Why games don’t move us to tears

Games are a narrative medium. Since I‘ve started gaming, a good 20 years ago, the response to that statement has gone from eye-rolling disagreement to cautious provisional acknowledgement, that it maybe, possibly and under specific circumstances could be considered as such. Now there are a lot of considered, precise and elaborately crafted definitions for any of the words ‚games‘, ‚narrative‘ or ‚medium‘ to make the opening statement make sense for a majority or minority of games. But I think that the reason why most people do not immediately and instinctively agree that games are a narrative medium, the way they would if you‘d ask them the same question about books or movies, has to do with how they affect us. Specifically, what kind of emotions they manage to evoke in us. Books are a narrative medium, and literature can tease out deeply felt emotions of joy or sadness. Movies are a narrative medium, and films can tease out deeply felt emotions of awe or fear. Games, on the other hand, are… you know… kinda fun.

Board games may make us laugh. They may make us raise our eyebrows in astonished surprise. But they generally fail to move us to tears, for example. I want to talk about why.

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An unlikely reaction to playing board games

And since this is just a blog post and not a book, I‘m going to only cover two major reasons for the apparent lack of emotional depth and why those limitations aren‘t inherent to games.

1. Triviality

People tend to take it for granted that games are meaningless. That they are, at their core, trivial and irrelevant. It‘s easy to see why that belief persists. The magic circle, that conceptual structure with which we create a small reality bubble in which a new set of rules and customs apply, is inextricably tied to how we understand games. The rules of the game only apply within the limits of the game itself. They do not reach outside of the game to change us, our relationships or even reality itself. They are a little like the holodeck that Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced to the show and its spin-offs. Every fantastical or whimsical simulation that happens within it obeys certain rules of the simulation, but as soon as you step out of it, these rules cease to have any power over what you can or can not do. So, logically, if the game can not effect lasting change outside of its limited scope of 1-2 hours, it must be meaningless, right?

I would suggest that we conflate two ideas here, that are related but not identical or always interchangeable. In fact, in this case, keeping the separation between the two intact, is important. Games are inconsequential, but they are not meaningless. They are temporarily meaningful as we play them and this meaningfulness quickly dissipates as we return from the magic circle, or our intense immersion or our state of flow or whatever you want to call the experience of engrossing play.

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Leaving the magic circle

But while we play, meaning exists for us. Otherwise we would feel no tension in play. If victory or defeat were truly unimportant to us, play would have no direction. There would be no way to make a decision about what we want to do next or what objective we want to reach. These decisions are only possible because we value one outcome over another. By ascribing value to something, we also tacitly assume a larger meaning that gives weight to some options and not others. Scoring 4 victory points as opposed to only 2 victory points is only sensible, because having more victory points is better than having fewer of them when the game ends. And it is only better, because I am invested in winning the game. If I don‘t care about winning, I don‘t care how many victory points I get. And if I don‘t care about that, I can not make a sensible decision.

Tension is the logical consequence of being emotionally invested in a specific outcome. We want Marty‘s DeLorean to be hit by lightning at 88 mph, because we‘re emotionally invested in his success. We want Rey to reject Kylo Ren because we don‘t want her to succumb to the dark side of the Force. We don‘t want Ferris to get caught by Mr. Rooney, because we don‘t want the escapist fantasy shattered before the movie ends. These scenes create tension, not only because they‘re well-crafted, but because we are emotionally invested in one of their outcomes. While these movies last, these outcomes matter to us. We have imbued them with meaning through our emotional investment.

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All these feels will be lost in time

But anyone who still recalls their first crush will know: just because we cared deeply once, we don‘t necessarily care deeply still. But that does not make those experiences meaningless. Their consequences may have evaporated, but they had meaning while we experienced them. The same principle applies to books and movies. As long as we‘re emotionally invested in them, they are important to us and carry meaning. In some rare cases we carry that experience with us and let it affect us for a non-trivial amount of time. Which again emphasizes the fact that we call those things meaningful that influence us in the moment. Just as entering the magic circle of a game means letting it be meaningful to us in the moments we play, i.e. as long as we count ourselves within that magic circle. And as we find ourselves more intensely and emotionally invested in the outcome of a game, we must acknowledge that board games are meaningful. While they may be inconsequential outside of when we are engaged in playing them, their meaningfulness allows us to play them at all.

Why then is it so difficult to let go of the notion that games are not only of limited consequence, but also of negligible merit? There may be very practical reason for it, as Jesper Juul lays out quite persuasively in Art of Failure. As a way to brace ourselves for the possibility of losing a game, of failing at a task and possibly inviting unpleasant experiences upon us, we preemptively use the idea of meaninglessness to literally trivialize the effect games have on us. Before we even run the risk of our emotional investment becoming intense, we deny games their relevance and by extension their effectiveness on influencing how we feel. It‘s a little cognitive song and dance that we‘ve adopted since we were kids. We are taught not to get upset over a game, because they are meaningless. We are told to handle losing gracefully (i.e. in a way that doesn‘t bother those around us) and to counter our emotional reactions to the events of a game, with the allegedly rational reminder that it is „just a game and doesn‘t matter“. We‘ve been taught and continue to teach others that games are trivial, and our emotional responses to them (outside of a few allowed exemptions) are misplaced and inappropriate. It shouldn‘t be a much of a surprise then to find our experiences of play superficial and we stop short of imagining games as fully legitimate narrative media.

Consider the following experiment, and you‘re welcome to try it yourself some time: imagine sitting down to watch a good movie. Not some schlocky piece of eye candy, full of loud noises and simple titillation, but an actual film, that seeks to elicit genuine emotion from you by way of empathy and emotional investment in the events and characters it portrays. Now, as you watch, every time you feel for a character, or you‘re worried about their fate, or outraged at the antagonist‘s selfishness, remind yourself that „it‘s just a movie“. That while this scene was shot, crew members were standing around bored filming the 15th take of it, or that one of the actors is holding in a fart as they deliver their lines and so on and so forth. In other words, continuously remind yourself of the artificial nature of the film‘s meaning. Keep doing it any time you notice that the film attempts to capture you emotionally. There‘s a good chance, that you will come away feeling that the film is only superficially engaging on an emotional level, but maybe a nice and entertaining diversion mentally. Maybe you‘ve been trying to suss out the real culprit in a crime drama, or discern the unspoken motivation of the antagonists and so on and so forth. Such an experience would help make the case that movies are an entertaining mental challenge, but not much of an emotional journey. The film‘s artifice would be too obvious; it would be too easy to disengage from it.

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“It’s just a movie, it’s not about anything other than having fun.”

That is literally what we do with games. We refuse to recognise the experiences they give us as momentarily meaningful or relevant, because we‘ve been indoctrinated into thinking of them as trivial. So far there is one dominant emotional experience that board games are being designed for: competition. Imagine movies and books had one genre, one emotional experience so dominant that the vast majority of them would aim for it or would have to incorporate it to some extent. How skewed, how one-note and how marginalized would those narrative media be?

But beyond our preconceptions of what games can do, and what, by extension, we allow them to do, there is also the question of what we do with them. To what extent do we allow emotions to be part of play? Which is the second reason why we don‘t cry at board games.

2. Permission

I don‘t think I will ever grow tired of saying that gaming is a social experience. In more ways than the obvious one: we can‘t actually play most games without the presence of other people. But the social experience isn‘t just the fact that we are spending time together playing a game.

It‘s a defining feature of games that they are interactive. With video games our interaction takes place with a machine and its programming code. Those set the boundaries of interaction and establish and enforce the rules that we play by. With board games, players take on most of that responsibility. We are the ones that establish norms by adopting explicit rules (game design) and obeying implicit rules (gaming habits). We are the ones that define and uphold the boundaries of the magic circle. Everything within that magic circle is shared play, everything outside of it is shared time. With board games the social experience and the act of community manifests itself through play. It is not – as is commonly misunderstood – the conversation, personal interaction and sharing of drinks and food, that happens outside of the game. Those, too, can be social experiences, of course. Ways to form and experience community. But those exist in conjunction with the game, not because of it or through it. Even if there are people who use games as a pretense to engage with others socially, the social quality of games lies in the act of play itself. If we choose to see games as social experiences, we must recognize that they are not catalysts to get people together to be social and communal. Games are the chosen means with which we engage each other through play. (This is also the reason why it is paramount that game designs explore more than competitive VP collection with a winner-takes-all resolution.)

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What’s wrong with the way we’ve always done it?

Within that framework of play, cultural norms have established themselves. Usually through social pressure that welcomes one set of behavior and discourages another. When it comes to board games heartfelt emotion through the course of play is off-limits at every gaming table. Frustration is generally only accepted in an arch, ironic manner. Genuine frustration is seen as a sign of immaturity. Celebrating success has to be done in a tempered and measured way, so as not to be labeled a graceless winner. If you dare to be so upset at losing a game, that you might genuinely need a moment to let it wash off of you… as you might after watching a particularly affecting, tragic film… people will assume you have some kind of emotional or mental problems. Because sadness just isn‘t done in board games. Our individual gaming communities, by which I mean the group playing together, strongly police which emotions may be expressed and broadly in what manner. Genuine laughter is generally fine. Although Schadenfreude must be triggered by specific circumstances to be acceptable. In groups that I am part of, players who have shown excessive arrogance or hubris are fair game for laughter when they fail. Whereas I would consider it unacceptable to laugh at a player who‘s struggling hard to get out of last place. In my experience, genuine anger must be expressed through „obviously“ ironic choice of language and tone, or swallowed stoically. Not following a group‘s customs of play, tends to threaten the delicate balance of friendliness and competitiveness.

The point of those examples is not to argue that freedom of expression should suffer no restrictions or reservations at the gaming table. I have no time for fundamentalist non-sense like that. This isn‘t an argument for gamers to be allowed to rage, scream and cry whenever they play games. What I‘m trying to point out is that these limits to the emotional range and depth of board games aren‘t inherent to the medium itself. They are actually a product of the gaming culture we propagate at the table, and a result of the socialization we engage in as part of this hobby. The reason why we don‘t cry when we play board games isn‘t because games can‘t evoke that emotion. It‘s because we‘ve disallowed such emotions to be expressed when we play.

I believe that for many people the low emotional investment in play they experience with their gaming groups is part of what makes the hobby so attractive. Like a steady stream of a family-friendly sitcom or the soothing familiarity of a genre like romantic comedies. Board games as a way to experience play as comfort food. But games can do more than that. It really comes down to whether we‘re willing to make that happen.

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Come inside, the fake grass is amazing!

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