Play By Email Week: Introduction

I’ve had a vague interest in Play By Email (PBEM) Games for a long time, but it wasn’t until last year that I finally made an effort to try them out. Now that I’m ready to discuss them on my blog, my plan is to devote my four articles this week to various PBEM games, starting with a general introduction today.

I haven’t talked about them much, because people usually get confused when I bring the topic up. They assume that I’m either talking about standard games like Chess, or free-form role-playing games with lots of flowery in-character emails. Those options do exist, but they never interested me, probably because they don’t offer anything that an in-person Chess game or RPG couldn’t provide. Instead of Chess, I’d want my email game to provide extra complexity and communication to take advantage of the long delays between turns. And I prefer things more structured than the RPG story-telling people think of, more World of Warcraft than Dungeons & Dragons. In short, these are games where people submit moves (in some pre-defined code) to a server, so a central computer can process them and send out results. The fun does come from talking and strategizing with players between turns, but the heart is a strict rule-based system.

So why am I looking at these games now, when there are so many other options available in 2013? Well, admittedly, the initial impulse was just scratching an itch from 20 years ago, when I heard about games like “Monster Island” through a friend of a friend of a friend, but the internet was so young (as was I) that there was no good way for me to find them. But even with my initial curiosity satisfied, they’re still interesting. As with gamebooks and text adventures, I’m fascinated by the story and game possibilities in niche hobbies that continue to evolve long after technology has passed them by. Besides, I love the tension that comes from games that let all players make simultaneous choices, and those are common when everyone submits secret orders in PBEM. Finally, from a practical standpoint, I don’t have a lot of time these days for long, drawn-out games that require me to schedule hours of time with a group. With email, I can catch up when I have time, but the game slowly builds (and sticks in my head) for months at a time.

The main drawback is that the PBEM community isn’t very robust. While gamebooks are enjoying a comeback due largely to nostalgia, and text adventures have flourished in a community dedicated to exploring their artistic possibilities, Play By Email has mainly continued on as a hobby for people who liked Play By Mail in the past. The audience tends to be older, conservative, and surprisingly unsavvy about technology, as well as (from what I’ve seen) universally male. The games are pretty much the same ones that you could find decades ago, and their prices often reflect a past era in which someone had to painstakingly copy all your snail-mailed orders into a computer . In fact, I’m surprised by how many things that could be done automatically are still handled manually by the person running them, because there was never any drive to evolve.

Still, I’ve enjoyed experimenting with these, and I plan to continue on with some of them. I don’t know how quickly I’ll get around to trying the other games that sounded interesting, so expect it to be a while before I post any follow-ups after this week. (PBEM games tend to move slowly. I started this experiment about a year ago, and I wasn’t ready to write up these impressions until maybe a few months back. So even if I sign up for new things now, It would probably be near the end of this year before I report back.) On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that each of the three topics in my upcoming articles had their own community, with almost no awareness of the other PBEM groups out there. I choose to interpret that optimistically, and say that the next game I try could be completely different from any one I’ve seen before. That possibility is always going to drive me on.

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