Faster games are not necessarily better

Squeevolution!There’s this persistent notion that goes around that games that play faster are better. Games that require a long time commitment, the argument seems to go, are wastes of time. If you spend more than a few moments on things like character generation or mechanics, then the game isn’t worth playing. Only games that get you into the action immediately, or generate drama instantly, are worthwhile.

Now, I play a lot of games that try to get players into the action as soon as possible. I continue to have a lot of fun with Microscope, Fiasco, The Quiet Year and other games that are very much about ‘story now, story first’. And of course I consider it something of a rule that games at cons should have players making meaningful decisions as soon as possible.

However, all of that is not my only preference. I also like games that, well, take a bit of a time commitment. I still have very fond memories of all my multi-year campaigns, and I continue to thoroughly enjoy my ongoing Blade & Crown campaign. (Going on half a decade now, I think). Games with all manner of time commitments can be fun, from Spot It (which you can learn and play a complete game of within five minutes), to Chivalry & Sorcery (which I still haven’t gotten the hang of). And dumping on long-form games for taking too long is just as bad as dumping on indie games for being too ‘touchy feely’ or dumping on D&D for being too [whatever we’re dumping on D&D for now]. There should be space in gaming for all kinds of games, with all kinds of time requirements, for all kinds of players and preferences.

I specifically want to analyze some of the threads in the ‘faster=always better’ narrative, because I think it’s a very insidious narrative and one that has a bunch of really problematic assumptions behind it.

First, I think a lot of this criticism is really just people dumping on D&D or Pathfinder without wanting to name names. Those two giants are open to some criticism, it’s sure; I’ve seen way too many tables where the D&D or Pathfinder players were doing nothing but poking through books to find obscure rules. But even there, a) some people like that style of play — more power to ’em! — and b) it’s not fair to paint all traditional games with that broad brush. (Blade & Crown, I will point out, is a traditional, gritty, ‘realistic’ game that manages to not require much rules consultation at all during play, largely because of its highly unified mechanics. And B&C is far from the only game to accomplish this.) If you dislike traditional games because D&D takes too long for you… well, that might be a legit criticism of D&D, but it isn’t necessarily a good criticism of traditional games as a whole.

Also, I think a lot of the ‘play quicker!’ narratives are really just people finding ways to propagate old arguments about the inferiority of games that aren’t ‘narrativist’. (Of course, a game can be simulationist, gamist and narrativist at the same time, and people’s preferences can be all those things or none at different times; but for a lot of people, there’s only one right piece of that triad.) A lot of people seem to argue that a game where it takes longer to resolve an action than to complete that action in real life is insufficiently fast-paced. Well, of course that can be true for a lot of people’s personal aesthetics; but like a lot of arguments in RPG circles, this one too quickly gets put in terms of absolutes. Too quickly, it seems like the argument jumps to “detailed simulation and intricate mechanics are always wastes of time”.

Another huge problem with ‘play quicker!’ arguments is that they feed into about a million interrelated problems inherent in capitalism. For one thing, there’s the way that capitalism (as it is now) forces us to constantly compress our leisure time into smaller and smaller boxes. We must always be finding ways to produce more, and to ‘goof off’ less. If we’re not on call, or preparing for work, or doing unpaid work, or doing a ‘working retirement’ or multitasking or doing overtime or whatever else, we’re not doing our part as cogs in the machine. We therefore have to constantly strive for ways to ‘work harder and play harder’ — that is, get maximum entertainment value out of our ever-diminishing leisure time. It sometimes seems like we’re working toward a future where we get 13 seconds of relaxation a week, and if we haven’t swum to the Moon and back in that time then we haven’t had fun hard enough.

A closely related problem is the way that capitalism forces us to justify everything in terms of ‘productivity’. We need to squeeze our leisure time into smaller timescales because that allows us to ‘produce’ more the rest of the time; and we need to justify the very existence of our leisure time by stating how much more productive it makes us, or by forcing games to become a form of work. One example: Someone creates mods for games in the hope that they’ll get picked up by a AAA publisher, and justifies their modding by the fact that it might eventually get them a job. Another example: When someone justifies playing games as a way to make themselves more creative and therefore a better worker. All as if ‘productivity’ is the most important thing about us — as if we owe our existence to the machine, and not the other way around.

It’s definitely true that not everyone has oodles of time to devote to gaming. But I don’t think that’s a good thing. It would be nice if more of us could stand up for leisure time — not just as a way to make us more productive workers, but because we deserve it as human beings. By pushing so hard for games that produce maximum fun in minimum time (rather than allowing for things like languorous storytelling, depth of development, etc.), it often feels to me like we’re tacitly accepting the constant crushing pressure on our freetime. Instead of doing that, I think it would be nice if we could push back and assert that we want to have time to enjoy ourselves, just because. (The unions brought us the two-day weekend, etc.)

There are other problems with constantly pushing for faster, simpler, more intense gaming experiences, from the arms race/constant push for a bigger high aspect, to the misogynist memes (“math is hard!”) that it sometimes buys into. But this post has already probably wasted enough of your time. I’ll just sum up by saying: Enjoy whatever kinds of games you enjoy, of whatever time commitment, and try to resist oppressive tendencies to mold your enjoyment into consumption/production-acceptable units of time.


Faster games are not necessarily better — 4 Comments

    • It is a big repetitious, ’tis true. But I don’t think I’ve put all these thoughts together in one place before. Good to make at least an attempt at coherence. :)

  1. This is a simply brilliant post, that echoes what a couple of guys named Dave and gary used to say at the game table. It’s great, and should be required reading for people who want to get at the heart of what ‘RPG gaming’ – or for that matter, *any* gaming! – is like for those of us of a certain age and background in games and gaming.

    Wonderful! Thank you!!!

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