What I learned from Fantasy Football

A few weeks ago, I finished up the latest fantasy football* (FF) season in 2nd place in my work league and 5th place in my friend league. Having played for 3 seasons, I am mostly past the initial disgust about bad luck and mostly jaded about the entire process. Having gotten this far, though, I do have a few different lessons from the experience.

(*for the uninitiated, fantasy football is a game where a group of people (usually friends) play “games” in a season where, each week, your team’s performance is determined by the statistics of how real-life NFL football players perform (e.g. you get 6 points for a touchdown or points per yards gained). Everyone drafts their team before the beginning of the real NFL season, and over the course of the season, you can trade with other teams, pick up and drop players, and change your lineup week to week. )

1. Actual game knowledge can be very deceiving.

“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” When you’re on a fantasy football website, there are going to be projections and rankings and all sorts of information to help you make good decisions. I have seen a lot of real football fans (i.e. people who actually watch and follow football and not just fantasy) try to outsmart the predictions with some obscure knowledge, but my experience is that typically, the football-naive (but fantasy savvy) people do better. Maybe you heard that your running back plays really well in sub-50 degree games or saw how fast he makes cuts and should crush a slower set of linebackers: the experts probably know that, too, and that he only plays that way in indoor stadums, and that his left guard still has a lingering injury.I think we tend to overvalue game knowledge in fantasy when rankings have already accounted for those facts.

2. Don’t trust anyone. Trust everyone.

Continue reading “What I learned from Fantasy Football”

When Fun Stops Being Fun and Becomes a Grind

(Author’s note: you know that thing I do in my writing where I write about one thing but am actually writing about something else? Yeah, that’s happening below, so even if you don’t care about video games, you may still like the rest of my post. However, you may not like any of it. Just don’t use the topic of video games as a predictor for your interest. Read as you will.)

I was catching up with my friend Reno, and he mentioned that he was, with shame, playing a lot of Destiny. Despite coming from the makers of Halo, this video game was highly criticized by the community for becoming unreasonably difficult relatively quickly. To progress through the game, one had to do a lot of grinding (and not the kind you get kicked out of high school prom for). When I mentioned criticism to Reno, he countered that he didn’t really see it as a grind because the gameplay was fun for him, and he wasn’t too worried about leveling and strengthening his character.

I didn’t know how to respond.

I recently wrote a blog post about how I wanted to move away from video games that require grinding, as many role-playing games do. Perhaps a childhood of video games desensitized me to the joy of watching my character progress, and I recently have been left wishing I could skip past the gameplay and just get to the end goal. In my tirade, I think I forgot that video games are supposed to be fun and worthwhile in its own right. The in-game goal of progressing through levels isn’t supposed to reduce that pleasure. Grinding isn’t grinding if you’re having fun. In fact, just calling it “grinding” presupposes the monotony of it. It becomes a grind if the gameplay isn’t fun in the first place.

I don’t play any games these days that I consider grinding in a traditional sense. I do, however, play some video games relatively seriously and consider it an exercise to improve and get better. For example, I started a blog to catalog my progress and lessons in StarCraft 2. Despite having evangelized the game and related my passion for it, I never actually played that much StarCraft. To have actually improved, I probably should have played at least 5 to 10 games a week. To my shame, I only played that much a handful of times. It’s a common phenomena known in the community as ladder anxiety: it’s intimidating to play, the games are stressful, and the result is exhausting. If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, then you probably have a healthier understanding of fun than many StarCraft players.

Ironically, I think that the gameplay of StarCraft is fun. What I suspect went wrong is that I took a fun activity and reframed it as practice. When my first priority ceased being fun and instead became self-improvement, the games unsurprisingly were no longer fun. Each game was a test where suboptimal performance was a disappointment. I knew that my mechanics weren’t good enough: I needed to practice to click the buttons and react fast enough. Every game against a real human being felt like a recital, where I could hear myself playing the wrong notes all along the way, and whether I finished the piece or not, I could only remember the struggle. By turning StarCraft into an activity to improve in, I made a future goal my requirement for satisfaction–it was grinding. I was grinding to improve myself.

Looking back, I thought that framing StarCraft into practice was a brilliant move without consequences. I could take something that I enjoyed (StarCraft) and add structure and progress to it. I fooled myself into over-optimism about the idea by glossing past the potential downsides. Looking back, I think I undervalued the intrinsic value of video games as a source of fun, and by reframing it otherwise, I diminished the driving factor to play in the first place.

Extrapolating to the rest of my life, I see the same pattern across many of my activities. Whether it’s board games or fantasy football, activities lose their charm when I figure that I need to be good at them. It changes epiphanies into research, participation into performance, mistakes into disappointment. It doesn’t even need to be competitive (though the competition doesn’t help, either): I can induce this attitude in isolation, and it results in me stopping out of an activity entirely when I have gone too far and no can longer enjoy it at all.

For example, I was a tuba player in high school. I really enjoyed band and playing music, but it was mostly structured as a lot of hard work. I learned a lot of work ethic through it. Since then, I have picked up the tuba a handful of times, but never really sustained it. I tell people that it is because I will never be as good as I was when I was practicing a half-hour to an hour daily, and that’s just disheartening. That explanation makes a lot of sense until realizing that I want to play music again to have fun, not to be good, and those two things don’t necessarily need to be tied together.

The same is true for racquetball: I only picked it up again in the past 2 months after a few years of not playing. I kept telling myself that I would never be as good as when I was practicing with my friend Dave twice a week. Despite being a competitive game, I forgot that I can have fun with it without playing at my best and beating everyone.

To self psych-analyze, it comes from my upbringing in primary and secondary education. Our system is totally a rat race, where even extra-curricular activities are competitive because we are all putting together college resumes and trying to get ahead in any way possible. My band director put this thinking together succinctly as something along the lines of “We have fun, and it’s fun being good.”

My director was right: it can be extremely rewarding to be good at things. However, I think there’s a dividing line between activities that we do for pleasure and for gain. In our education system, it turns out that everything is done for gain. In real life, this is it. This is our lives, and some things are worth doing without a greater goal. My yoga instructor in college often reminded us, “Remember, this is adult fitness: do what you’re comfortable with.” Yoga class isn’t about having the best downward facing dog in the room: it’s exactly what each individual wants it to be. Sometimes, it isn’t work that leads to fun: it’s the fun that leads to the work.

I was traveling for the past 2 weekends, and I had plenty of time both to visit with friends and family and to reflect on my own during long car rides. I was so excited when I got back home with a list of things that I wanted to learn to do or to do better: driving a manual, going rock climbing, speaking another language. I even made a bucket list for them so I could work through them methodically and become the modern-day renaissance man. Looking at the list now, the entire exercise feels ridiculous. Not only do my backlog lists usually fail, I realize now that I didn’t put things there because they sounded like fun. I put them on my list because I wanted to be good at more things.

Not to say that I shouldn’t do any of these things. But maybe I should do them because they sound fun. Maybe that way, I won’t be grinding until I’m disheartened. They can be the fulfilling lifelong activities I imagined instead.

Storytelling in multiple media

I recently have been engrossed by storytelling. Finding stories everywhere has been awesome.

My fascination started with joining a book club about 2 years ago. Before book club, I hadn’t read fiction since high school, and most of that was mandatory. In between, I read various nonfiction and enjoyed the epiphanies and moments of wonder. That type of engagement was very different, however, from what I experienced when I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son, a Pulitizer Prize winner for fiction. I couldn’t put it back down, as the suspense and pulled me through the (digital) pages. I had forgotten how compelling a good story can be and what it was like to really live in another world, another life.

Around then, I got back into tabletop roleplaying games and began running my own games. As a dungeon master, I was responsible for creating the adventures for my players. I had a hard time at first: I was so focused on creating a big, inhabitable world filled with its own vitality that I couldn’t add enough detail about what might happen during an actual session. My next campaign was set in the world of Tekumel, and I wanted to scope it better. In that world, I crafted an epic story arc as a framework to progress through each session. In learning how to DM, I read this post from The Angry DM, which suggested that a boss fight could use a three-act structure to add drama to typically monotonous processes. It was a revelation that storytelling techniques could drive a game.

Then came “Welcome to Night Vale”, a podcast about a fictional town where surreal and horrific things happen and are presented in a fake radio show. It has a Lovecraftian sense of psychological horror but presents it in a humorous way. The different stories in each podcast are ostensibly unrelated, but there’s often a common thread between them and between episodes. Julie and I listen while we do laundry, and we laugh and puzzle together about it. As a purely audio format, so much is conveyed in Cecil’s (the narrator) voice, and we can only imagine what horrors he talks about.

I recently posted about how my video game preferences had changed to put greater emphasis on stories rather than gameplay itself. I just finished Alan Wake, a survival horror video game. You play Alan Wake, a horror writer who goes on vacation but finds out that the story he is writing is coming true. As you play through the game, you find pages of the novel along the path, either describing things that have happened from a different perspective or foreshadowing future events. It was brilliant: the overall presentation had a very cinematic feel to it, but I felt even closer to the characters because I controlled Alan through the events. Minute for minute, it was slower than reading an equivalent novel or watching an equivalent movie, but the interactivity and immersion of playing it was phenomenal. And even the time itself was well-spent as I became more invested in Alan himself.

Most recently, I picked up Marvel Unlimited because I have been absorbed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe of movies and tv shows and wanted more background. I haven’t read comics since high school, and even then, I was reading scattered comics that I found at used bookstores rather than working sequentially through story arcs. I read through several major events, then got into Captain America, reading at least a half-dozen comics every day. With issues coming monthly and spread over years, the comics strung together story arcs that both had the satisfaction of resolution while also immediately pulling me into the next one. I foolishly kept reading to find a stopping point but always ended up reading another when the last page left me hanging.

Once I started to see storytelling in several different forms, I began to pay more attention to it in the regular media I consume, like movies and television. There are the shared elements of storytelling, but the different media add allowances and constrains as well. The format, whether written, audio, or visual obviously has a huge impact. Whether it’s a one-shot, like a movie, or serial, like a TV show, affects how the storyteller keeps their audience’s attention. And with video and roleplaying games, the interactivity adds immersion and unpredictability to the story.

There’s something about storytelling that really resonates with us as humans, and I’m somewhat amazed at how well I had distanced myself from it during college. Even so, the nature and influence of storytelling is somewhat troubling to me and my recent ways of thinking.

But that is a story for my next post.

My Pivot Away from Video Game RPGs

A few weeks ago, I started playing Mass Effect 2 and was instantly sucked into it. Well, instantly after playing the initial, 15 minute, unskippable cut scene sequence 3 or 4 times because I couldn’t get the controller working in Windows properly. Anyways, I was instantly sucked into the giant universe and cinematic feel. I knew there was an epic story ahead for me to be invested in. Within 2 weeks and maybe 4 hours of gameplay, however, I was over it.

Despite having grown up on computer role-playing games (RPGs), I have been turned off by them recently. RPGs are different from strict action or adventure games in that the player character grows stronger over the course of the game. Games typically accomplish this with either an experience or loot system. Along the way, an overarching plot and a variety of side quests fill out the game.

Recently, I have found myself wanting more out of the story and my investment into my character. Instead, I have found most games to be a grind, which I quickly become bored of. Today, consumers expect at least 30 hours of gameplay out of RPGs, and although developers do their best to vary the content, most of it ends up being somewhat similar. To contrast, a season of a TV show may not even last 20 hours, and there’s plenty of filler in that.

It’s interesting how increased player choices also seems to decrease variability in games. I have 2 examples in mind. First, many RPGs allow players to pick one of a few possible playable classes, each with different gameplay strategies, such as brawlers, snipers, magic users, etc. This choice, however, means that enemies and encounters must be designed in a way that allows different techniques for success. And the easiest way to do this is to make all enemies bland since unique challenges would be imbalanced against different classes.

The second example is the open-world RPG, where the player is allowed to roam around a big world and loosely follow their own path through the story. Although it sounds liberating, the lack of “railroading” means that game developers have to account for a lot of different cases. Again, the result typically isn’t detail into specific encounters and enemies: the content instead ends up being generic so that all paths end up roughly the same.

The last point I’ll make is that the RPG and action genres have crossed over in modern action RPGs like Diablo and first-person RPGs like Borderlands, which really mix the genres up. Again, I have found these games something of a grind because they usually based on similar, known gameplay and interfaces (FPS or clickfests) but also mix in extended game content through grinding for experience or equipment.

Of course, these are all opinions based on my changing preferences in games. I once was happy to spend night after night running the same Diablo 2 boss to hopefully get loot. Nowadays, I’m looking to get the most story per hour of gameplay and cut out the grind. Although I appreciate the cinematic feel of AAA roleplaying games, they are hard to justify the hours spent compared to, say, reading a book or watching a movie if I wanted a story.

In writing this post, I have realized I should be playing more adventure games. They’re usually tighter and closer to 10-15 hours and have some novel gameplay. And they’re made for the story instead of trying to just generate content for one to grow and grind through.

I have Alan Wake on steam: I’ll give that a shot and follow up on how that goes.

Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

“The Elder Scrolls Online” thoughts

These days, most of my gaming is spent looking down and controlling large armies of space marines in epic, strategic battles. My favorite genre of games, however, typically involves playing a single hero (and maybe a few companions) embarking on an epic quest in some fantasy world where my character grows stronger and find magical equipment and loot. Among these games, known as western (as opposed to eastern or Japanese) role-playing games (RPGs), there are several well-known franchises, such as Baldur’s GateDiablo, and Mass Effect. One important franchise that I came late to is The Elder Scrolls,. Most recently, I have been playing the 5th installement, Skyrim, but thanks to the generosity of my friend Tom, I had the chance to play in the open beta for The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) this past weekend. Continue reading ““The Elder Scrolls Online” thoughts”

Shifting Towards “The Resistance”

After AP tests at the end of senior year in high school, there wasn’t much to do in class. Our teachers didn’t have anything to teach, and we weren’t particularly motivated to learn, so we were stuck in a room full of peers for 51 minutes until the bell rang and couldn’t get too loud. Some may see this as a waste of time: we saw it as an opportunity and played a lot of Mafia.

Mafia is a simple game of social deduction. The basic game has 3 roles: the narrator (who runs the game), the Mafia, and the townspeople. To setup the game, the Narrator gives out secret roles to all of the players: either one of a few Mafia or mostly townspeople. Then, everyone closes their eyes, and the Mafia open their eyes and to see who each other are. The game then switches between 2 phases of day and night until the Mafia or Townspeople win. During the night, the townspeople close their eyes, and the Mafia silently choose to kill someone. When everyone wakes up for daytime, the Narrator tells everyone who was killed and eliminated from the game (usually with a grisly story). Then, everyone has to argue and agree to lynch someone. Various suspects are accused over discussion, and a vote is taken by the Narrator. That player is then eliminated from the game, and it goes back to night. The townspeople want to lynch all of the Mafia, and the Mafia want to kill all of the townspeople. Continue reading “Shifting Towards “The Resistance””

Why I Think StarCraft is Awesome

I play, watch, read, write, and think a lot of StarCraft. Specifically, since StarCraft 2 came out in July 2010, I have played at least 653 games of StarCraft (source: battle.net); watch on average a half hour to an hour of StarCraft a day via online streams like Twitch; read /r/starcraft first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and at least a dozen times in-between; write a StarCraft blog; and think about StarCraft a lot.

Looking at my blog history, I haven’t shared very much about StarCraft at all given how passionate I am about it, and with the upcoming release of Heart of the Swarm, the first expansion to StarCraft 2, I want to share why I think StarCraft is so awesome.

Like with books, video games can engage people in many different ways, depending on both the game and the person*. For me, StarCraft is all about the challenge of making quick, strategic decisions while managing many tasks simultaneously.

StarCraft is like Chess come to life in a sci-fi setting between humans (Terran), bugs (Zerg), and psionic warriors (Protoss). You and an opponent each start with a base and need to mine resources to build an army to destroy each other. The strategy and quick reflexes come in at several different levels, all of which must be maintained simultaneously.

At the lowest level, you control individual army units, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. With good dexterity, you can guide a flamethrower buggy (a “Hellion”) into your opponents base and kill lots of workers when they aren’t looking. Or maybe you need to split up your clump of Marines when explosive, suicide Banelings waddle up. These require careful attention to individual units to make each of them as effective as possible.

Going a level up, you need control your whole army that may be as many as 200 units. Typically, most of your units are in one main army, and how you position that depends on where your opponent’s main army is and what you think they’re going to do. Your strategy, however, might be to attack in multiple places at the same time, and professional players can control attacks on up to 4 different places simultaneously.

Going up another level, you need to be building your army. Depending on what units your opponent has and what your strategy is, you might want slightly different compositions of units. If your opponent has lots of flying units, you should probably have anti-air units, but if you also get some invisible units, you can force your opponent to build detectors or possibly take a lot of damage. To ensure that your army is at full strength, you must constantly be queuing up more units to be built at various buildings, while controlling your army and individual units in it.

Up one more level, you need to control your economy as a whole. Although you start with one base, you need to build various types of buildings to get access to different units and different technology. Additionally, you can also take more bases around the map to get more resources faster. It can be hard to know which bases are safe to take and when to take them. It’s even harder to figure that out while constantly building up your army, managing your existing army, and all of the units in your army.

At the highest level, you need a game plan. Will you build an army really quickly and try to destroy your opponent before they have defenses ready? Or will you try to take a bunch of bases to mine more resources to build a bigger, stronger army later? Of will you build up defenses and try to develop technology as quickly as possible to get advanced army units very quickly? As the game progresses, you constantly need to readjust your strategy between army, economy, and technology. This strategizing is happening while you’re figuring out how your economy works, training a bigger army, moving your army about the map, and controlling individual units.

So at the highest level, there’s a lot of strategy and little physical work, but as you move down, the focus shifts more and more to reflexes. Different players have different strengths among all of those tasks, but regardless, StarCraft is a constantly demanding, both mental and physical, game. In fact, I think it’s the hardest video game out there. Like chess openings and football plays, StarCraft games start with a plan (known as a “build order”), but soon, the game is alive. Professional players can perform upwards of 300 clicks and key presses per minute to do everything they need to, and they practice as their full-time job (40+ hours a week) to understand the game and learn strategies.

So beyond playing, I also follow professional StarCraft, which is now an eSport. Watching professional StarCraft players is amazing. Many players stream their practice sessions so you can follow your favorite players as they play everyday. They compete in a regular tournaments where commentators talk through all the games played in big brackets. Between the strategic depth of the game, the storylines of individual players, serious mindgames between familiar players, and crazy highlight plays, following and watching tournaments are always engaging. And there’s a vibrant online community to make the game accessible and fun for everyone.

So back to the original prompt for this post: Heart of the Swarm is coming out. Many people only play the story-driven single player, which plays through a sequence of different missions. I often forget about lore and only see the concrete gameplay (it’s kind of like just seeing the green code for the world in The Matrix), but the story alone is a great experience. Take 2 minutes to watch the cinematic trailer for the game. Hopefully you think that part is pretty cool as well.

Okay, the final part of this post is the pitch: please try out StarCraft**. I would love to have more friends to play with (we can play together on a team), and despite focusing on how hard the game is, I think anyone can have fun with it. For example, Julie played few video games beforehand, but I got her playing a bit of StarCraft 2 summers ago, and we’re both hooked. We play every week or 2, but we’re both frequently watching StarCraft, and it comes up almost every time we talk.

So that’s why I think StarCraft is so interesting to follow and play for several years. I hope you give it a shot if you haven’t already.

 

* We read to learn new skills (technical books), learn (history, science), engage with deep moral questions (philosophy), laugh over something ridiculous (humor), put ourselves in other people’s shoes (fiction, fantasy), figure out what all the hubbub is about (50 Shades of Grey), and more.

We play video games to test our twitch reflexes (shooters), engage in social situations (MMOs), challenge ourselves (puzzles), make us think tactically (strategy games), fill time (many mobile games), experience a story (roleplaying games), and more.

** If you want to skip the $20 for StarCraft 2 and $40 for Heart of the Swarm, you can try the free starter edition first

Finally Settling

“Really? How have you never played Settlers of Catan?”

Despite playing many board games now, I didn’t play Settlers until just last week, which led to the reaction above from various friends. Many people are first introduced to more serious, strategy board games shortly after college, and Settlers of Catan tends to be where it starts and ends. I myself was introduced to board games by two other common gateway games: Arkham Horror during the summer after my freshmen year and Munchkin during my sophomore year. It’s a shame I missed out on Settlers because I don’t know if I’ll ever get really into it.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, Settlers mixes the trading of Monopoly with the set building of Gin Rummy. Several hexagon tiles are laid out as an island where each tile produces some resource. By building settlements on the vertices of the hexagons and between your roads, you get a chance (based on a dice roll every turn) to gain resources, which you can then use to build more roads, settlements, and several other developments. Throughout the game, resources are traded amongst the 4 players, Mostly by counting settlements, players gain points, and the first player to reach 10 points wins the game.

Although Settlers was designed as a physical board game, I actually played it using the web version with 3 of my high school friends. Willie was the only one who had played before, but we all picked it up relatively quickly. Unfortunately, I picked my initial road placement poorly and didn’t manage to develop much until far too late. Unlike the recent games of StarCraft we played together, we weren’t so intensely focused on the game that we couldn’t talk. Despite playing in a virtual space, we taught, negotiated, and trash-talked through the game over voice chat.

For most of my game-playing career, the exciting advances in gaming technology have been slicker graphics, innovative gameplay, and better network performance for smoother gameplay. What we’ve seen recently, however, is a return to social. Co-op play is a major part of many console games because players want to share games with friends on their couch. Mobile games are so dependent on social mechanics that I recently heard a friend lament how difficult it was to play these games without mobilizing and cajoling friends into joining in as well.

For myself, however, I have found the games become less and less important than simply as a context for us to use technology to hang out. An interesting consequence of technology discussed in “Alone Together” is that we can hide ourselves more easily from social circumstances. We text to avoid the complications of actually talking to someone, and yet we still somehow rationalize it by saying that we don’t want to impinge on others immediate attention with a phone call. Although I do cold call occasionally, I too shy away from bugging friends in the evenings.

Given my own availability in the evenings, I shouldn’t be as surprised as I usually am when my friends are available. Still, it’s much easier to reach out to play a game rather than just talk, though I hope to mostly just talk anyways. And thanks to technology, we can do it, especially over board games and other computationally simple tasks. At least in this domain, it seems that the gift of technology isn’t the amazing machinery of modern games but just some common ground to focus a phone call around.

So Settlers was good, and I’m glad I played, but I don’t think I missed much by having initially skipped it. I don’t have any criticisms right now, but there are many games (check out my board game chooser!) I would rather play. Still, I no longer have to justify having never played it and can lure friends into other games by honestly explaining how “it’s just like Settlers, except…”

Fantasy Football and Friends

I had never been so concerned about athletes, many of whom I have never even seen, before I joined a fantasy football league this season. For the past 4 months, my fantasy roster replaced my email inbox as the focus of constant checking for changes that rarely happens. I was concerned that fantasy football would become a big distraction in my life, and it did, but I can’t wait for next season to start.

For the uninitiated, fantasy sports make users the owner of a fantasy team from some real, professional sport. Each season, you and a group of other owners (typically 10 total in fantasy football) form a league and draft players onto your team. For each game day, you set your lineup of players, and your team’s performance is determined by the actual players’ performance in real life. By scoring various outcomes from the actual games, your fantasy team accumulates points, which determine how well you did in a week. A common structure for leagues is “head-to-head” matchups each week, where you and another team play each other, and the team with the higher score that week wins. This process lasts all season, and some system determines the winner. Along the way, team owners trade players, “sign” free agents, and tweak their rosters based on news, statistics, predictions, superstitions, and wild guesses to do the best they can.

Currently, the NFL is in playoffs, which is the end of the fantasy season. My team finished 2nd during the regular season after 13 weeks and ended up 4th in the playoffs*. And despite looking over player rankings again and again, I still know little about the NFL. I have strong opinions about players who I have never seen play before, but I don’t how well their teams are doing or who their defense or coach is. I’m not sure whether that is ever going to change: I didn’t watch NFL games before this season, and I avoided watching this season because I would be too anxious about fantasy.

Still, it’s been a great way to keep up with friends. Most of them are in the area, so we have something to talk about regularly, but it has also been the start of a few random email threads with friends hundreds of miles away as well. We could keep in touch for its own sake, but we don’t. We could just talk sports and pop culture, but we don’t. When we turn it into a activity, however, then we have context to push us towards talking, and then everything is great.

Technology has made this easier than ever. A few weeks ago, I played StarCraft: Brood War with friends from high school while chatting on Skype. A few months ago, I played Dungeons & Dragons with some other friends around the world over Google Plus. Despite my concern about the internet giving us a shallow feeling of connectedness, it can also be the platform for us to engage in activities that we would rather do in-person but can’t. It seems ridiculous to think that it was not so long ago that fantasy football drafts were done on paper in a living room, but we now have the tools to score games and coordinate player transactions in real-time.

Earlier this season, I questioned whether I wanted to come back for another season. Fantasy football is certainly fun, but it’s a big distraction even when I’m not staring at my bench. I can think endlessly about how to optimize my team’s performance, and there’s always more data in statistics and footage to obsess over. Maybe it’s pointlessly addictive, but as long as my friends are there too, it’ll probably be worth it.

* Congratulations on Alex for winning and George for being the narrow 2nd place. Say what you will about luck: those guys deserved it.