Tony Martin has been playing and modding megagames at Sydney Megagames since 2016. He has also travelled to games in Melbourne, Brisbane and Wellington, New Zealand. His leadership style involves a lot of sweating and panic.
The Prime Ministers instructions were clear. We need this treaty. The fate of millions depends upon it. Depends upon me. I need to stand up before the United Nations and give the sales pitch of my life. The French Ambassador is chatting to me as we wait for the session to start, but I can’t hear a word he says. I’m so full of anxiety and adrenaline that I can’t think straight. I just nod and smile and hope that is an appropriate response to whatever he is saying.
This kind of emotional reaction is the reason I keep coming back to play Megagames. There is some magic in the setting, the politics, the time constraints, that allows me to suspend my disbelief in a way I rarely experience as an adult. I can convince myself, temporarily, that this is real. I am one of the world’s leaders in moment of international crisis. People are counting on me.
I’m going to call this phenomenon “Play-Believe” for want of a better term. I’m tempted to call it Roleplaying. But I associate roleplaying with something slightly different. I’m not trying to play a character. I’m just me. Tony. Except Tony if I suddenly found myself in the position of a world leader in a national emergency. I’m rank-playing rather than role-playing.
The defining characteristic of this Play-Believe, is that I’m not trying to convince others who I am. I’m trying to convince myself. I’m engaging in a very active and deliberate self-deception. The better I can suspend my disbelief, the higher the stakes, and the more exciting the game becomes.
This approach to Megagames is certainly not the only way to enjoy them. Nor is it “the best way” or “the right way”. But it is what captured my imagination during my first encounter with Megagames. And it is now the way I approach every Megagame I play.
There are many other ways to engage with a Megagame. A few other types of Megamer I have encountered include:
The Chess Master, who sees the game as a strategic puzzle to be solved and won.
The Scoundrel, who wants to con, swindle and heist other players with spectacular flair.
The Roleplayer, who wants to act out a character, or an archetype, from the genre of the game setting. Think of the Russian player who has decided to play the part of a James Bond supervillain.
The Influencer, who wants to persuade, lead and set the agenda.
The Pixie, who wants to entertain, surprise and delight other players (and mods).
My taxonomy is flawed. The truth is that every player feels all these impulses to some degree, and at different times. My purpose in separating them here is simply to focus in on the one aspect of megagaming that motivates me and keeps me coming back for more.
Play-Believe can make a Megagame a richer experience. The rules, background and artwork of a game can do some of the work in transporting you to another time and place. But through play-believe, your imagination fills in the gaps of an entire world and community that does not exist in game. Norms of behaviour, expectations, moral responsibilities.
Be aware that play-believe does not necessarily make you more likely to “win” a megagame. Play-Believe unconsciously puts restrictions on a player that aren’t written into the rules. A more detached strategic player might see a set of game systems or power dynamics that can be exploited. A clever negotiator can take advantage of your adherence to imaginary social norms, while they themselves ignore those norms.
But play-believe has advantages too. People are pretty good judges of character at an unconscious level. They are more likely to trust a player who clearly feels the gravity of the situation and the weight of responsibility. That trust is a rare and powerful asset. Many obstacles in megagames can only be overcome with trust and cooperation.
But even if you find yourself betrayed by your closest ally, the joy of play-believe is that it gives even a betrayal the feeling of epic drama. It is not just territory or points you are losing; it is civilisation and the survival of your people at stake.
There is also a fish-out-of-water comedy to play-believe. In my real life I am an introverted computer programmer. For my entire career I have avoided management roles and responsibility for the welfare of other people. It is just too stressful for me to cope with. But in a fictional universe, I can play with the idea of leadership. Find out what kind of leader I might be. Tragic leadership mistakes that would ruin me in real life are just rich drama in the safe confines of a game.
There is one problem I have encountered as a keen play-believer: Last Turn Madness. I spend the entire game constructing an elaborate fantasy in which we are all world leaders coping with a crisis. It’s a fantasy that the players around me are mostly happy to participate in.
Then comes Last Turn Madness, which can leave me feeling like Sansa Stark:
Last Turn Madness deserves its own article. But in short, LTM is a very natural and playful response to the stress and release of a megagame. Players are, on the whole, willing to remain in-character, responsible team players for many hours. But in the final moments of the game, it is quite natural for these same players to feel the urge to throw caution to the wind and go big when there is nothing left to lose.
You know what I’m referring to. The nuclear launch. The outrageous heist. The out-of-the-blue back-stab. The audacious reversal. Moustache twirling villainy. All kinds of shenanigans that violate the dearly held fiction a committed play-believer has been building in his or her head.
When that time comes, it is important to remember that there is no “right way” to enjoy a megagame. Everyone is here for fun. Teamwork is more than just helping your team win. It’s also about allowing others enjoy the game in ways that are different to the way you enjoy it.
For some players, those last turn hi-jinks are a crucial exclamation-point on the story of their day. The final anecdote that they will regale their friends with years after the game was played. I’ve come to understand it, even though I don’t feel the same way. As I’ve become more familiar with the rhythms of a typical megagame, I have developed a process for coping amiably with the phenomenon of Last Turn Madness.
By the time the final turn of the game rolls around, I am utterly exhausted. 6+ hours of high stakes crisis. 6+ hours of emotional investment and time-constrained firefighting. The more successful I’ve been in suspending my disbelief, the more drained I feel at the end.
Hopefully, by this time in the day, I have already experienced my moment of high drama I came here for. So, as the world goes mad, I find a quiet corner of the room. I unpack a sandwich and a thermos of coffee. Then I sit back and watch the fireworks. From this detached distance, it’s easier to think of Last Turn Madness as a playful Easter Egg. A post-credits sequence. My tale of epic drama has been told. Now I can cleanse my palette with a short comedy.
The good news is that play-believe requires no special skills. No great knowledge of politics or history is required. Just imagination and a willing suspension of disbelief. Even players who are more attracted to the strategic or political aspects of megagames can enjoy it.
For the enthusiastic play-believer, megagames become even more exciting when you get the opportunity to play in a team of like-minded players. Something magical occurs when an entire team of players all buy into the same fiction with enthusiasm. A simple team-meeting at your table becomes a gathering of statesman. Your team leader becomes an inspirational but tortured individual, striving for a higher calling but sometimes falling tragically short. Together you will tackle matters of grave import to your nation. Whatever happens, good or bad, will feel like history in-the-making.