Monday, July 18, 2005

Interview #1

This interview was done with Don Mayhew of the Fresno Bee - I'm pretty pleased with it, actually. I'm not misquoted and nothing I said is pulled terribly out of context. The pictures aren't terribly dorky either... how'd that happen?!

I know I'm probably violating some kind of copyright thing, but I'm going to quote the article here. The actual article is on the
Fresno Bee website.

Bored with boards? Mark Jackson makes German games accessible to English speakers. By Don Mayhew / The Fresno Bee (Updated Monday, July 18, 2005, 6:12 AM)

[picture caption] Mark Jackson, pastor of NewLife Community Church, is a board-game fan who takes the rules from German games and translates them into English. Jackson owns more than 700 games.

Hate is such a strong word, particularly for a pastor such as Mark Jackson of Fresno's NewLife Community Church.

But when it comes to the children's board games Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land, if what Jackson doesn't feel is hate, it's something pretty close. Disgust? Repulsion? Loathing?

"They're arbitrary," Jackson says of the two games. "They're back-and-forth games that require no strategy. They're for 3- or 4-year-olds to waste 20 to 30 minutes. They're exercises in frustration. It's, 'Here, you guys take this game and stay out of Mom and Dad's hair for 20 minutes.' "

You don't have to tell Jackson -- a father of two sons, ages 4 years and 3 months -- about the vast potential of board games to teach as well as entertain. He's such a fan that he's collected more than 700 games.

Many are from Germany, which has become a hotbed for gamers tired of the same old variations U.S. companies have foisted upon the public the past 50 years. ("Star Wars" Monopoly, anyone?) The problem is that German games, as you might expect, come with German rules.

What separates Jackson from your average gamer is that he's translated about 15 German games' rules into English. He's one of a handful of people nationwide who have made a habit of posting game translations on the Internet.

Not only did Jackson's efforts open the door for fans looking to distant shores for their board-game fix, they encouraged independent companies to reproduce a small number of foreign games in English.

Rick Thornquist, who writes board game news online for
http://www.gamefest.com/ in Vancouver, British Columbia, refers to the trend as the German Invasion.

"Without people like [Jackson] and the Internet, I doubt this would have happened at all," Thornquist says. "Once people get a chance to try these games, they love them." For the most part, Jackson translates children's games. He says they have enough variety ("Some are dexterity games; others are memory games or roll-and-move games") to charm adults.

He doesn't get paid, but his passion for board games is such that he really doesn't mind. Jackson and his 4-year-old son, Braeden, don't play them every day, "but dangerously close to it."

"Gaming is tremendous as a cognitive learning tool," he says.

Jackson isn't opposed to video games, but he finds them less interesting than sitting across the table from a human opponent.

"Video games tend to isolate," he says. "You're playing through a screen, even when it's a fighting game. You're staring at that screen, interacting through that, even when the person you're playing is sitting next to you.

"When you play board games, it's there between you, but there's a definite social quality. There's a tactile quality that isn't there when you play video games."

Jackson took three years of German in school, which isn't quite enough expertise to translate rules without help from friends in other parts of North America who understand the language better than he does.

"I don't speak it well," Jackson says. "I don't write it well. But I can read it passably. I'm fine with basic translations. But if the rules are odd or colloquial, then I'm lost. It's tough trying to translate idioms. I have to get help."

He starts by typing the German rules into his computer. Then he runs them through an Internet portal that translates them into literal English. Jackson also uses a German-English dictionary.

"Then I make the literal translations -- which often are gobbledygook -- meaningful," he says. "Sometimes, Germans will run three or four or five words together to make a new word, and you have to separate the words before you can figure out what was meant by them."

Many of his free translations can be found on his Web site,
http://www.theswitchingyard.com .

Jackson grew up playing Monopoly, Clue and other traditional board games. He was a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic in high school before going off to college and realizing he no longer could devote entire weekends to his hobby.

It was about that time that sites such as http://www.gamecabinet.com/ and http://www.boardgamegeek.com began alerting gamers to strategic foreign games that could be played in an hour or two. The exchange rate in the mid-'90s was decent, so Americans could buy such games for little more than they would for, say, Trivial Pursuit.

Jackson says Games magazine also opened his eyes to the joy of foreign games.

"The children's game market in the United States is all about licenses and tradition," he says. "It's all very sequel-driven or nostalgia buying. ... The German market has a much larger appetite for new games, different games and games of higher quality."

Derk Solko of Dallas, co-creator of
http://www.boardgamegeek.com, says hundreds of new games are released in Germany each year.

"The culture in Europe, particularly in Germany, is much more game-oriented," he says. "There are a lot more games. There's more passion. They're more artistic and less corporate."

Jackson says German games often have an odd sense of humor. Many are designed to keep all players in the game to very near the end -- unlike American games, Thornquist says.

"That happens a lot in Monopoly," he says. "Everybody's playing for the next four hours, and you're sitting there doing nothing. German games do not have elimination. Everybody has a good chance of winning up until the end."

German game pieces are typically wooden and hand-painted. American game pieces tend to be plastic. The tactile difference is enormous.

Chicken Cha Cha Cha is a perfect example. Jackson opens the box to his German version and produces round 2-inch-tall wooden chicken pieces that are beautifully painted and three- dimensional. Toy giant Hasbro licensed it for the United States and sold a game "with little cardboard standups and plastic pieces," he says.

Jackson understands the economics of scale and doesn't fault Hasbro. He just wishes more people would realize there are other options.

"In Germany, a company sells 30,000 to 40,000 copies of a game and can make a profit," he says. "For Hasbro, that's a drop in the pond."

The reporter can be reached at
dmayhew@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6322.

3 comments:

zionred said...

good articles. However, I don't think games such as 'Chutes and Ladders' and 'Candyland' are as arbitrary as you make them out to be. They serve their basic purpose which is introducing very young kids to the concept of following directions. They're not as engaging as others, but they still provide some fundamentals in learning. I've not bought these games for my kids, but I wouldn't see any harm in doing so. I remember playing them when I was young and I quite enjoyed them.

mark aka pastor guy said...

ZR (aka Paul):

My problem is not with simple children's games... I have, as you know, a ton of them! It's just that Candyland and Chutes & Ladders are the worst examples of the genre.

Some other very good games that accomplish the same learning goals without making me feel like I need a lobotomy:
- Motley Wheels (color recognition & matching)
- Maskenball die Kafer (color matching, memory, using a spinner)
- Cat & Mouse (following directions)

That's just a short list.

Hey, I'm glad you enjoyed them. But it's like saying to you that a weak but insanely popular band is a good choice compared to the 77's or Michael Knott.

zionred said...

I see. I also understand movie analogies. ;-)