In the Big Scheme of Things . . .

How important are toys? I mean, in comparison to what’s going on in Louisiana and Mississippi right now, with all the misery, destruction, and death, how vital is it that I discuss the best in toys and games?

I don’t know. What I do know is that toys and games make people happier. Children, or young children at least, tend to prefer toys, but how many adults do you know who don’t play some sort of games? Card games, pool, billiards, tennis, croquet, chess, board games — they all provide an outlet for tension, I think, in a sort of ritualistic and socially-acceptable sort of warfare. Games allow people to spend time together socially doing something other than merely conversing. Of course, an evening spent conversing with your friends is hardly a bad thing, but not all of us are brilliant conversationalists all the time.

What I do wonder is what effect the video game revolution will have on future generations. In the past, playing games (with the exception of things like solitaire) required two or more people, who needed to be able to get along at least for the duration of the game. A game was, by definition, a social activity.

Now, a game need not be a social activity at all. A player can learn a game and, in many instances, play perfectly well against the game itself (as in games such as Halo, The Sims, or Grand Theft Auto, for instance) or against computer-generated Artificial Intelligence opponents. The player is reaping some of the benefits of playing the game — she is sharpening her abstract-thinking skills, or his use of strategy, or whatever — but that social aspect is gone. You don’t form a social bond with a computer opponent.

This worries me a bit. And I am not a disinterested party — I have felt the effects myself.

I personally love the game Settlers of Catan. It is, in my opinion, one of the best board games ever made. It offers everything — a reasonably short playing time (about 45 minutes), a combination of strategy and luck, and a social or human aspect, in that trading of the all-important resources needed to win the game should be an important part of one’s strategy. My problem began when I realized that, of the three people currently in our household, only two enjoyed the game, so we could not play the original Settlers (there is a two-person card game, but it is perpetually out of stock at the manufacturer’s.) So I went online and found a Java-based online Catan game that I could play against robot opponents.

Which I proceeded to do. The games were fast, much faster than those played against human opponents. And I got addicted to that pace, so that I no longer really wanted to experience those delays as real people hesitated, or considered alternatives. “Come on, come on!” I wanted to say aloud. I was like an angry commuter stuck in slow-moving traffic when I played with actual people as opponents; they were tedious compared to my robot buddies.

Whoa right there.

That’s what is wrong with computer games, in my opinion. They take part of what has always been good about the gaming experience, and invert it. Yes, they may build your deductive reasoning skills, or help you hone your bridge-playing prowess, but they may sour the player on that exquisite pleasure of gaming, the pleasure of other people’s company. And when we are a planet of hermitical individuals, each glued to a computer or a game console or a little cell phone screen, when we have no time for one another, where will our society be then?

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