Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Do I need to buy a round if I get a hole in my head?

What does an on-line computer combat game and a 15th century Scottish game played on the verd have in common? More than you may imagine. The on-line game I’m referring to is called Counter-Strike and of course the Scottish game is golf. While the mechanics of these games are very different, they are both highly addictive for what I believe are basically the same reasons: simple play, beautiful surroundings and the joys of success.

If you’re not already familiar with Counter-Strike, it is a multi-player modification of the Half-Life game engine that allows teams (Terrorist/Counter Terrorist) to battle across various maps with conflicting objectives: plant a bomb/defuse a bomb, rescue hostages/retain the hostages, etc.... In many ways it’s like virtual capture the flag but with weapons.

The first similarity to golf in game play is that an extended game is divided up into short rounds. In golf each hole is a battle to get a ball in the cup in as few shots as possible. In Counter-Strike you try and eliminate the enemy and achieve the objective. Just as golf, this is easier said than done but the real similarity is that each round is a fresh start. If you flub a shot in golf or get killed in Counter-Strike, in the next round all is forgiven. A second similarity in game play is that you have a range of tools to use to achieve the goals of the game. In golf you carry a bag of different clubs; in Counter-Strike you carry different weapons. Just as the swing needed to employ a putter is different from a driver, the skills needed to use the various weapons available in Counter-Strike are different. Attempting to master all the difference is part of the enjoyment of the game.

The second similarity I called out at the start of this essay was the beautiful surroundings. You’re probably thinking it’s a stretch to compare a walk on a nice sunny day with some time at the keyboard, but hear me out. My point wasn’t that the environments of these two games are the same; the point is that the environment of each is just as important to the game. If golf was played on concrete and artificial turf it wouldn’t be nearly as popular. In golf you spend a nice couple of hours in a lush green natural environment. It adds a lot to the game.

It’s my contention that the environment is just as important to Counter-Strike. The modelers who built this game have paid close attention to the details. On some maps there are the sounds of rain and birds chirping; on others you can hear music emanating from certain buildings, a church might have piano music playing from inside it while others may have middle-eastern music. The buildings are also nice to look at. The models are usually clever mazes of hallways and courtyards all decorated with tiny details like pictures and carts of fruit. Of course this is a action game with all the sights and sounds of combat added in. Each gun makes a different sound (I don’t know enough about guns to know if they are all accurate but you can certainly tell a shotgun sound from a riffle or a sub machine gun from a pistol), you can hear footsteps from the direction of other players and as expected all the blood and violence of being shot or hit by an explosions is rendered in detail.

While blood and bodies going limp like a rag doll after a shot to the head may be too graphic for many people, it’s this level of combat detail in conjunction with the bird noises and the church music that make the environment so impressive. It’s a world you want to be a part of. It makes you want to survive.

My last point of comparison between golf and Counter-Strike was the joys of success. I’m not a good golfer; in fact I’m quite bad. I’ve only shot under 100 for a round of 18 holes once or twice in my life and I’ve played off and on since I was a teenager. What keeps me coming back is that random pitch from 10 yards off the green that just rolls into the hole or that drive that just sails straight and true. They don’t happen often but the sudden feeling of mastery after all those moments of aggravation is priceless.

As bad as I am at golf I’m probably worse at Counter-Strike. I don't know if it's just that the typical player is some teenager with better reflexes and more twitch training than I or if there's a aiming gene I just wasn't born with. Either way, I stink at it. A reasonable person might question why I would continue to play. It's a question I’ve ask myself a lot over the couple of weeks I’ve played the game and I believe the answer is the same as for golf. It’s the small joys of victory. I may get killed in most rounds but the joy of finally getting the better of someone who has killed me repeatedly is great.

While golf and Counter-Strike are certainly very different and appeal to different parts of society, I hope I’ve shown how the games get their appeal in much the same way. Both are simple in concept yet hard to master; both rely on the environmental experience to add to the game play and finally both are epitomized by small glorious successes amid many small defeats.

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