How I learned to appreciate video games (or at least the people who play them)

This is an update to a post I wrote a few years ago, in which I whined a lot about my husband’s quest to get me to play video games. In the past seven years, I haven’t become a gamer, but I’ve gained more of an understanding why people play video games. All of my kids, some of my friends and, of course, my husband, love games.

My latest book in the Sillicon Valley Murder series, Across the Red Sky, features a gaming protagonist. Detective Daniela Grasso loves unwinding with games while struggling with a tough case.

The original post (2014):

For years, my husband had a secret wish.

That he would find the one video game that I would like, that would turn me into a gamer. The man loves video games so much, he can’t understand how someone could not love them.

The more my husband tried to get me to like video games–luring me, cajoling me, bringing home games for me to try–the less I wanted to play them. I dug my heels in even more. Dude, you are trying too hard. I’m never going to be into this.

His conclusion:  My wife just hasn’t played the right game.

So he went on a nearly 20-year quest, fighting creepy kobolds, L.A. gangsters and ill-tempered monks to find that One Sacred Game.

The game that would break the evil spell of…me not liking to play video games.

But the good news is, I’ve found a game that I like. It’s a very old game, one we got a few years ago. Now that it’s been released by the game site, GoodOldGames, my husband has downloaded it on my new computer, so it’s super convenient and I’m playing it regularly.

It’s on Steam now, too. So yay!

It’s a quirky game of space conquest called Moonbase Commander. It was released in 2002, to such resounding success that it received an award for Best Game of 2002:  The Game No One Played. When its maker Atari went bankrupt, the game property was valued low and purchased at auction by game company Rebellion.

Moonbase Commander won me over with its high cheese factor. The graphics are colorful and have a minimalist beauty. Ambiance is created by funky, space lounge-style music. It sounds a lot like what you hear when you push the demo button on a 1990 Casio keyboard.

A narrator moderates the game play in different voices, depending on your team. My favorite narrator voice sounds like the digitally modified voice of a young Japanese woman.

It says things like, “You have removed your opponent’s energy shield! He is exposed! SPANK HIS BOTTOM.”

The goal is to destroy your opponent by eradicating his bases, and when you’ve destroyed the last one–in the words of the narrator–you “have achieved total domination”  You can play against another human opponent (I play my youngest child quite a bit). Or you can team up against a host of computer bots, most of whom are ridiculously incompetent.

Playing this game has finally helped me understand a bit of what my husband feels when he plays a video game. It immerses you in a world. Playing it is like a 30-minute escape to a fun, new place. When my youngest and I play a game of Moonbase, we play cooperatively, working together to defeat the AI (or my husband).

When we win, we’ve got stories to tell: Strategies that worked gloriously and caused spectacular explosions. Huge amounts of energy gleaned from putting collectors on every possible energy pond. Bots who ended up blowing themselves up hilariously and unexpectedly, an easy win for us.

At the end of a game, it feels like we’ve accomplished something. It’s the shared satisfaction of watching a good, but not-deep action movie with friends, the kind where you’re repeating the jokes days later. You’ve laughed, you’ve been through an experience together. You’ve made a memory of some kind, even if it’s short-term.

Now I am beginning to understand why my husband spends so much time and money on these things. They’re fun. Great stress relief. Who doesn’t like blowing things up?

But the biggest surprise to me is, they’re pretty social and kind of a bonding thing.

The most addictive game in the universe. “Play the game, Wesley.”

Recommended Viewing with your Gaming SO:  Watch the Star Trek: Next Generation episode (from season 5), called “The Game.”  A video game with addictive properties is brought onto the ship. Anyone who plays the game falls under its mind control and can’t stop trying to get others addicted to the game. If you have a gaming spouse who has been trying to get you to be interested in video games, this will be hilarious to you. And a great opportunity for discussion. Enjoy, my friends!

When the bad guys got a free pass

One of the inspirations for my novel Swift Horses Racing was a program after World War II that helped Nazi scientists emigrate to the U.S., while scrubbing their Nazi past.

The full details of this program, called Operation Paperclip, weren’t fully revealed to the American public till the 2000s.

As I mention in Swift Horses, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union amped up after the war. The USSR moved through Europe snapping up countries along with scientists who’d worked for the Reich.

The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

They recruited over 2,000 scientists and engineers—in such fields as chemistry, aeronautics, medicine, and biological warfare. The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

Wernher Von Braun

The fact that many of these scientists were Nazis and had committed crimes against humanity was not as important as the determination that their expertise could not fall into Soviet hands. The scientists were brought to the U.S. and their records were wiped clean of any Nazi involvement.

The program was considered a necessary evil if the U.S. was to win the Cold War.

One big area of U.S. recruitment was the German rocket program. In 1942, the Germans sent an A4 rocket higher than any manmade object had ever gone—outer space. This program would produce the V2 rocket, which would bring destruction in bombing raids on London.

The architect of this rocket program? Wernher Von Braun, who emigrated to the US after the war and went on to create the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo missions.

As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

Von Braun was a member of the Nazi party and Hitler’s SS. He oversaw the V2 rocket factory Mittelwerk, in the tunnels under the mountain of Kohnstein, where at least 20,000 concentration camp slave workers lost their lives. Because of the fear that the workers would revolt, digging tools were prohibited and workers had to dig the tunnels by hand.

Operation Paperclip is a fascinating moment in U.S. history. As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

If you’re interested in reading more on Operation Paperclip, I recommend Annie Jacobsen’s book, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Company, 2014). Another book that gives firsthand accounts of the slave conditions in Mittelwerk is Andre Sellier’s History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

The Indoor Life

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The hills, barely visible behind our local high school.

Nine days after the start of the most destructive fire in California history, the Bay Area is filled with smoke. When you walk out of your house, you smell it. There’s ash on your car in the morning. The parks, normally filled with kids, are eerily empty. Our air quality index has been between 160-180. Unhealthy.

In our western part of Silicon Valley, you can barely make out the hills a couple miles down the street. The scenery around us is grayed out, like an unavailable option on a computer screen.

We’re staying at home. Inside.

I’m trying to write for NaNoWriMo, so this has worked pretty well for me. When I get antsy, my go-to is usually a hike. Since I can’t do that, I write. I research. I dip into that stack of unread books spawned by my serious book buying addiction. More than usual, I’m getting stuff done.

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In the evenings, we’re watching movies and playing games. My youngest is obsessed with 1980s movies, which is amusing to me, since these are the movies of my youth and young adulthood. She’s obsessed with the Back to the Future series, which has made for lots of deep discussions. The kind that you hope for and don’t easily get. What events in your life caused you to be who you are today? What if things had happened differently? And, more importantly, was Biff Tannen really modeled after Donald Trump? (Yes—confirmed by screenwriter Bob Gale in a 2015 Rolling Stone Interview).

And we’ve played board games, one of my husband’s favorite things to do. As an introvert, he socializes more easily when he’s doing something. And occasionally, I do win a game.

Our bad air quality is expected to last through Tuesday (four days from now).

Indoor life has been less frustrating than I thought, a reprieve from busy Silicon Valley life. The sad thing is to go outside, smell the air and think of the cause of all this. Two hundred miles away, people’s lives are going up in smoke. I have nothing to complain about. I have my family around me and a house to be indoors in. The people in and around the town of Paradise, California do not. And their situation is heartbreaking.

I got some sobering perspective from this post by a woman who grew up in Paradise. “Please Excuse the Smoke,” https://legitfaith.wordpress.com/2018/11/16/please-excuse-the-smoke/

Are you holed up indoors, too? For those of you outside California, what’s your perspective on what you’re seeing and hearing about the fire?

Who’s up for a bored game?

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Century, Golem Edition. A family addiction for us.

I grew up in a family of poor sports.

The kind of people who stomped off to their bedrooms when they started losing a game. I remember Monopoly games so intense that objects were thrown. Issues came up that had nothing to do with the placement of little green houses on Park Place.

Soon the winner (often my mom) was gloating, losers were dredging up past grievances and I was ducking into the nearest closet to hide.

But my engineer/gamer husband grew up playing games for entertainment. His dad is a card shark, who’s played in poker tournaments in Vegas. His mom and siblings love games. My husband goes to regular board game nights. The other days of the week, he is secretly plotting the acquisition of his next game—if not actually going down to Game Kastle to get it.

Since games haven’t been a happy part of my past, it’s taken me a long time to want to share that interest. My husband constantly looks for games that might lure me to play: “Honey, this one’s about art. I bet you’ll really like it!”

But in my mind, board games = angry confrontation. Or just boredom. Learning a set of rules to follow, and patiently taking turns at following them, seemed pointless to me. That’s supposed to be fun? Seriously?

But as I observed my husband, I started to see that it’s not about the game. It’s about the interactions of the players. My intelligent, introverted husband takes games to parties because it gives him a context for being social in a sea of small talk. He can explain the rules of the game he’s introducing (something he’s great at). Then the rules of the game are the boundaries for the discussions. He doesn’t have to work at coming up with things to say.

A game-playing friend of mine says she loves the interactions that happen while you’re playing a game. “You see how people react when things get competitive. You see what they’re really like under pressure. It’s a microcosm of life.”  I saw that big time when I was growing up. But playing a game is kind of like going on a virtual adventure with people. You enter into this thing together. Afterwards, you recount your adventures, you talk about what made  you win or lose, the close calls, and what you could have done differently.

If the game is really epic?  You’ll talk about it for years.

Are there some games that you’ve enjoyed playing with your significant other or family?

Games you might want to try with your SO or family:

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The incredibly addicting Century: Golem Edition game

Century (Golem Edition)
My husband found this on the discount shelf at a game store. We were immediately addicted and ended up hooking other friends. The goal is to collect colored gems, which are used to buy golem cards of different point totals. The art in this game is beautiful and the transparent gems are incredibly alluring. It’s a very easy game to learn.

Dominion
This game has made me something I’d never thought I’d be:  competitive.  You play different cards in strategic combinations to get money and victory points. The unlimited card combinations make each game different. For some reason, the variety levels the field, and no one player, even an uber gamer, has an advantage over time. I can win this one.

Apples to Apples
A social game, great family game. Many gamers won’t consider it worthy of attention. You play an adjective—e.g., “Evil, Pretty,”—and players play a card with a celebrity or cultural reference they think fits the word. Each person takes a turn as a “judge,” to pick the one they like the best. Goal is figuring out how to play to the judge so your card will get picked.

Goa
A game based on colonizing the Indian island of Goa. The idea is to set up spice plantations and colonies, and win victory points. The game is a favorite of my game-playing women friends. It pairs well with an evening of food and wine, probably because you’re constantly thinking about acquiring cinnamon, clove, pepper and ginger.

Hot date at Safeway

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My husband, right after a joy ride on the shopping cart.

My husband suggested that we go by ourselves to the grocery store. We needed some things for breakfast, and we had a house full of family–a wonderful thing, but noisy.

“I like going to the grocery store with you,” he said. “It can be like a date.”

So at 10 pm we went to Safeway, and talked as we ambled down the aisles, pushing the cart. We talked about food, traits our kids had in common, and the music we’d played together that morning in church. We took a good, long time. It was catching up, connecting, and it was fun.

The older I get, the more I find myself leveling my expectations. I have gotten excited anticipating the “perfect” weekend getaway, dinner at a great restaurant, or an awesome concert from one of my favorite bands. Now my greatest joys are things that happen off the cuff. A hike with my kids. Frisbee with my husband in the park behind our house.

I think there is something about getting older and having experienced the highs and lows of life over and over again. You realize that it isn’t what you do, it’s who you’re doing it with and what your state of mind is at the time.

There is life that comes from connecting with another person, no matter how introverted you are (my husband’s an introvert and I’m right smack between E and I). Our son is autistic, and I see the life in him when he connects with someone over a common interest. There is a jolt of relational energy that passes back and forth between them. We were made for this connection, and when we bind ourselves up in tasks to be done or plans for a big, anticipated event, that often gets lost.

I love the movie, Up, especially the conversations between Russell, the young Explorer Scout and the old man, Carl. In one scene, Russell remembers playing a game with his dad sitting outside Fenton’s ice cream parlor. A silly game they made up, where they score points for every red car they see.

“That might sound boring,” Russell tells Carl as he tells him about the game, “but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.”

Me, too.

The fight to stay focused when my husband talks tech

software-computer-code-1940x900_35196My husband is a software engineer, and he loves his work. He writes and troubleshoots code for a graphics card company every day. Then he comes home and writes more code.

Because it’s so much fun.

But when my husband wants to share with me the thing he’s devoted most of his waking life to, I feel like I must strap myself to a rock and let the waves hit me.  I buckle down, grit my teeth and lock my eyes onto his in a listening stance. I maintain constant vigilance over my thoughts. If left untended, they will wander the room like one of those Roomba automatic vacuum cleaners, pinging randomly off walls and veering under the furniture.

This morning was a good example. My husband and I went out for a breakfast date. After listening to my conversation, my husband said, “Can I tell you now? About that modification I made to the Minecraft clone I’m working on?”  His eyes shine with the wit and elegance of the breakthrough he’s made in the game he’s programming. He’s been thinking about this for two weeks. This is big. He wants to share this with his wife.

So he begins. I try hard to focus. I try to picture what he’s saying in little drawings in my mind so that I can relate to all the intangibles. I have Sal Khan from Khan Academy in my head, helping me out with a play-by-play explanation on a white board. My husband is using words like stack and arraymemory and processing speed.

Then suddenly, I veer. A fly is hovering over my husband’s head. Will it land? And where? Does my husband know there’s a fly over his head?  

I start eating my food, and continue listening. He’s saying something about cubes in a stack. Okay, got it. Dang, this linguica is good.  I’m smelling tarragon somewhere in the restaurant.  Now that’s interesting. What breakfast food would have tarragon as an ingredient? Who would even think of that?  

Sal Khan is rolling his eyes at my distraction, but he gently nudges me to return to the topic at hand. He draws a cute picture of Minecraft cubes in a stack to cajole me into listening. I return to the information I stored in my head–the last thing I remember my husband saying before I drifted.  Something about some images in the game being stored as half cubes, not full cubes.

In an unexpected leap, my brain translates the information my husband has given me into big picture form. I am able to grasp what he is taking about. So this is it: He’s figured out a way for vertical stacks of repetitive graphics to be stored more efficiently so the game runs faster, and a way to make water look more realistic on the screen. I get it.

Sorta. Kinda.

“That’s kind of a big deal,” I tell him. “Doesn’t it make you want to go home to your computer and do this, right now? This is so much better!”  In some weak way, I have been able to connect with what he’s been so excited about.

My husband’s face is lit up by the enormity of what he has done. And I see, through all my inattention, that it’s worth fighting the fight. It’s worth trying to stay connected through the techie bits.

If not for the subject of programming, which doesn’t interest me, then for my husband, who interests me very much.