the gradual fall in the proportion of new releases which can be classified as sf or fantasy. Videogames can offer markedly more appealing visuals than board- or miniatures-based games, at the expense of considerable development costs, and – perhaps most importantly – allow designers to automate complex sets of rules, freeing players from the drudgery of reading and understanding long lists of instructions. The result is that in the early 2010s the global Videogame sector is comparable in size to the film and music industries, but markets for most of the other new game forms which emerged during the twentieth century have disappeared or shrunk considerably. Board Games and Card Games, which are typically simple to learn and more dependent on social interaction than attractive graphics, remain popular. Where content is concerned, it is significant that the majority of the creators of Gamebooks and Role Playing Games, as well as many of the first generation of Videogame designers, were sf and fantasy enthusiasts. Early examples of all of these forms frequently reflected their designers' interests in these literary genres, which were often shared by their audiences. Where science-fictional Cinema and Television can perhaps be characterized by their visual qualities and "spectacle", these sf games could arguably be defined by their interactivity; their appearance thus suggests a possible categorization of sf media as either written (meaning essentially novels and magazines), visual (film and tv), audible (Radio and SF Music), or interactive (which would indicate games). In any case, Videogames soon began selling to a much wider market than most of the other new forms, as arcade machines, games consoles and cheap personal computers became widely available. Many of these new players were more interested in sports, racing, business simulation and spy thrillers than science fiction, and Videogames dealing with such subjects therefore gradually became more common. Arguably, however, a majority of Videogames which are intellectually challenging or have sophisticated Interactive Narratives are still set in fantastic worlds (or fantasticated versions of our own), a situation which may be related to the continuing popularity of the written (and filmed) sf and fantasy genres with many (though by no means all) developers.

As Videogames have become more commercially significant, the question of how to define games so as to encompass the wide variety of modern forms has attracted increasing academic interest. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2003), suggest that "A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." Greg Costikyan, in the essay "I Have No Words & I Must Design" (1994 Interactive Fantasy #2), offers "A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal." Many similar definitions exist, typically revolving around the concepts of decisions (or actions) within systems (or sets of rules) in pursuit of an outcome (or goal). While such characterizations seem clearly applicable to "traditional" games such as Chess and poker, they can be problematic when dealing with the various new game forms which emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Notably, Role Playing Games do not necessarily have goals, Toy Games do not obviously involve conflict, and some Videogames (such as those based on playing simulated musical instruments to match a predetermined soundtrack) appear to offer no real decisions.

This encyclopedia instead assumes that the limits of what a game can be were greatly expanded by the multiplicity of new types introduced during the late twentieth century, to the extent that it is necessary to adopt a much more general definition. The one chosen is based on the "Game / Drama / Simulation" model created for Role Playing Games in 1997 by the members of the USENET forum (see Role Playing Games). Specifically, games are characterized as combinations of three different elements: gameplay, narrative and simulation. Here gameplay refers to the "ludic" quality which is at the heart of Costikyan's and Salen and Zimmerman's definitions, and could loosely be described – after Sid Meier's comment that good games present "a series of interesting choices" – as the experience of a series of demanding challenges. Similarly, narrative refers to the sense of shaping or being part of an ongoing story which is discussed under Interactive Narrative, and simulation is concerned with participation in an algorithmic model which can be manipulated in the manner of a Toy Game, or of Dunnigan's analytic history. Particular forms typically emphasize some aspects of this model at the expense of others. Thus Board Games, Card Games and many types of Videogame, including most First Person Shooters, are generally dominated by gameplay considerations, Role Playing Games, Gamebooks, Adventures and Computer Role Playing Games typically emphasize narrative, and board and counter Wargames and Toy Games stress accuracy of simulation. This encyclopedia takes the view that all of the games it discusses can be classified using this approach. [NT]

see also: Game Design; Games Magazines; Worlds in Balance.

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