Are Computers Just Really Expensive Dice?

By Deane Barker on December 3, 2004

Here’s a high correlation: computer geeks and role-playing and war game players. If you’re a programming or hardware geek, there’s a good chance you’ve played Dungeons and Dragons, Axis and Allies, or Magic: The Gathering. There’s no scientific basis for this – it’s all empirical – but I *know *the relationship exists.

I played D & D, but Champions from Hero Games was my most consistent addiction. That and Car Wars from Steve Jackson Games. I played a lot of Risk, and, later, got into “true” war games like Panzer Leader. It hasn’t ended – just this week I bought Heroscape for my son for his birthday. I think I was more excited that he was.

When I was a teenager, I wouldn’t play role-playing games as much as I would read them. I’d buy new gaming systems just to study the rules. Learning the combat and campaign systems was so addictive. Once I mastered a game, I’d usually lose interest pretty quickly. A perfect example was the various flavors of GURPs from Steve Jackson Games. I read them all, but I don’t think I ever played one.

To back up my “computer geek – board gamer” claim, I’ve seen a lot of posts about boardgames at Slashdot over the years, like this, this, and this.

Of particular interest was this guy, who wanted to create his own game:

I’ve been growing interested in creating my own set of board games, and I was wondering if people knew of good resources for how to go about doing this? I’d love to know information on good places to get cards printed, manuals printed, plastic pieces manufactured, boards created, that sort of thing.

This one hits close to home, because I did that a lot too: wrote my own gaming systems. I was fascinated by it. I’d spend hours putting together combat and movement systems, but I never played any of them. I just liked the intellectual challenge of building them. I liked creating rules and having them all come together and “gel” into a system.

My buddy Joe and I (not the Joe who contributes to Gadgetopia – another Joe) were going to create a gaming company. For years we wrote gaming systems, then tossed them and wrote new ones. I’m convinced we just liked writing them. (Joe, for his part, went off and started a company that wasn’t far off what we were planning...)

I’m convinced that this passion is that exact same thing at play with software development. I love new programming tools and apps. I love to dissect them and figure out how they work, and in doing this, I get the same feeling that I did when I dove into a new role-playing game rules manual, and I’m stone-cold convinced that those years of learning new gaming systems prepared me for my current years of doing IT for a living. A lot of the same concepts are at play in both programming and gaming.

(Another benefit I reaped from my years of gaming: my uncanny ability to do math in my head. I can do mental math that most people can’t do on paper. I can total a set of numbers in a split second. Why? Because Champions used a lot of dice. It wasn’t uncommon for you to have roll and total 12 six-sided dice. Do it enough, and you unconciously work out a system in your head. I *promise *you that role-playing gamers have higher math scores than non-gamers. Whether this is due to die-rolling or to the fact that they have less dates and thus more time to study, I leave to you...)

I’d been throwing around this post idea for a long time, but something happened today that prompted me to sit down and finally write it: the son of someone I know wrote his own game. I got this email today from a good friend and client:

Last Spring, our son asked to spend his allowance money on Pokemon cards. We said “No.” He said, “Ok” and proceeded to design his own card deck game. Surprisingly (or not?) the game he designed was not only playable, it was fun! So, we made him a deal – if he worked hard on fine-tuning the game, we’d front him the money to get it printed. He put his mind to it and seven months later, it’s finally here!

Though it should be apparent he retained an experienced ad agency to do his production work, please know – virtually every aspect of this game is his idea. It’s weird having a 7 year old as a client, but so far, he’s shown marketing savvy, persistence and leadership skills that would put him on a panel with Peter Drucker and Jack Welch.

Regarding the artwork, it’s truly wonderful art by one of the world’s great dinosaur artists. His name is Joe Tucciarone and was eager to help a young entrepreneur realize a dream.

Included with the email was this brochure. Yes, you read that right: This seven-year-old wrote his own card game, and his Dad (the “experienced ad agency” in the above quote) produced it for him. I’m convinced that if I had a Dad like this when I was young, I’d be atop my own gaming empire by now.

[NOTE: I originally had ordering information here for the game, but it’s been removed, 14 years down the road...]

So, with that, I’ll end this rambling diatribe. But, tell me: do you think I’m right? Is there a correlation between board, war, and role-playing gamers and computer geeks? Do gaming and programming systems trigger the same mental activity? Did you play? What games?

Comments (9)

Anonymous says:

What a fascinating-looking game! I love that they advertise that you can play for 2 minutes or 2 hours. That’s what I look for, since some of the people I hang with are somewhat reluctant to sit down and play board/card games.

That said, although I’m a hardware geek, I’ve never had the opportunity to play D&D or other RPG board games. I grew up overseas a decade or so ago. I believe I played adventure games (the Sierra and LucasArts classics as well as interactive fiction) and console RPGs instead, along with some Gameboy puzzles. In terms of board games, I was partial to Trivial Pursuit and am now an avid fan of Taboo and its word-futzing ilk.

But! I do wish I had played those paper-and-pen campaign systems. And I know others who still play similar board games in my age group (mid-twenties) are 90% more likely to be a geek.

Younghusband says:

“There’s no scientific basis for this – it’s all empirical – but I know the relationship exists.”


drmthtr says:

Rolemaster. Way better than D&D.

Deane says:

I’ve played that. Yes, it’s excellent. I liked the “Critical Hit” charts – they were wonderfully gruesome. And using percentile dice for almost everything was elegant – everyone can relate to percentages.

Deane says:

Here’s an example of the creativity of their tables. This one was for weapon fumbling, but you can imagine how inventive the critical hit tables were.

I liked this one:

“Worst move in ages! You are out for two days with groin injury. There is a 50% chance your foes will be out for three rounds laughing.”

Owen says:

Hmm. I’ve been getting paid to program since I was 8, and that’s about when I started gaming. My name is in the credits of one White Wolf book, and I also pioneered their character designer software. I helped a friend start his own miniature gaming business, and have a complete set of lead minis and web site designs to show for it. During the day, I’m a development manager at a small software company, but I still play D&D on Saturdays with some buddies.

Are RPG and programming skills related? I can’t say for sure. Of the guys I play with on the weekend (in their 30’s and 40’s), we have a mail clerk, a Home Depot sales manager, an Lockheed programmer, a ship pilot, a computer developer for a food services company, a carpet layer, and a network admin for a telemarketing company. Just under half are computer professionals. Coincidence?

Ian Argent says:

Rolemaster -t he system that caused me to be able up to 3 three-digit numbers in my head in the time it took the GM to say “And your result is?”

Dr. Fong says:

“When I was a teenager, I wouldn’t play role-playing games as much as I would read them. I’d buy new gaming systems just to study the rules. Learning the combat and campaign systems was so addictive. Once I mastered a game, I’d usually lose interest pretty quickly.”

I always thought I was the only one that did that. Glad to know I’m not the only freak out there.

Joe says:

I really think there is a connection. We had an interest in exploring these virtual worlds, creating complex storylines and managing the math to discern outcomes that now computers do for you. As a result we used our brains for a level of complex thinking and calculation, or just plain imagination that is no longer required in today’s games. OK, maybe some games do, but

This is something we want to explore in an upcoming editorial feature at Gamehelper. We used to sit around with blocks of graph paper and sharpened pencils to map out the environments we were exploring in the early PC games (many of which were text only) or simply role-playing the latest Steve Jackson Games release. Now you can Google and find a complete walkthrough, solutions for every puzzle or simply buy a guide with all the maps done for you – including the secret areas.

But to get back on topic – Deane and I hadn’t spoken for years since he moved away from California. I thought it was no coincidence that all these years later we would more or less be working in the same field – web development/design. It was such an obvious progression to me – I took a stint through electronic music to get here – and have recently revisited that love from my late teens and early 20s, but even in that we find very similar connections – the ability to manipulate the world around us or create new worlds of our own whether sonically or graphically.

One book I have to recommend is Dungeons & Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Gaming Culture From Geek to Chic – if you’ve not read it – and you grew up through this same transition – it’s a quick weekend read and well worth the effort.