41CWx55zz%2BL._SX182_SH35_.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time, following Manveer Heir's wonderful article on Boom Blox's design, he questions the relevance of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln Log-sim and other digital board games .]

My Father Meets Boom Blox

This week, my parents visited New York City to check out my apartment and take a brief vacation. I always look forward to their visits, because they’re a chance for me to show off my new toys and gizmos to my dad.

I blame him for my manic interest in all things technology; when I was a child, he introduced me to all the cutting edge electronic wizardry—the NES, ten-pound portable computers (er, ‘laptops’), and America Online—that both puzzled and astonished me. Always curious what made these devices tick, but without the guts to rip them apart, I would ask my dad for detailed descriptions, which he would lay out carefully in simple phrases.

“The electricity goes in here,” he would say, point at the plug, “and it moves around inside the box. Then it transforms into a game.” I’d nod, knowingly. Fifteen years later, I still prefer those explanations to textbooks and manuals.

When my father arrived, I was eager to show him Boom Blox, a new Wii game created by EA in collaboration with Steven Spielberg. You’ve probably heard of it, but he hadn’t. The game mechanic involves moving, shooting, and collapsing piles of blocks to earn points. You actually complete these tasks via Wii gestures similar to real life: to pull a block you grab and pull with the Wiimote; hurl a ball, flick the Wiimote; shoot, point and click.

It’s extremely intuitive and, in my opinion, the best use of the console’s technology to date—a perfect match for my father who struggles with complicated controls. And since my father is always eager to use the Wii beyond his extensive Virtual Console collection, I assumed Boom Blox was just the title for him. I was wrong.

Game Time

I put in the disc, boot the game, and take a couple throws.

“Where’s Grand Theft Auto,” he says.

This is peculiar for two reasons. One, my Dad’s never seen anyone play a GTA game, and, two, my parents are adamantly against video game violence (As a child, I had to write them a four page essay on why I needed Resident Evil 2).

I say, “GTA’s in the 360. Do you want to try pulling out the blocks?”

He asks me to show him GTA, since he’s heard so much about it. He confesses to reading my columns, which I find both flattering and strange, like how I imagine starlets feel when they realize their parents read tabloids. So, I begrudgingly turn off Boom Blox, and turn on GTA IV.

And he loves it. We play for a while, before my Mom kicks us back out onto the sun kissed NYC streets. As we make our way to lunch, my Dad discusses the games with me a bit, and I piece together why Boom Blox doesn’t appeal to him. It’s too real.

Reality Bytes

I know. The game with anthropomorphic sheep and monkeys that partake in train robberies, if anything, distances itself from realism. Yet, the flourishes on the blocks are minimal, which does little to separate it from table-top games or a Lego set.

Its physics and play mechanics mirror Jenga and Tumbling Tower 2, and though its unfair to say these games are identical, the similarities are noted in nearly every review.

The problem for my father was he couldn’t associate Boom Blox as a videogame, but rather as a videogame of a table-top game. My pop can set up blocks and knock them down, but, as in GTA IV, he cannot decimate a city block with a rocket launcher and a bus.

With that in mind, I began to question a few future releases that combine videogame elements with traditional board games. EA’s deal with Hasbro came to mind, specifically recently released images of Connect Four and Monopoly.

Will more complicated gameplay make these board games better; what about adding mini-games? Would a virtual Mouse Trap game feel as rewarding if you didn’t spend so much time setting up the complex device? Or would it exceed the original, assuming this digital version of Mouse Trap allows the players to design their own Rube Goldberg devices to catch the dastardly blue, red, yellow, and green rats?

Though EA must feel there’s money to be made, for me, those games seem frivolous, like XBLA downloads you regret the next morning (I’m looking at you Mr. Driller Online).

Magnetic Appeal

When I was younger, probably six or seven, my favorite toy was a glass case about ten inches by six inches wide and two inches tall. Inside sat a country landscape with a dirt road weaving between a barn, passed miniature ponds, and over a plastic bridge.

At a starting-line waited a motorcyclist no more than a quarter inch tall, a magnet stuck to the cycle’s bottom. Under the glass case dangled a string with another magnet. To play with this contraption you would place the stringed magnet against the bottom of the case, right below the motorcyclist, and use the magnetism to pull the figurine past the barn, over the bridge, and across the fields, and grass, and plastic dirt. From above the case, it was magic—the free spirit roaming the circular path, or steering off it, trekking his own way.

My other action figures and toy cars needed my hands to bend their legs or roll their wheels, to make them walk or jump or crash against the floor. And for that, they couldn’t keep my interest. I saw how they worked, and after the illusion and my imagination passed over them, I grew bored. But I always returned to that motorcycle man in the glass case. There was something special about the power to control something without seeing the strings.

In Boom Blox, your cursor is either a target or a hand. Like a gun or your own fingers, these icons represent the strings, your involvement in the game. This game accomplishes EA’s goal to feel intuitive, like a real game. The game's perfection doesn’t call attention to the hard labor put into the design.

But in the end, for my Dad, and maybe for others, this perfection cripples the experience. The strings are still there, or at least, EA did such a good job, they appear to be there. Boom Blox seems as simple (and if not for the anthropomorphic sheep, as ordinary) as a real game of blocks.

I bet if my Dad had to explain the game to five-year old me, he would say, “They put the blocks inside the disc and you play with them on the screen.”

And I would say, “Then why not just play with blocks.”

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]