Solitary Soundings

Musings of a solitary gamer. "The advantage of conversation is such that, for want of company, a man had better talk to a post than let his thoughts lie smoking and smothering." (Jeremy Collier) Comments welcome.
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Why You Should Play Games Solitaire

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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
Here in BGG, the overwhelming emphasis is on social gaming (with a strong wargaming contingent off to one side). So it shouldn't surprise me when I meet up with some resistance to solitaire around here. But sometimes it does. Or at least it surprises me that some people have such strong feelings against solitaire.

Over in Video Game Geek, it's very different. There, single-player gaming is the norm. And people who enjoy multiplayer video games seem to strongly prefer cooperative play.

To most gamers, I suppose the difference is easy to understand: board games are generally designed for two or more people sitting at a table together, while video games are basically designed for one player in front of his desktop computer or gaming console. Duh. But I was in my twenties before video games came along, and I guess I'm slow to adapt, because I still think of computer games as being just like board or card games except that one plays them on an electronic device.

They're not, of course. In fact, even back in the early 1980s, video arcades were filled with real-time shoot-em-ups. And real-time is what most people think of when they hear the term "video game." Furthermore, outside BGG, video games are what most people think of when they hear the word "game."

But me, I'm an old fogie, lagging behind. Last Christmas, my wife and I were out shopping, and she said she wanted to buy a game for a nephew. I led her to the board-game section of Target, whereupon she said, "No--a game. A video game." Oops. My bad. Aging attitudes strike again.

Furthermore, I'm also a member of the oddball wargaming contingent in BGG. I've been into wargaming (if not always actively playing) for over forty years. So those strange, complicated, hex-and-counter simulation games are not strange to me at all; they're board games for connoisseur- armchair-general-type gamers.

So, what does all that have to do with solitaire?

Well, wargames often end up being played solitaire. There's even a classic book on it, Solo Wargaming, by Donald Featherstone. It's partly because wargamers are so few and far between. But it's also partly because the games can be so complicated that you almost have to spend some time playing around with them solo before you're ready to play them with others. And once you've broken the ice by playing "just a few turns" solo, you'll probably realize that it's very convenient and can be pretty fun.

As to video games, they get a bad rap with outsiders for fostering antisocial behavior. Every now and then we see an alarmist news article about some unbalanced kid who starved to death while playing a video game, or who went off the deep end and started shooting people in real life. They used to tell similar stories about wargamers too, and about RPGers. The herd of humanity just loves it when everybody conforms, and just can't stand it when someone does something outside the mainstream; so the fears of nongamers and family gamers show up in news stories about rare cases of behavioral imbalance, with the implication that gaming might have contributed to the disorder.

Yet, about half the people in the world are introverts. And it's natural for them (us) to choose solitary hobbies like novel reading instead of social hobbies like team sports. A hobby is basically a break from the stress of day-to-day life; and interacting with others is what's liable to account for much of the stress in an introvert's daily life. When home after a long day, he wants to recharge with some alone time. If he's forced to "extrovert" a lot in the evening, after doing that all day, it's just going to be stress on top of stress (and, hopefully, a good night's sleep afterward).

Extroverts, of course, are just the opposite. If they're confined to a cubicle all day, or working at any solitary kind of job, that's going to build up stress. And in the evening, they'll need to unwind by socializing at the pub or playing games with family and friends--something like that. Extroverts get energy from mingling.

If you're an extrovert, you'll probably be happiest at the proverbial "game night," playing games with other people. Or if you're an introvert who has a solitary job and doesn't get to interact much during the day, you might be up for "game night" as a change of pace.

If you're reading this, odds are you're an introvert. Introverts spend more time online than extroverts, and only the most curious extrovert would read more than a paragraph or two of a blog on solitaire gaming.

So, to get into the question I'm raising in the title of this blog entry, one reason you should play games solitaire is that you're probably an introvert who'd find solitaire gaming a good way to work off stress and unwind. Unless you're a recluse (in which case social gaming might be better for you), you'll probably find solo gaming much more relaxing and enjoyable than social gaming.

What about those video games, then? Aren't they ideal for solo play? IMO, not really; not at all. But there are exceptions.

The typical video game is a real-time game. Or, at minimum, a game with 3-D animated graphics. The game action on the screen usually simulates human interaction in one way or another. A Wii game might have you playing tennis with somebody; Mario Kart DS has you racing against others. And since it's "just a game," and the designer wants to wow you with some great adventure, the game action can move along at a frenetic pace and include all kinds of surprises. In short, this kind of game has you "interacting" a lot more than you'd do in real life, even at a party or in some other busy social situation. That kind of game is likely to stress out an introvert (or anybody, eventually).

At the opposite extreme of computer gaming, we find the likes of Chessmaster 9000. There, you can sit down to a relaxed, thoughtful game of chess. You get to lose yourself in the game and exercise your mind, and there's nobody else around to rush you or judge you or annoy you by trying to strike up a conversation. That kind of computer game can be a blessing to an introvert.

So can a board game that's suitable for solitaire. If you've had enough interaction for the day, but you want to do something more active than just watching TV or reading a book, you might set up Lord of the Rings and see how close you can get a small group of characters to Mount Doom. Or play both sides of a Lock 'n Load scenario, just to make fun stuff happen and enjoy causing events to unfold. While you're doing one of those things, as a bonus you're refreshing yourself on the rules and mechanics, preparing for the next game you play with somebody else.

Some games have a lot of rules, as well as some complex mechanics. I'm speaking of games like Magic Realm and Case Blue here. Unless you happen to live near another fan of the game whose schedule is free to mesh with yours, you won't often get to play that game with other people. When you do, it'll be at a convention or by special arrangement. In the meantime, if you love the game, you probably want to stay brushed up on the rules and practice it. How else to do that but solitaire?

Board-game geeks like to extol the social virtues of gaming. And there are some. For one thing, games can be good ice-breakers (or "social lubricants," as designer Chris Crawford once put it); they can help get wallflowers out onto the dance floor, so to speak. Games also have a formal structure to them, unlike many other social activities, so once a game gets going, players end up interacting in polite, acceptable, and mutually understood ways; so eccentrics tend to be pulled into line, and everybody can get along. More simply, game playing is just a fun, appealing thing to get other people to do with you.

But on the flip side, gaming also has virtues for the introvert--for the person who has had too much of socializing for the time being and wants to do something semi-active on his or her own. A good game can be a pleasant, invigorating escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It can be a fun experience that doesn't require any other people.

Still, some who have read this far and mostly nodded at what I've said will ask, But why not just read a book or watch a movie in that case?

The short answer, of course, is that one simply feels more like playing a game. But I'll turn the question in a different direction and ask, Why would one choose to play a musical instrument or write poetry or knit a sweater instead of just reading a book or watching a movie?

Partly, I think, it's because a person wants to express himself sometimes, but not necessarily to others. At least not directly. If you play the guitar, you might want to just sit in your room and practice; you aren't always up for jamming with other musicians, much less performing onstage. If you write poetry, you might have a vague sense of sharing it someday; but maybe you wouldn't care if it was published posthumously--maybe for now it's enough just to write it. And that sweater you're knitting--maybe it'll become a gift for someone, but right now you're just working on your technique and enjoying the work and the chance to be by yourself.

If you love games, you should play them. And if you're an introvert (but not a reclusive one who needs more of a social outlet), there are probably times when you're not up for playing games with others. At those times, IMO, you should play games solitaire.
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