Guest Post: Better Sci-Fi Through Gaming, by Yoon Ha Lee

yoonOne of the more entertaining things I got to do while writing Ninefox Gambit was read up on game design and use it as an excuse to play computer games. Even as a child, I used to make up my own games—although the results weren’t very good. I generated one fantasy-themed board game in elementary school that bore a suspicious resemblance to Talisman, a thoroughbred-racing-themed ripoff of Monopoly, and various attempts at gamebooks after falling in love with the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, especially Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (yes, the exclamation point is part of the series title).

That’s not including the dreadful roleplaying games, mostly influenced by GURPS (it sounds like a rude noise, but it stands for Generic Universal Roleplaying System) and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, that I worked on in my spare time. I also loved computer games; My sister and I spent hours playing Wolfenstein 3D together (she did mouse, I did keyboard; it was like cockamamie Pacific Rim, in the context of a first-person shooter), and made our way through any number of computer roleplaying games.

Not that I needed writing a novel an excuse to play games, mind you. But it made for useful background. One of the major characters in the novel basically is a game designer; he comes  from the Shuos faction, which likes using games and game design in its pedagogy. It’s something I can trace back to my excellent 8th grade teacher Mr. Capin, who taught social studies and made use of simulations. I’ll never forget the Middle East sim, in which the class was divided up into different nations. I was assigned to “Israel.” Mr. Capin also played the role of the USA, and from time to time, the “USA” would drop “foreign aid” on us. The other groups hated us instantly. Another time, we did the “Roman Senate,” with Mr. Capin playing the role of “Julius Caesar.” He gave me the opportunity to try to stop him, so long as I didn’t spoil what was to come. I was insufficiently persuasive, and he assassinated me. (I have never been prouder to have a teacher announce, “Senator Yoon is dead.” God knows, that’s the closest I’ll ever come to a government position!) It was very visceral, and I’ve never forgotten how vivid the lessons became in that format.

When I was a child, either there were fewer resources on game design, or I didn’t know where to find them. These days, there are a wealth of them. I went through texts such as Brenda Brathwaite & Ian Schreiber’s Challenges for Game Designers and Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design, as well as the wealth of free online material at Ian Schreiber’s Game Design Concepts. I learned about how games involve behavior modification: the rules reward players for doing certain things, and penalize them for doing others. For a familiar example, if a game rewards you with experience points for killing monsters, but not for careful study of the monsters’ culture, players are much more likely to spend all their time killing monsters (and taking their loot). This helped me develop the ways one of my characters manipulated another.

I also embarked on a project to improve at a Crysis Wars mod called Mechwarrior: Living Legends (MWLL), because my husband was playing it at the time and I got to watch a lot of fantastic strategy and tactics. I do not wish to imply that a video game featuring mecha is anything like a substitute for combat experience, but I’m not that dedicated to writing military space opera, and also, by the time you need me to wield a gun, you are seriously hosed. (I am a lousy shot with a .22 bolt-action rifle.) I figured since there was a ton of magic in my world and its combat anyway, it would do as a limited model.

I learned that when stressed out—in a game, at least—I can’t see anything but the middle ninth of my screen. I learned that 90 percent of my problems disappear if I kept calm. Early on, my tendency was to freeze and try to figure things out before acting, which got me killed a lot. And even reading Swinton’s The Defense of Duffer’s Drift was not as educational on the topic of why you do not want to silhouette yourself in front of hostiles as the time I poked my head up over a hills on one map. The instant I made myself visible, I got nailed. Whoops! I only played 40 hours of MWLL, but I journaled every hour, and I’l never forget what I took away from it.

If only writing novels didn’t reduce the amount of time that I have to play or design games, but them’s the breaks.

Ninefox Gambit is available now from Solaris.

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