Brief hiatus
Masafumi Takada and the craft of game music

The joy of keeping score

Scorecard There's a video game connection here, I promise. At least I think so. Stick with me. :-)

If you've ever attended a baseball game, you may have noticed the fan with the scorecard and the pencil tucked behind his ear. On the surface, he may appear less enthusiastic than other fans - less likely to leap out of his seat on a deep fly ball, less likely to join in the clap clap, stomp stomp cheers.

A casual glance at this fan might even convey the impression that he's disinterested, especially compared to the guy sitting behind him wearing the authentic team jersey, screaming at the top of his lungs, clutching his fourth beer in three innings. Now this guy is a fan. He supports the team, and he makes sure everybody knows about it, including the umpire who can't hear him. The guy with the pencil behind his ear? He's obviously not a real baseball fan.

Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. By the seventh inning when the game is a 12-0 blowout, Mr. Diehard will likely be in the parking lot, wiping mustard off his shirt, trying to remember where he parked his car. Meanwhile the guy with the pencil remains immersed in the action, following every pitch. This guy truly understands the game of baseball. This guy is keeping score.

I can't think of another American sport where a sizable number of fans monitor every on-field action and record it on a sheet. It's a ridiculous thing, when you think about it. All the game data is already captured by professionals paid to do so, and this information is readily available online after the game. Modern stadiums display a steady stream of constantly updated information for all to see, including hits, runs, errors...even pitch speed.

What is the point of keeping score?

Scoring a ballgame brings you closer to the game being played on the field. A young boy or girl who learns to score develops an appreciation for the game that goes beyond home runs, wins, and losses. While it's certainly possible to enjoy a game of baseball without keeping score - and I personally don't score every game I see - doing so can reveal interesting tendencies and situations that unfold in a game.

Every game of baseball presents a series of situations requiring decisions. The game unfolds at a pace that allows an attentive fan to engage in this process in a deliberative way. The fan keeping score will often see things that other fans miss. Knowing, for example, that a pitcher has thrown 5 consecutive fastballs on a 2-2 count makes it easy to be the genius who accurately predicts a homerun hit by the dead-pull fastball hitter on a 2-2 count.

And, of course, a scorecard becomes a permanent record of an experience that will never be reproduced. It's quite possible - and I know I'm in uber-geek world now - to pick up a scorecard from years ago and relive the experience of a game inning by inning, just as it unfolded. In fact, some of the early radio play-by-play announcers learned their craft by calling games purely relying on information conveyed by a scorecard.

So what's the video game connection? I think it has to do with the fact that we're talking about two simultaneous experiences: playing a game and thinking about playing a game. Scorekeeping enables you to keep a close eye on both. Even though you are only watching the game being played, you are heavily invested moment by moment in real time. You are not detached. You care about the live event unfolding, even though you can't control it.

But aside from the game, you're also heavily involved in between the events, thinking about strategy, considering possible outcomes, imagining possibilities. Scorekeeping isn't just about keeping score. It's about monitoring all sorts of useful data and tracking its impact on your experience.

When I think about some of the classic RPGs - many of which I've been evaluating for my RPG syllabus - it's this aspect of the gameplay that jumps out at me. Modern games like Mass Effect and Lost Oddyssey have largely removed or obscured the "tedious" scorekeeping aspect of gameplay in favor of enhanced action and automated progress features.

I'm not deluded enough to think modern gamers are clamoring for more micromanagement features in their video games, but I do think it would be useful to consider ways to make this aspect of gameplay more interesting, rather than simply removing it or dumbing it down. Adding an FPS mechanic to an RPG isn't a bad idea per se - especially if it's done well - but I'd love to see more effort directed at improving the core RPG experience by enhancing its defining features, rather than simply adding more stuff from other popular genres.

I haven't spent enough time with it, but so far I'm very interested in the ways Sid Meier and his team have tried to find a balance between nuanced turn-based strategy gameplay and accessibility in Civilization Revolution. I realize this is no easy task. Perhaps one game can't be all things to all people.

Nevertheless, I'd like to think it's possible for me to be a fulfilled "scorekeeper," and I'm willing to give up a little subtlety if my casual friends are willing to learn how to keep score. Personal experience may be no guide at all, but I didn't learn to manage a baseball scorecard to gain valuable insights into the game. I did it because it was fun.

Note: the title of my post refers to a terrific little book by the same name. If you're interested in "how scoring has influenced and enhanced the game of baseball," I recommend it.