It’s part of every game, and almost nobody actually enjoys it.

Removing Busywork

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The letter R!ecently I started teaching a class at the University of Washington. I knew I didn't want to teach a class in game design, since I don't trust myself to understand what I do when I design games, and certainly don't trust my ability to communicate it. So I decided instead to teach a class on the History of Games. As my notes began filling with dates that particular game forms were invented and how they spread, I began to suspect that this topic would be of interest to few people. It was the analogue of a history class that just taught names and dates – what I needed to do to bring the material alive was understand the reasons the history of games evolved the way it did – the characteristics of games, people, and cultures that drive game history. This was too big a topic for me to tackle in the short term, so I retreated to a class on the general characteristics of games, perhaps to return to the grand topic at some future date.

However, I did find an example of the sort of force I was looking for, and that was the drive across game history to remove busywork. Busywork in a game are the things done that are necessary to play, but not really part of the fun. As with most definitions, this will have some gray areas, but to illustrate, some of the things that I would consider busy work are:

  • Shuffling and dealing
  • Banking in a game like Monopoly
  • Setting up a complicated board game

Where it starts to get muddy is when the busywork is incorporated with play. An example of this is a game in which one player is so far ahead that they are definitely going to win; playing that game out to its bitter end would be busywork. Also, one could argue that the beginning of a game like Monopoly has a lot of busywork. If I am going to roll, move, and buy if possible then the game in some sense starts at the point the first decisions are made: trading, buying houses, or at least choosing not to purchase a property. What happens until them could be called busywork, though players may enjoy seeing the “start” of the game unfold.

The historical drive to remove busywork has made it so that most classic games play pretty efficiently relative to modern games. Some examples of where I would say history has driven out busywork would be in backgammon and chess. In backgammon, a game in which you race your pieces around the board and the first person to remove all their pieces wins the race, the ancestors had you start with your pieces off the board. Later, the game was played where pieces began on the board. Later pieces began on the board in an advanced position. Later the doubling cube was added which made runaway games possible to truncate. In chess, originally the pieces did not move as far as they do now, where they sweep across the board. Also, the difference between eastern and western chesses are defined mostly by how the games handled the pawns gumming up the works – eastern chess removed many pawns so there was room to move, and western chess created the “double move” that you can do when you first move a pawn.

Often there will be resistance to removing busywork from a game on many grounds. Generally the people playing the game have made their peace with whatever the mechanic is, or have even learned to enjoy it. It is certainly easy to believe that some modest amount of busywork can be worth the cost for whatever benefit is being given. The tactile pleasure of shuffling a deck may be worth the shuffling. The awe of looking over an elaborate military game might be worth the setup time. However, frequently when the busywork is removed there will be a lot of new players interested in playing, and a lot of old players who don't look back. This has happened very recently with prepainted miniatures in the hobby market. In Wizards there was a group of game designers advocating them long before they became popular, and they never managed to overcome the people entrenched in the old system where all miniatures needed to be painted. After all, the old school believed that was one of the big appeals of the game form. That may have been true, but the ability to buy decent looking prepainted miniatures opened up the game form to far more people. I imagine there was similar resistance among the players to changes in chess that moved it along – undoubtedly some players enjoyed the original game, which by modern chess standards plods along, and resisted changes.

The gaming form that can most learn from this is computer gaming – specifically, but not limited to, roleplaying games. From the early days of MMRPGS I have longed to see the “busywork” removed – the travel time, the boring combats, the tedious inventory management. Cynics have responded that once you remove all that you are left with nothing (try playing progress quest, a free online game, to see the most succinct argument to that end). I personally don't believe that – I think some care needs to be taken, similar to the care that one could imagine being exercised in chess where someone might advocate doing away with all the pawns, or making them move like queens. Entrenched players often respond that they like these elements, and somehow can keep a straight face saying that while holding the move button down for ages as they lumber around an artificial world. They claim that getting rid of the travel would hurt their feeling of immersion. They say this as their character dies and they respawn and go out to search for the corpse.

In recent years you can see the forces that remove busywork playing out here as well, however. Every generation of these games introduces more and more tools to speed travel up or keep combat and other play experiences fresh and interesting. What I am waiting for is for one of these games to be designed with reducing this busywork being not something done incrementally, to be a little better than the competition, but boldly making it the foundation upon which their game is built, jumping directly to the endpoint of this evolutionary process. But, as it is, it looks like I may just have to wait for the game form to crawl there.

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