Image of Go from Boardgamegeek.com

Gaming in the Analog World

A handshake is more substantial than typing "gg" at the end of a game.

I’ve been spending some time away from video games as of late. It’s not a sabbatical or even something that I planned to do. It’s just that for a while now, I’ve had this growing itch that I needed to scratch. I go through phases of what catches my interest. Sometimes it’s a TV show, sometimes it’s classic cinema, or a book, whatever. At the moment, despite a lot of great games that I’ve been wanting to play coming out, video games haven’t been quite doing it for me.

I’ve missed Magic. You know, the world renowned trading card game. For a long time, almost a decade, I was an avid player of it. Then around my second year of college I stopped playing, partially because it was becoming financially prohibitive, but mostly because at college Magic tournaments were rarer. Still those times have a special place in my heart even all these years later.

Last year, Hearthstone launched and a thousand streaming channels were launched along with it. I tried it out and got hooked for about a month. It didn’t have the staying power to scratch that specific itch. But I’ve already said my piece on that game.

In addition to Magic, I used to be an avid Go player in high school. A friend introduced the game to me and I latched onto it. But, again, I had to stop playing when I graduated. Unlike Magic, cost wasn’t a factor. However, the availability of games were even harder to come by. There are even less Go players in the US than there are Magic players. Every town doesn’t have a Go salon or a local hangout where you can play a game like in Japan or Korea. When I left behind everyone I knew who played the game, I left the game behind as well.

I used to check around to see if I could find any place within driving distance to play. Earlier this year, on a whim, I did so again. It turned out that that weekend Princeton was hosting the NJ State Championships. The Princeton Go Club host it once a year. I went once before, many years ago, and had a great time. It was such short notice, but some shuffling around of my schedule and responsibilities and I managed to put aside time for the two day tournament. At the end of the weekend, my itch was scratched. However, it was one tournament, and it wouldn’t be coming back for another year.

When I get into something, I tend to jump in with both feet. I latch on and don’t let go until I’ve felt some sense of completion or mastery of the thing. This feeling doesn’t always coincide with actual completion or mastery. This can be a helpful personality quirk when it came to college essays or job assignments. However, this can be a nuisance of a character trait when I decide to check out a long running television series or comic book. Ask me how long to it took to marathon The West Wing or read the Ultimate Universe line of comics. So, with the NJ State Championships behind me, I thought I might be getting back into Go. The desire was there and while there weren’t local places that I could find to play, I could play online. Yet, after a week, I found that I wasn’t opening the program anymore. The itch remained.

About now is when that desire to play Magic began rising up again. This time I had some disposable income, so I went with it. I looked up local places to play and found there to be about six times as many places in my area as when I stopped playing. I did some research, built a cheap competitive deck, and went to play. Once again, I had a great time and scratched that itch.

Like with Go, I went and tried Magic Online, a version of the game played over the internet like Hearthstone, and again after a few games, I found the icon just sitting on my desktop gathering metaphorical dust. However, unlike Go, I can routinely find small weekly Magic tournaments at almost half a dozen local comic shops within driving distance. Many weeks after diving back in, I find myself still going and having fun each time. The itch is scratched, but not quite sated.

The digital versions of Go and Magic are the same game as their analog counterparts. The rules, strategies, and fundamental flow of play are all the same, yet they are not the same experience. There are plenty of differences, but I believe the one that affects me the most is that there is a tactile nature to playing the game in the real world. There is the feeling of the Go stones on wood that gives a weight and power to each of my strategic moves or marvelous missteps. There’s the feeling of potential and hope that is garnered out of shuffling my deck of cards before a Magic match. I enjoy moving the cards around the battlefield, tapping them not as a double click of a mouse, but by physically turning them sideways with my fingertips. It is simply more satisfying.

There is an element of expression in playing at a table with real physical objects in one’s hands. The habits of playing, shuffling one’s hand out of habit, moving cards around to better mentally figure things out and, of course, the mental game that one plays by reading an opponent’s hand and bluffing with your own. That last one reminds me of another quality of playing games in the real world as opposed to in the digital one. When in the real world, there is another human sitting across from me. Someone I can talk to, someone whose own physical actions change the personality of the game. The same strategic set of decisions can have a wildly different tone and feel based on my opponent’s very presence. Variety is almost intrinsic to a real world version of a game because people are inherently different.

In my time away from Magic, I’ve felt a longing for those times when I played. Part of that longing is probably related to the fact that I was young and everything seemed simpler then, but part of it is that I missed the game itself. But in this particular instance, I think the missing aspect was the humanity that digital games lack. When that is what is promised by virtue of the game having always been a video game, this isn’t a problem, but when there is a real world counterpart to a digital game, I feel that something is lost, something that can’t be abstracted with the help of chat boxes, sound notifications, or whatever else. There is a feel to being in a comic shop, sitting at a table with a flesh and blood human being and another one next to me playing their own match, while across the room other players chat. A handshake is more substantial than typing “gg” at the end of a game. The white noise of people is more comforting than the buzzing of my laptop. The itch is getting scratched, but with real people, playing might become something more comfortable once again — a hobby to be enjoyed.