After downloading Dwarf Fortress and running the game, I was immediately was lost in the rows and rows of ASCII text in the MS-DOS environment. After spending ten minutes reading the wiki, I was able to open the help menu but was unable to figure out how to move the cursor on the menu. After an hour of reading the wiki, I was able to establish a settlement and assign my Dwarf jobs that they would refuse to do.
With such a steep learning curve to the game and no formal tutorial in the game, it becomes a long and arduous task for a new player to understand the mechanics of the game enough to establish a functioning settlement within the world of Dwarf Fortress. At the same time as the the player attempts to master the different mechanics in the game, the Adams brothers constantly update their game to account for new mechanics. As a result, even an experienced player will never master the game – if we consider having “mastery” over a game to have an intuition of the underlying mechanics of the game. I would consider a “master” of Dwarf Fortress one who understands the artificial intelligence of the dwarfs and is able to avoid the various “computational trap[s]” (Boluk and Lemieux 136) of the dwarfs, who fail to account for the dangerous herd of elephants and automatically try to recover their fallen brethren to only be systematically killed by the elephants. But with the Adams brothers tweaking the AI of the dwarves with each update, it becomes difficult for even an experienced player to understand the complex AI of the dwarves. Boluk and Lemiux even note that there is no “fantasy of mastery” of the Dwarf Fortress that most other traditional games provide (138).
But then how does a mastery of the game relate to work and play? I find it hard to enjoy the game when I do not know how to do anything, and I believe that I would need a somewhat moderate mastery of the game in order to enjoy the game itself. Boluk and Lemieux note that the Dwarf Fortress community adopted the phrase “failing is fun” (132) to describe one type of joy that the players get when they play the game. From this type of failure, which I believe is different from the failure of getting the baseline requirements done, generates a narrative of each player’s adventure through the game. But in order for this narrative to be fun, the narrative must have something different and significant – if all narratives were that after much difficulty, the player established the fortress but the dwarf failed to do their jobs and eventually died, there would be no fun in the narrative. Thus, for “failing to be fun” be occur, there needs to be a baseline mastery over the game itself.
The paper also introduces the idea of fun where the communities try to determine the history of Tholtig Cryptbrain (135). They note that seeing CryptBrain is a very low probability event in the game, and players may end up playing a same scenario over in order to maximize the their interactions with her because the random seed is set at initial game generation.
But then the question becomes if acquiring the baseline mastery of the game to be able to “fail for fun” is considered work or play. The game itself “does not have rules, [and] only mechanics” (139). And an understanding of the mechanics is needed to progress in the game. The key in having mechanics and not rules is that mechanics cannot be broken while rules can. Just as we cannot break the laws of Newtonian Mechanics on a daily basis, even though we might do some quantum tunneling once in a blue moon, the player in Dwarf Fortress must abide by the mechanics and the limitation of the mechanics in the game. If we further the comparison between the mechanics of Dwarf Fortress to the rules of physics, as players and humans we need to abide by the mechanics of two respectively, mastery of the mechanics means that when we want do something, whether it is to physically turn a page or to command a dwarf to cut down trees, we are able to establish the desired results with high probabilities.
When we learned to walk, to drive a car, or to use a new computer, do we consider the process of gaining mastery of the object work or play? I would like to argue that the process is work. A child probably does not like falling each time she tries to walk, and a new driver probably does not like to get into an accident when he trying to parallel park, but the painful process is needed as a learning experience in order to gain a baseline mastery of what we are trying to accomplish. Since Dwarf Fortress offers changing and difficult mechanics to the player and few rules, the learning process for the game, in parallel to learning in the physical world, is work. And like how people take nice walks and drive for fun, players that have mastered the baseline mechanics in Dwarf Fortress are able to play for fun and “fail for fun”. And without the mastery, failing at the game would not be fun and may even be frustrating – it is difficult for a player to even build unique and interesting narrative that makes failing fun if they cannot even get the most basic requirements done in the game.
Boluk and Lemieux make the case that the player’s individual Dwarven Epitaphs, or “memorials, monuments of critical play – a productive, practical play that generates metagames”, allow the player to “make losing fun” (150). They further present Dwarf Fortress as an environment for a metagame that provides a “strange IDE” like environment for players to build and further their own goals, whether it is to gain an interesting epitaph or to build their own functional dwarven computer in the game (142). And while the role of humans is “not to play videogames but to produce metagames” a fundamental understanding of the world that generates the metagame is still needed (150). Ultimately, Dwarf Fortress provides an underlying framework for players to build their own metagame, whether it is to survive, build something, or experience an event in the game, but a fundamental mastery of the game is needed to utilize the framework, and building this mastery is considered work for its players.