Exploration is one of the great things in gaming. I am tempted to proclaim it the difference between gamer’s games and casual games, but there are enough games on the “wrong” (Settlers of Catan is the 800 pound gorilla) side of the fence that I’ll hold back. Instead, a few I’ll stick with offering the first of a few short meditations on the whats, whys and wherefores of exploration in gaming.
Typically, gaming discussions about exploration focus on geographical exploration a la sandbox D&D or Traveller. On the computer side, certain CRPGs like the Elder Scrolls games and Red Dead Redemption, plus some of the better roguelikes are standard-bearers for exploration as a compelling game experience. Exploration as I speak of it involves that same impulse to find new and surprising things, but it can occur on abstract levels such as strategy, tactics and (in narrative forms) character and situation. My love of the strategic bricolage in Race for the Galaxy is based in how it creates such a vast plain of viable strategic possibilities (and strategic possibilities that are just close enough to viable to also be interesting). While I enjoy returning to old favorites like a Consumer Markets/Free Trade Association novelty-consume juggernaut, my interest would soon dry up if I only go to play a rotation of greatest hits.
In fact, writing those last couple of sentences gives me a decent metaphor for gamers versus casual game players: music lovers. A lot of people have their taste in music (and clothes and hair, but let’s stick to music) ossify around the time they graduate from high school or college. They love music, but it’s their music that they love and they have no need for music produced after the high point of Led Zeppelin’s or AC/DC’s career. I know about this because I know and love some of these people; it’s also what makes “classic” rock a viable radio format.Other music lovers thrive on finding new acts, new genres and subgenres of music which reach them in new ways. They may not be in touch with the current top 20, and they return fondly to old favourites, but new infusions maintain the vitality of their love of music.
Casual gamers — despite the fact that they’ll pick up new casual games every so often – are a lot like the people whose love for Nirvana will never die and they need no new music to supplement it. Bejewelled or Ticket to Ride will scratch a particular itch for them for the rest of their lives, and they do not need to find other games to scratch that itch for them, only games to scratch new itches. At most, new, largely identical match-three games or expansion maps are all they need to keep their gaming needs fulfilled.
I, like a lot of other gamers, enjoy casual games as a means of relaxation, but I also need games I can sink into and muck around with, surprising myself when a new tactic or combination comes to light, adding it to my library like I recently added The Black Keys and the Sheepdogs to my catalogue of great bands. I’m happy to apply my old favourites, but I still need that hit of discovery to continue playing regularly.
There’s a relationship between this impulse and the Cult of the New, but that’s another topic for another day.