Worldbuilding is a subject near and dear to my heart. It's probably my favorite part of running roleplaying games. It's also vital to many exercises for writing, movie-making, comics, and video games. Pretty much any time that you have a creative endeavor which is meant to take the audience out of their own lives or own world-view, you need to do some worldbuilding. There are a lot of approaches and degrees for constructing a world, depending on how many of the audience's assumptions you can rely on, among a plethora of other factors. Personally, I like to work from the bottom up -- after I have the top-est of top level views of what I'm vaguely shooting for, I'll crawl down into the details (since, in my experience, that's what players and readers are going to spend the most time with) and build the rest of the world out of those details.
So I'm going to approach this (maybe) series of posts on worldbuilding in a similar manner. Rather than giving a broad-view of what it's like to build a world (feel free to check out Rutskarn's posts on this from Chocolate Hammer if you're interested in that; he does a great job), I'm going to concentrate on some small things that can be used to explore a world and make it come more alive for an audience; and hopefully tie this to my own world with TD.
Games are a Window
I recently finished reading Edgar Rice Burrough's The Chessmen of Mars, which brought this topic back to the front of my mind; though it's been one I've been considering for some time: The use of games of skill and chance within a fictional universe. The right choice for a game of skill can chance can flesh out a character or a world, or it can shattter the audience's suspension of disbelief and undermine their involvement with a story. This is as true in video games as it is for books or movies.
For instance, for a game that defines a character, James Bond plays Baccarat, a hilariously complicated card game of almost pure chance, with extremely little skill actually involved. It also significantly favors the house, even for a casino game. This informs us about James Bond's character. One could believe that he is so good at reading people that a game of pure chance is the only way he gets a thrill (Lie to Me has Dr. Lightman play Roulette for that reason), but since the game actually has a startlingly high probability of the house winning I think a different explanation is more likely: it's used as a way to demonstrate how reliably lucky Bond is. Bond beats the house; even against the worst odds, Bond can win. Either way, Baccarat tells us more about his character than Texas Hold 'Em tells us in Daniel Craig's Casino Royale.
That said, in this post we're less interested in what a game of skill and/or chance can tell us about a character and more about what it can tell us about a world. And frankly, looking at the fictional games of fictional worlds is much more interesting. You'll note as we continue that very few fictional games are invented whole cloth. Not only is it easier on the aspiring writer, developer, or game master to create a game analagous to one of our universe, it gives the audience a touchstone to the game and helps them understand it better.
A World Through The Window of a Game
We'll start with a classical example. Edgar Rice Burroughs created "Jetan" or "Martian Chess" to add flavor to his world of Barsoom. I don't remember how much it was mentioned in the first few books, but it was a key piece of The Chessmen of Mars, and he went to a great deal of effort to explain the rules. Several times, in fact. Part of that's because as the Barsoom books continue, Burroughs uses them to explore ideas and concepts as much as to have an adventure, but it also gives us a really solid bit of world building. Chess is an interesting and unusual choice for the basis or analogue of a fictional game. It's seen as intellectual and erudite. It represents a conflict in a war, with the players as generals, requiring strategy more than a simple ability to read your opponent (though that's certainly useful) or just plain luck. Those qualities actually make it idea as a game for Barsoom: Martians hold war in extremely high regard, and a game that is based on military conflict and educates a person on strategy would be valued in that kind of a culture. Martians are also fairly intellectual, for all they treasure martial acts, with a distinct focus on both nobility and learning. So an intellectual game of war really fits the universe. It's something that characters would believably play, and reinforces the cultural concepts we've already developed concerning Martians.
Star Wars has "sabbacc," a somewhat poorly described game of chance. But the feeling of it is something much like "space poker." That helps convey the "big wins, big losses" aspect of the space opera, and gives us insight into a universe filled with characters who get by on a combination of skill and luck. It's the sort of game that you bet your starship in. Betting like that in a table game plays to the high adventure of Star Wars, and continues to convey the larger than life aspects of the world.
The first video game that I remember exploring this concept was Moraff's Stones. Way back when, an enterprising man named Steve Moraff made a series of shareware games all based around a fantasy game he called Moraff's World. Moraff's Stones was a simple poker-like gambling game, set in Moraff's World, and purporting to be a couple nights of play of this game in a pub or two of that universe by the player. The game was a believable adaptation of a card game for a universe that didn't have playing cards (or for which playing cards were too expensive for tavern gamblers), and various monsters from the game would step up to the table to play against you. Each race had a particular playing style, which, as you learned it, you could use to your advantage. This really captured my imagination. Knowing what characters did when they weren't taking a sword to one another made the entire original fantasy game feel more real -- more immersive. And even though it was based on poker, there were enough differences to the game to know that it wasn't just simply reskinned poker -- it was a game that really belonged to the universe it was set in. Done right, a game in a fictional universe does exactly what Moraff's Stones did for me: it makes the universe its set in more immersive for the audience.
The Right Game for the Right Universe
Unfortunately, you can't just throw a game into a universe and expect the audience to faint over it: "Oh, it's sooo deep! It's got characters spending down time in it," said no one ever. You have to know your universe and choose something appropriate. Let's consider collectable card games. It's currently very popular to put a collectable card game inside your video game. It helps pad out the game's play time if the player has more things to chase down and collect.
We can see this done right in the Final Fantasy series. In many Final Fantasy games, there's a collectable card game that the player can involve themselves in. This actually provides sidequests and a gold sink/source (a place to spend or win money, which helps drives the player's personal economy). The card game is often a somewhat tactical game of placing cards on a grid, which actually helps compliment the usual combat mechanics of the game; giving the player a tactical game based on field position, as well as a tactical game based largely on actions chosen. By electing to give their game a complimentary mechanic, the developers of Final Fantasy made their card game interesting to play (and therefore more likely to be played). On top of the gameplay aspects, Final Fantasy presents an often somewhat cartoonish world. The characters are "big" and "fun." I can envision them going to play a collectable card game in a casino: it "feels" right in that universe. Final Fantasy often tells serious stories, but the games don't always take themselves seriously. This is the sort of place that everybody would play a collectable card game, and a warrior out to save the world might pocket these cards.
On the other hand, we have Id's RAGE. Like Final Fantasy, there's a collectable card game in RAGE. Like Final Fantasy, the card game in RAGE is lavishly illustrated. But unlike Final Fantasy, it feels utterly ridiculous. RAGE is set in a dusty post-apocalypic universe. It's hard-edged, with death lurking around a lot of corners, nasty gangs of guys wearing whatever they can find and pretend is armor, and sewers full of mutants. It features, and is the perfect place for, a minigame of Bishop's Game (or the Knife Game, if you'd prefer). But why in the world would my death-dealing BAMF take time from shooting mutants on live television to collect playing cards? It's also a fairly uninspired game which is more based on deck building than clever play; I guess that's supposed to drive the player to collect better cards, but for me it mostly just made the game a frustrating question of what I'm going to draw next. The player character is kind of a lone wolf, generally working by themselves to wipe out their adversaries, which are homogenous in any given encounter (for example, you might fight Wasted in one instance and Mutants in another, but you're generally only fighting one or the other). A mixed team game of mostly simple number comparision doesn't complement or call back the normal shooter gameplay. I find that the card game falls flat, and it actually pulls me out of the universe, because I can't figure out for the life of me why hard-bitten survivors of the apocalypse have decided that the best way to relax is to play a simplified Magic: The Gathering. The game concept and game play don't seem to fit the feel of the greater game world.
In Which I Prattle On About Myself
Moraff's Stones had such an effect on me, I can't imagine trying to build a universe without giving the people who exist in it games of their own to play. TD is somewhat limited though: unlike a fantasy or true science fantasy game, TD is based on the conceit that it's a semi-believable future of "our world." So I don't want to go too far flung for a game that humans are going to play hundreds of years in the future. Fortunately, poker is a fantastic game to base an analogue on. There's a long, proud history of "space poker" in science fiction for good reason: poker is a game that combines chance and skill, and gives a rough-and-tumble feeling to any universe where it's played ("space Texas Hold 'Em" is a little less so, due to the "community" aspect of the table's cards). But I can't just go with regular poker. That would be lazy and sad, and wouldn't convey the feelings of "the space future" and "pulp adventure" that I want to express in TD. So I'm playing with draw poker. I've got a ruleset I want to playtest for my hypothetical game (which I'm calling "Five Star"); based on having an additional royal suit, which acts as wild for purposes of determining suit, and the addition of what I'm calling "The Devil's Draw," a completely luck based option to discard one's entire hand and redraw right before the cards are layed out. I've got a couple decks of cards to mutilate for this purpose, and if it plays well in real life, I think I'll explore putting it into a Flash game for general playtesting on the Internet. Yes, it's kind of a distraction and/or a "waste of time" when I could be working on the actual game, but I feel like having a solid world-building mini-game, ready to drop into the game proper when the time comes, will help flesh out the universe and give the player something more to do. For a game based on player driven sublots attached to a vague storyline, having different things for the player to do is pretty important.
The Inspiring Speech at the End
If you're writing a novel or running a roleplaying game, especially in fantasy where you can't necessarily lean on traditional card and dice games, don't be afraid to spend the time to invent a game for characters (even side characters) to play. It'll help draw your players or readers into the game world, and it helps gives your world its own flavor. The less generic your universe, the better it's going to hook your audience. Having a fictional game that your fictional characters play helps liven up their universe and makes it more than just another setting where people play Texas Hold 'Em for some reason, but don't have any games of their own (I'm a little hard on Texas Hold 'Em because it's become so popular recently). Don't be afraid to experiment. Even if the game winds up totally broken, that doesn't mean that it doesn't give flavor or interest; after all, James Bond plays baccarat of all things. Hard to get more broken or convoluted than that. Good luck, and good gaming!