Friday, September 19, 2008

Saving the World, One Toy Soldier at a Time

Time to get political, but in a gaming way.

MSN recently asked the question, "is America on the decline?" Many people are passionate in their belief that the USA is sinking quicker than the Titanic. The economy sucks. Just look at the stagnant housing market and the recent woes on Wall Street if you need proof about that. Consumerism runs rampant through our society.

We're mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that show no immediate signs of ending, while more and more American boys are killed and maimed each day. Diplomatically, more and more of the world hates us with each passing day.

Faith in our politicians to remedy these problems has faded to an all-time low. So what do we do about it?

Well... I'm an American. I'm also a miniature wargamer. And you can learn a lot from a miniature wargamer. Sometimes more stuff than you really care to know. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something valuable from the way these gamers approach their hobby and use that knowledge to model changes in American culture? Hell, it's worth a shot, right?

You probably think I've been smoking crack or that I've been toking on the Wacky Weedus. Maybe you just think I'm a jackass. That's okay, but please bear with me.

It seems to me that our society is plagued by 3 evils that will eventually drive us to ruin unless eradicated. Those three bugaboos are (1) rampant consumerism, (2) an entitlement mentality, and (3) the general malaise of laziness that has crept into our culture.

Rampant consumerism revolves around our society's need to buy everything they see, whether it's really needed or not, and then throw it away in search of the next big thing to lust after. Today's American culture is burdened by the "gotta have that, and gotta have it now!" mindset. We're big-time gluttons.

Take video games as a sub-group. There's a palpable lack of innovation in the video/computer game industry. For years, vidiots have been stuck with a never ending flow of 1st-Person shooters, RPG adventure games, and interactive sports games. Not that there's anything wrong with these popular genres, but when will new ground really be broken here? The video game industry is driven by giant companies hoping that they'll produce one mega-hit out of a bunch of mostly lackluster titles and that one hit game will make them rich. If they produce a hit, they continue to make slight variations of that game formula, over and over and over again. The little software companies don't have the financial resources to develop and market their products to a large audience, and as a result, innovation on the whole suffers.

So what do video gamers do? They scarf up a butt-load of new games, churning through title after title like Pac-Man on speed. Most of them are mediocre rehashes of a few great games, and end up getting pawned back to GameStop or auctioned on eBay for pennies on the dollar. Not to mention that even the best video games don't really last. I have board games and miniatures from the 1970's that I still use today. How many video gamers can claim the same thing? Technology charges ahead, rapidly making older games extinct. It's a consumerism based industry. You gotta buy the latest & greatest games now! Once you buy into that, it's hard for addicted vidiots to jump off the merry-go-wheel.

More and more Americans have also been brainwashed to accept an Entitlement Mentality. Young people feel that society owes them a good job that pays high wages. Customers feel that no matter how unreasonable their demands are or how rudely they act, that companies simply owe them fantastic, bend-over-backwards customer service. Ultra left-wing thinkers believe that everyone should have a nice home and get free health care, even if they make zero-effort to get a job and contribute something helpful to society. People are clamoring for more and more free stuff all the time. C'mon gimme free stuff! Gimme gimme gimme! You owe us!

This mentality of entitlement fosters a delusional sense of pride in Americans. If they're entitled to good things it's only because they deserve it. Oh yes, don't you think for a minute that we don't deserve these things. By God, we're Americans. We're the greatest nation in the world. We're smarter, stronger, and richer than everyone else. We're better than everyone else. George Bush and all of our politicians believe this. They're swelling with pride. It's the kind of pride that infers we can do no wrong.

Too much pride is a dangerous thing. A self-absorbed, vain society is one that asserts how it's always right and everyone else is always wrong. And that's just ridiculous because nobody in the world is always right. We're not gods.

When I think of pride like this in terms of gaming, the great "Euro vs. Ameritrash" debate in the boardgaming world quickly comes to mind. Surf on over to the BoardGameGeek website and you will inevitably stumble upon a myriad of forum posts from Euro-gamers asserting their intellectual superiority and telling you why "their games" are so much better than the inelegant, overly time-consuming, and mindless adventure games and wargames that you play. They profess to know what true gaming genius is. If you disagree with them or criticize a Euro-game for being bland or too lightweight, they become apoplectic and spew an endless stream of venomous words.

But Euro-gamers aren't the only ones who are prideful. There's a whole contingent of Ameritrashers (those who enjoy meaty, old school, theme-rich games about war, zombies, space-men, pirates, and monsters) who can hurl insults with the best of them. In fact, the debate over at BGG has gotten so heated that a group of Ameritrash game enthusiasts, feeling unloved and jabbed in their pride-swelled egos, have formed their own website called Fortress Ameritrash. To them, it's the last bastion of sanity in a world filled with foofy Euro-snoots who don't share their impeccable taste in games.

And lastly, we come to the general malaise of laziness that pervades our culture. America didn't always act this way. We were once manufacturing giants, technological innovators, and financial gurus. American people built our country on an ethic of hard-work. We put our minds and bodies to the test and great things were accomplished.

Fast forward to today. It's sad to look at the back/bottom of so many products and see the words "Made in China" instead of "Made in the USA". We're outsourcing tons of technical jobs to India and other foreign nations. Perhaps it's because people just don't want to work as hard anymore. Why should they; they're entitled to take it easy after all. Americans just want to work hard enough to bring home a decent paycheck, and then sit back and buy more and more shiny things that provide the illusion of happiness. They can't be bothered to solve the problems of the world anymore.

Much of the gaming world has responded to our culture's overall laziness in concrete ways.

Remember back in the 80's when you played adventure games like Zork and had to figure out all the riddles yourself? Nowadays you just buy the cheat-book to your favorite video game and it tells you all the secrets you need to know. Remember when you could look at the actual source-code of games you played on your Apple II+? If you were really curious and hands-on enough, you could learn Basic programming and tweak the code to do new things. I fondly remember editing some lines in my Tuesday Night Football software so that I could play games with Dracula at QB, Frankenstein at tailback, and the Wolfman at wide-receiver instead of using the Cowboys and Steelers rosters that came with the game. I don't see too many average Joes doing those kinds of things today (most programs aren't designed to allow that sort of thing).

In the board-gaming world, the explosion of light, family-friendly Euro games is a clear indicator that the majority of people want fast-playing games where they don't have to think very hard. While Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are both fantastic games, they're certainly not brain-burners that you immerse yourself in for 3 hours. Playing long games with fairly complex rules just takes too much effort for most folks.

So what's the solution to these cultural woes? Well, you've stayed with me for this long, so let me put it to you simply: we need to think more like veteran miniature wargamers. Seriously.

Unlike the gluttons of our society who buy up all the latest mass-market stuff only to throw it away in short order in search of something new, the veteran miniature-gamer tends to hold onto his precious toy soldiers for a long time. This isn't a quick-fix hobby. Buying miniatures in any appreciable quantity can be costly. So you need to pace yourself. You buy what you can afford and build up your minis collection slowly, over a period of years. Remember that H.G. Wells wrote his famous miniature wargaming book, Little Wars, in 1913. People have been playing with toy soldiers ever since. You don't have to buy every single available model today; they're not going to run out anytime soon!

Miniature wargamers who paint their own models become very attached to their little guys. When you spend all that time putting your own love & attention into something, you don't just toss it aside willy nilly. So while many of us will be the first to admit that mini-gamers love to amass scores of toy soldiers, they're usually treated like tiny treasures, often passed down to friends and family through generations. This isn't a chew'em up, spit 'em out glutton-fest.

By and large, I never think of miniature wargamers as being lazy. They work hard to enjoy their hobby. This form of gaming takes some effort. You've got to plan what types of armies you want to build and research the marketplace to discover what available models are out there. If you buy a batch of unpainted models, then you'll need to set aside time to assemble and paint them. Or if you're lacking free time or artistic talent, you can pay someone else to paint the soldiers for you. Or you can buy pro-painted figures at conventions or off eBay. All of this requires you to get up off your ass and do some planning, and what you ultimately decide is whether you're more comfortable spending time or money.

Mini-gamers are typically a highly creative bunch; much more so than any other type of gamer. They paint. They build things. They dabble in writing their own home-grown rules. They build fictional armies and craft background stories for fictional leaders & heroes that fight for fictional countries. They read history or fantasy/sci-fi to get cool ideas to use in their games. No my friends, being a miniature wargamer is not the domain of the lazy. You need to work at your fun.

While every gaggle of gamers has its overzealous know-it-alls and holier-than-thou jerks, my experience with the majority of veteran mini-gamers is that they're an extremely hospitable bunch. We respect the effort that our peers put into painting their figures, writing their own rules, and crafting their own battle scenarios, because we've done it ourselves and appreciate all the effort it takes to accomplish those things. Miniature wargaming is such a broad-hobby from a creative perspective that you can't help but be humbled by the variety of people doing amazing things with their various talents.

While we take pride in being able to outsmart a friend in a head-to-head military conflict, us old-school tabletop generals value good sportsmanship and know that it's wise to be gracious when we've gotten the stuffing beaten out of our tiny tin army. Friendly competition is what it's all about.

What I've learned over the years as a miniature wargamer is that owning more models doesn't make you happy. Consumerism isn't the answer. When your closet is loaded with too many boxes of unpainted tin soldiers all you feel is overwhelmed that you'll never have time to paint everything.

I've learned that having an inflated sense of pride is just a quicker way to make enemies. There are all types of people involved in the miniature wargaming hobby. Some are masterful painters. Some are innovative rules writers and scenario designers. Some are historians. Some can build wondrous terrain. Some are fantastic storytellers. We should embrace them all, because they all have something to offer. You're not better than they are; you're simply a part of their number.

Happiness in the miniature wargaming hobby is gained through the journey. You can't sit back and wait for everything to magically fall into your lap. You must do something. The thrill of the hunt as you search for cool models to add to your collection is a lot of fun. Taking the time to paint your own models is artistically fulfilling. Those are your shiny little masterpieces! Crafting your own scenarios or wargame rules set is tremendously satisfying. So soak it all in and enjoy the ride for as long as you can.

So America listen to us wily miniature wargamers. When you buy things, savor them. Don't be a voracious glutton hungrily chasing down material nuggets with the hope that the more you consume, the happier you'll become. Check your pride at the door. Don't feel that you're entitled to things because you're better than everyone else. You're not. Everyone has something useful to offer. Respect that. And finally, get off your ass and do some work. Nothing good ever gets done when you sullenly lay around hoping that you'll miraculously win the PowerBall jackpot. Hard work doesn't guarantee success, but laziness is a surefire road to failure.

My name is Steve. I'm a miniature wargamer. And I'm saving America, one toy soldier at a time.

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