Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Interview #2

This interview was done with Tom Vasel, a fellow gaming fanatic and missionary who lives in Korea. I'm the 56th interview he's done in this series - and I'm just proud to be on the team!

The nice thing about an e-mail interview is you can carefully consider what you want to say... so what you see here is pretty much unadulterated "me". BTW, I wrote the "intro" blurb - it's a trip writing about yourself in the third person... I began to feel a bit like Bob Dole.

Those of you who aren't gamers may want to zip through gamer-ish content of the first part of the interview and get down to my comments on faith & gaming farther down. Or, you could just read the whole thing.

The actual article is on Tom's website, The Dice Tower... along with all the other interviews and tons of game reviews. Thanks to Tom for giving me permission to post it here.

The picture accompanying this review is courtesy of Ray "I've got too much time on my hands" Mulford, who decided that my deep and abiding "love" for Candyland needed to be indulged.... sigh. (See Interview #1 for my true feelings about C-Land.)

Interviews by an Optimist # 56 - Mark Jackson

Mark Jackson is the "Conductor" of Game Central Station - a quirky little gaming website that's been around for 6-7 years now. Started out of his frustration with the rules to Titan: The Arena, the tiny site on Tripod migrated to Geocities, where it garnered positive vibes from gamers everywhere (except for those annoying pop-up ads). When a cross-country move kept him for updating for a substantial length of time, Yahoo deleted the site. This last year, thanks to the generosity of the folks at Game Surplus, Game Central Station was given a new home. Slowly but surely, Mark is putting the pieces back together, as well as adding unusual new content.

Mark is also the self-appointed Keeper Of The Five & Dime Playlists (now archived on Game Central Station) as well as the head honcho behind The Apples Project (on Game Central Station as well), an attempt to compare "apples with apples" when it comes to board & card games.

Mark has been a gamer since elementary school (for those keeping score, that would be the mid-70's). Thanks to a grandmother who would play anything he bought and an aunt who kept all of the old games her sons had owned, Mark had access to an amazing variety of American mass market games: Video Village, Monopoly, Conflict, King Oil, Broadsides, Sinking of the Titanic, Dogfight, etc.

A different aunt bought him his first Avalon Hill game as junior high student (Outdoor Survival), which started a nearly 10 year obsession with AH and SPI wargames. As a charter subscriber to Games Magazine, Mark tried desperately to be the coolest gamer on his block... which led to nearly 4 years of playing D&D, primarily as a DM. (Oddly enough, the map of the D&D world was the board from AH's Outdoor Survival.)

College brought on endless Friday nights of playing Spades, Risk, and penny-a-point backgammon... and through Games Magazine, a growing awareness of games outside the mainstream outlets. It was during this time period that Mark began acquiring Ravensburger games like Hare & Tortoise, Scotland Yard, and Flying Carpet. As well, this was the heyday of MB's Gamemaster series, and these saw a huge amount of playing time with his best friend, Tim, also a gamer. Finally, as he started seminary, Mark & Tim fell in love with the Games Workshop boardgames: Fury of Dracula, Dungeonquest, and Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

It was some years later (the mid-90's) when Mark discovered "the German invasion". Primed by the red Spiel des Jahres pawns on the Ravensburger games he owned, he purchased copies of Line 1 and Manhattan in a game store in Cincinnati, OH (and paid way too much for them)... about the same time that Mayfair began releasing Modern Art and The Settlers of Catan. What had been a lifetime hobby became a major obsession.

Over the past few years, thanks to the magic of the Internet, Mark's collection has grown past 700 games, stretching the gamut from silly American fluff (for example, Small Soldiers Big Battle Game) to obscure German titles (Hui Spinne, anyone?).

Mark has had a hand in starting two gaming clubs: Game Central Station (in Nashville, TN), which is still alive & kicking, even though Mark doesn't live there anymore; and the Fresno Gamers, which meets nearly every Monday night in Mark's gameroom. (Note: the Fresno Gamers is really more of re-start, as the nucleus of the group was actually pulled together by the webmaster of Funagain Games & the Houston Gamers, Ray Mulford.)

Mark currently lives in Fresno, CA, where he is pastor of NewLife Community Church. His wife, Shari, has been beating him at Scrabble a lot lately, while his 4 year old son, Braeden, has turned out to be a wiz at Return of the Heroes. Mark is hoping that his second son, Collin, will take it easy on the old man.

Tom Vasel: Tell us a little more about Game Central Station. What does it have that other sites (i.e. BGG) on the 'net don't have?

Mark Jackson: Well, it's got my personality. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

Seriously, the Station pre-dates the Geek. I was (and still am) attempting to build a site that has stuff on it that is not on other gaming sites. I've tried to create pages about games I enjoy - and resources that make them more enjoyable. Titan: The Arena was the first game... I hated the sloppy presentation of the rules and wanted to pull all of the online clarifications together into one place. Filthy Rich is another game that has received no real online support from Wizards of the Coast, despite it being a very playable little game with a one-of-a-kind mechanism (using card pages as a multi-layered board). So I put together the only full page of clarifications, rulings & variants I know of.

Actually, now that I think about it, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned Filthy Rich. It's one of the pages on the schedule for me to put back up. Oops.

As the Geek grew in popularity (and Borg'd in The Gaming Dumpster), I still felt there was a place for the Station. The Geek is an amazing clearinghouse for information & pictures... and I've now hooked all my pages to the Geek pages because they offer extra information. But it isn't the quirky "hey kids, let's put on a show" place that is Game Central Station.

More recently, I did The Apples Project and the Five & Dime Playlists sections of the site - both of which are peculiar (like me) to Game Central Station. (And I'm putting the finishing touches on a project with Stephen "Balloon Cup" Glenn for a Rolling Stone magazine inspired project called The One Hundred. Just don't hold us to any kind of deadline - we've blown past 2 or 3 of 'em already, what with him opening a game store and me getting ready to be a dad for the second time.)

Tom Vasel: Can you tell us more about this "The One Hundred" project?

Mark Jackson: I'm just the editor/host for The One Hundred... Stephen Glenn is the "brains" behind the operation. He had the bright idea late last November to create a gaming list based on Rolling Stone's Top 100 lists. I just volunteered to host it on Game Central Station...

...but then we've had all the crazy stuff going on in both of our lives, and it's taking a lot longer to finish than either of us thought it would. Still, it's going to be a very interesting read when it's finished. (I don't even agree with all the results!)

Tom Vasel: You're one of the few gaming pastors I know. How does your profession affect your gaming, and vice versa?

Mark Jackson: I'll use one of those "classic stall for time" interview techniques now... "Tom, that's an interesting question." (Oh, dang - that won't work in an e-mail interview, will it?)

How does my gaming hobby affect my profession (as a pastor)? That's the easiest part of the question, so I'll take that first. I use gaming as a way to meet people and build relationships... both inside and outside the church.

It also enters into my sermon illustrations - for example, I've used game translating as a metaphor for getting to know the Bible. (In short: I can read a whole lot more German now than I could 10 years ago, even though I'd had 3 years of German classes in high school & college. Actually having to work with the German language for something I wanted changed the way I learned the language - instead of just learning it for a grade.) In the same vein, I've talked about the language of the gaming subculture (newbie, TGOO, SdJ, DSK, etc.) and compared it to the language of evangelical subculture (born again, walk the aisle, "fellowship", etc.). Both sets of words have valid usage, but they don't adequately speak to the world outside those subcultures. We (speaking both to gamers & Christians) need to use language that communicates truth, rather than using it to build walls that close others out.

As for the other part of the question, there's a difference in how my profession affects my gaming hobby and how my personal commitment of my life to Jesus Christ affects my gaming hobby.

I try very hard (not always successfully) to NOT choose my activities & actions solely based on my job as a "professional Christian." Still, I've made the choice in the past not to play some games more out of a concern for church member's opinions rather than my own personal convictions and tastes. Hopefully, I'm done with that, except where my gaming choices could cause a fellow believer to stumble in their faith. (I'm not getting to the exact details of this Romans 14 based practice in this interview. Anyone interested can contact me personally.)

OTOH, my strongly held beliefs in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible obviously play a role in my hobby. (If strongly held beliefs don't play a role in your whole life, then they're not strongly held beliefs.) There are certain games I choose not to play (Hellrail, Lunch Money, etc.) and other games I'm glad they re-themed (Twilight -> Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde) based on what I believe. (The most recent example of this, the new game from 2F shown at the Gathering, managed to cause a bit of a tempest in the teapot of spielfrieks when I expressed my personal non-interest in a game that casually encourages divorce, drug use, and multiple sex partners.)

I'm a little bothered about how "I"-centered the last couple of paragraphs sound. They don't fully indicate my conviction that moral choices are not subjective... but again, that's a conversation for another day.

Tom Vasel: Why do you think there are such a lack of quality Christian-themed games on the market?

Mark Jackson: 1. Theological: if "turn the other cheek" and cultivating "kindness, gentleness, etc." are key parts of your religion, then creating a game that encourages those behaviors while still featuring competition is extremely difficult. I'm surprised that there haven't been more attempts to publish cooperative games (like Knizia's LOTR) in the Christian market.

2. Lack of Originality: the majority of "Christian" games are designed by people who are not game players - rather, they are publishing houses attempting to market to the Christian subculture. That's why you end up with so many roll'n'move games or pale imitations of party games.

I think there's ample room to create meaningful games that reflect Biblical values - but it's not going to be easy to accomplish nor easy to market.

Tom Vasel: Do you think that there are games that are actually a detriment to play? Just how important is philosophy in a game?

Mark Jackson: Hey! How come I'm not getting questions like "What's the best game for 6 players who are willing to 'get fluffy'?!" :-)

OK, so Tom wants to go serious - fine by me. It's actually a very good question.

The first time I remember struggling with this is back in the golden days of D&D... yes, children, back when we oldsters had to walk uphill 5 miles in the snow both ways to the game store to buy The Village of Hommlet module, and then wait forEVER for the The Temple of Elemental Evil to come out. (Still bitter about that one, TSR.)

I grew up in church, and there was a substantial section of folks in the evangelical subculture who felt that D&D was evil and/or dangerous. While their opinions didn't stop me from playing, I did choose to run my 3 year campaign (I was the DM) as a "one God" universe... and didn't allow players to have full-out evil characters. My strong feeling at the time was that I wanted a world that I liked... a world that reflected my values. So, characters got "punished" when they were cruel or rude or unwise – and "rewarded" for altruistic behavior.

I continue to struggle with this: it's easy for me to pick out games that offend me (the aforementioned Hellrail and Lunch Money), but you're actually touching on a bigger question. For years, my response to someone trashing fantasy/magic-based games has been, well, kind of lame. It's consisted of pointing out the logical flaw in the argument: if the objection to playing D&D/Talisman/Magic: the Gathering/etc. is based on the fact that these games encourage anti-Biblical behavior, you've got a problem if you play Monopoly, which clearly "teaches" players to run each other into the ground. Like I said, it's not the world's best argument (negative arguments seldom are), but it's served me well over the years.

But the real question is: what ARE games "teaching" us? When we play Family Business, are we really learning how to "rub out" the competition, Mafia-style? When we engage in the free-wheeling backstabbing of Intrige, will that transfer over to the rest of our lives?

The answer is: it depends. Over time, I've come to believe that someone with a strong belief system can engage cultural items (movies, music, games, tv shows, magazines, etc.) with thoughtful discernment. They can think through the implications of the work/items they're interacting with and discard those assumptions/philosophies that are harmful. To continue my gaming example, I can play Family Business without choosing to actually shoot someone... or, more to the point, without taking that "every man for himself/king of the mountain" philosophy back into my work or family life. Or, frankly, even into the next game.

What concerns me is that there are lots of folks who lack:
  • a. strong belief systems (note: I didn't say Christianity... while I believe that a relationship with Jesus is the best way to live & the only way to die, what I'm talking about here does not require a belief in a Higher Power)
  • b. discernment skills - For them, it's a crapshoot as to how they'll deal with any kind of cultural input. In the same vein, kids don't have these kind of necessary filters in place.
So, I think games (and commercials & movies & newspapers, yadda yadda yadda) have the ability to "teach" us both good & bad behavior choices and systems, if we let them do so without thinking about them. It depends upon our willingness to stay engaged rather than let our brains & hearts pickle in philosophies & ideas unconsidered. (And, since kids have less ability to do that, helping them choose wisely about the games they play - and teaching them those discernment skills.) The line gets fuzzier when you go from playing games which encourage questionable actions (whether it's the bluffing/lying of Liar's Dice or the cutthroat nature of Diplomacy) to games with questionable themes. Can immersing yourself in a particular theme be a problem?

Again, the answer is a squishy "it depends." A non-gaming example: because of my personal beliefs & struggles, I am VERY careful about the films & television shows I watch. A long addiction to viewing pornography (finally broken with God's help) means that I choose not to see films that feature sexually charged scenes and/or nudity... I don't want to start the cycle again. (It's similar to recovering alcoholics choosing not to hang out in bars.) It may seem "prudish" to you, but it's a healthy & wise choice for me.

The same is true in gaming terms. While I never experienced any kind of attraction to occultic practice while playing D&D, I can see where someone who had struggled with this would find D&D (and fantasy fiction & the like) something to avoid.

I'm not sure this is a complete answer - I find myself comfortable & yet uncomfortable with some of the games I play and/or own. While they don't bother me, I'm sure they would be a problem for other people, and so I'm still dealing with the implications of those feelings.

Sheesh. I'm getting pretty long-winded, aren't I?

Tom Vasel: "What's the best game for 6 players who are willing to 'get fluffy'?!"

Mark Jackson: There we go - hey, all of you who've been sleeping through the philosophical stuff, you can wake up now!

I'll pick four that popped into my head immediately - in fact, four games that I've played every year since I first encountered them:
  1. Viva Pamplona... this game of running with the bulls is a lot of fun to play with kids & adults. Closely related to it are two other great "running" games: Midnight Party (which plays well with 2-8 players) and Viva Topo (which only plays 2-4, but is the "prettiest" of the threesome.)
  2. Galopp Royale... a game of sedan chair racing that's really about bluff & auctions, this is great fun to play. Designed by Klaus Teuber (he of Settlers fame), this is a fluffy game that results in much silliness. (Not everyone likes this one, but you must play it in the proper "light-hearted" frame of mind.)
  3. Stimmt So!... the "papa" of the vastly inferior SdJ-winning Alhambra, Stimmt So! is a stock market investment game that plays at a furious pace and provides lots of chances for high & low moments. (By contrast, Alhambra slowed the game down as well as adding a second mechanism - the walls - that actually works contrary to the stock mechanism.)
  4. Entenrallye... this is a "race" game that's all about timing: arrive at the car rallies with the right modifications; make sure you get your car inspected by the right time. I'm the first to admit it's pretty random, but I have a blast every time I play it.
There are others: Ab die Post, Gulo Gulo, Broadway, Canyon (with the Grand Canyon expansion), Quartier Latin... but those are some personal favorites. Tom Vasel: Why do you think we're seeing such a glut of "light" games these days with very few "heavy" strategy games being released?

Mark Jackson: A sudden burst of sanity on the part of the publishers?

No, seriously... I think we in the gaming "glitterati" too easily overestimate the appeal of the (I'll use a capital "H" here) Heavy game. Businesses stay afloat by producing things that sell - and Light sells better than Heavy.

That doesn't mean there isn't a market for Heavy games... it's just not a large enough market to sustain the number of publishers in the market. At least, it's not large enough for them to make a big profit.

I wonder also about the effect of video games on the attention span... but I'm one of those Light gamers, and I don't play much in the way of video or computer games.

Tom Vasel: When at Origins, I was floored by the massive amount of "light" games. Do you think we're reaching critical mass - too many light games in the market?

Mark Jackson: My expertise is NOT economics... but the market will self-correct. 7-8 years ago we were awash in CCG releases - the vast majority of those are gone. If the market leans too heavily into Light games, some of the companies & games will jump back into the heavier side of things.

I think part of what makes it easier for me to take this cavalier attitude to the market is a combination of two elements:
  • my collection has gone over 700 games... I've pretty much got a game for any situation
  • I no longer feel a deep & burning need to play EVERY new game that comes down the pike... I know it's Gamer Heresy, but I've managed to avoid playing Age of Steam, Goa, and any number of other Heavy games that didn't sound particularly interesting to me. In the right situation, I'd be happy to try 'em, but I don't HAVE to play these games to feel complete.
Tom Vasel: Mark, a lot of people often email me for advice in starting a game club at their church. What advice would you give them, tips, etc.?

Mark Jackson: I haven't actually started a game club at my church, so any advice I'm giving is more about using games in ministry. The first thing is to remember your audience... while (as I mentioned above) I'm not bothered by certain games & themes, I realize that some folks in my congregation would have a hard time with them. So I choose not to bring those for our family game nights. (My guess is that some of your readers will want examples: I don't bring Bang! or Family Business due to the violence... and I usually keep the heavily themed fantasy games to a minimum.)

The second thing is to remember your audience. No, I'm not repeating myself. The vast majority of non-gamers are not ready to appreciate longer games, even those we would consider "light". Here in Fresno, Transamerica, Smarty Party, Carabande, Niagara, and Viva Pamplona have all been very successful at our family game nights. So, choose games that fit the gaming "experience" of your crowd.

The third thing is to remember what you want to accomplish. If the point of the evening (be it a club or a game night or whatever) is social interaction, choose games that will help that happen. If you're appealing to a particular demographic, then pick games that fit their interests. (When I had the 4th-6th boys over for an afternoon of gaming, we played Battle Ball, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars: Epic Duels.)

The fourth thing is to train others to lead & teach games... that way you don't have to carry the whole load. We play a lot of games after our small group on Wednesday nights, and those folks were a great help at our last game night in teaching games. (Yes, I had to help make some rulings and correct a missed rule or two, but that's par for the course.)

Finally, don't count on what you start in a church context to satisfy your gaming/gamer itch. At our last game night, I spent about 50% of my time teaching games & making sure folks got involved. But that's OK - my purpose was not to play games non-stop, but to give people an enjoyable evening together. String a lot of those kind of evenings together, and it makes it much easier to create a loving church community.

Tom Vasel: Well, Mark, before we go, can you give us a date when the Apples project will start again?

Mark Jackson: Based on my life (new baby, lots of stuff happening in the church I pastor, etc.), it will probably be the summer of 2006. Then again, who knows? Right now I'm just hoping that someone can take the gobbledygook on the comparison page and turn it into something I can use. :-)

Tom Vasel: Mark, I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview! Do you have any final words for our readers?

Mark Jackson: Yes... I'm hoping to get some major website updating done in the next few weeks, including FINALLY publishing The One Hundred. Sorry it's taken so long - and thanks to all the folks who've been so supportive.

As well, if you're interested in reading more of my thoughts on gaming (and lots of other stuff), I'd be honored if you checked out my blog, aka pastor guy (http://akapastorguy.blogspot.com/).

Stop spending all your time in front of the computer & go play some games already! :-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice job, Mark. Tom's questions gave you an excellent opportunity to express your faith and you didn't disappoint.

Blessings on your ministry.