Strategic Reminiscence

Can my workstation fit in this VM box?
    Photo by Jean & Nathalie

I used to be really big into playing real time strategy games, such as Age of Empires and Warcraft. (Well, I still am, but who has time these days?)  As I played I started to notice a couple trends in my strategy.


First, I love resources. I hate gathering them but I love having them (for those who don’t know, most of these types of games require that the player find and gather various resources such as wood, gold, and stone used to create buildings and weapons.) This would sometimes become a detriment because I would spend so much time gathering resources I would neglect other things. But when it worked right, I would end up with so much stuff that I could almost buy my way out of a tough situation.

My second strategy was that I focused almost entirely on defense. I would build all kinds of defensive structures, and I would concentrate all my research energies on defensive measures. When I would finally attack I would would only come out of my defenses when I was reasonably sure that I had an overwhelming force, one that I could lose without compromising the security of my base. I was always paranoid that even a small breach of my outer wall would lead immediately to my downfall.  I think I could have been more balanced, because I would pass up on opportunities that could have been aggressively capitalized on. Part of my problem was that I always assumed that my opponent had twice the power I did and that I was constantly fighting from a losing position.

My third strategy was that I was always looking for something clever and unexpected. No frontal assaults for me (unless I knew I had a 20 to 1 advantage.) No, I always needed to find the perfect flaking movement, feint, or insertion of special forces units. Now I’m certain that this caused me problems, because these types of moves are complex to run and there’s a lot of truth in the KISS principle. Not only that, but unless the conditions are just right these operations tend to turn into spectacular failures, even with a 20 to 1 advantage.

I’ve often reflected that the way that game playing makes certain personality traits come to the surface. Looking at how I tended to play these games I can see how I have similar strategies in my professional work. For example, I’m constantly struggling against my desire to do something “clever” with the user interfaces I build. I lose that struggle all too often and wind up with some pretty spectacular failures. But, on the other hand, my defensive programming strategies have the opposite effect deep within the code. In there, simplicity rules out of the fear that a tiny failure somewhere would be catastrophic.

There’s probably psychological literature on how game play parallels other forms of endeavor (and if not there should be.) Now I need to figure out the deep meaning in the Snakes and Ladders games with my kids.