In game criticism it’s common to judge a design based on how much influence players have on the game’s outcome. That’s hardly surprising. After all, interactivity is the indispensable feature of any game. The more interactive a medium, the more it resembles a game.
We understand games not just as an activity in which our actions have an effect, but also connect those actions to the pursuit of a goal. A game’s victory condition makes this goal tangible. So we, driven by ambition, set our sights towards reaching said goal. This then is how an idea unnoticably takes hold in our play. An idea that deserves more attention: the game as a meritocratic contest. Without saying it out loud, we play under the belief that the „better man“ will win. The game subsumes our act of play and turns it into a point of comparison between us.
This comparison, and by extenstion victory, is legitimized by players’ ability to shape and influence the game’s outcome. Our victory at game’s end is built on how well we played, and it becomes the reason why we owe the winner our respectful acknowledgement. The microcosm of the game runs on the same simple principles we want to see in the real world. If you’ve played better, you deserve to win and deserve your competitors’ respect.
The time and effort a game requires of us, both mentally and emotionally, is only justified because it is how players are measured against each other. Beyond the gaming table life may be unmanagable, complicated and unjust. Once we leave the gaming table, we find ourselves surrounded by sexism, racism, classism and all ugly colours of the patriarchy, arbitrarily keeping people down.
This makes games a refuge from the injustices we feel in the big, wide world of adulthood. In a game things still follow the rules we nostalgically recall in our rose-colored childood memoriese. If you put in the effort, you can do anything. Competitive play is, in the end, about retreating into a sense of purposeful self-determination.
Maybe this is one of the most important reasons why games are so appealing. More than the promise of community and social interaction, games are a safe space in which we can face at least this one challange. In a game we are no longer powerless.
In turn this makes defeats much more devastating. We are torn out of our fantasy world and thrown back into cold, harsh reality. The place that continually confronts us with the simple truth, that we are and will remain powerless on our own.
Culturally speaking games and our understanding of them seems fairly one-note. Play only seems to regurgitate the same dogma: „Hard work pays off. Your actions determine your success. If you’re not successful, it must be because you did something wrong. After all, success is all up to you.“. In a thesaurus this would be listed under „ideology“.
Once you’ve played enough games, you develop an expectation that your hard work ought to pay off in a game. Any game that ends in an unearned victory seems suspect. If unearned victories or defeats add up, the game is considered a failure.
If a game is called „broken“, it’s not out of an aesthetic demand for mathematical parity in every player’s chances for victory. People criticise such a game, because it breaks an implied promise made to the group: that victory is won through skillful play, and that is why victories feel earned.
In movies happy endings don’t have the best reputation. They’re often called tacky and corny. They’re rejected, because they paint a false, inauthentic picture of the world. A picture in which true love always prevails. A picture in which the just are successful, the weak are protected and every crime that is committed gets punished appropriately. It’s a picture in which good not only triumphs, but worked for it, too. Good people come out on top because they fought fairly, honestly and arduously. Good earns its win.
To me the most intriguing and valuable design elements of a game are those that refuse to appease this unspoken expectation of control. It might happen by radically cutting down a player’s decision space. A game like Love Letter gets criticized because you rarely get to make a meaningful decision with only two cards in your hand. Sometimes the rules forbid it. Sometimes the decision is so obvious, you barely need to think about it. Do you really earn victory in a game like that?
For years I’ve threatened my friends that I will one day write a long treatise on why I consider DungeonQuest the greatest and possibly most valuable game of all time. Again, it’s the conscious and intentional reefusal to appease expectations that matters here.
DungeonQuest’s presentation recalls typical fantasy role-playing games in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons. A form of play that’s defined by its almost limitless sense of freedom in how imagined places and situations can be explored. DungeonQuest picks up all kinds of visual and thematic references to invoke those associations. The rules on the other hand break with all the concepts we connect to role-playing games in general, and dungeoncrawlers in particular.
Instead of the boundless freedom our imagination, tiles severely limit our options. Instead of smart tactical decision-making, we stand in judgement of our playing group determining if we’re brave or chickenshit. Instead of a game world we can bend to our will, random chance reigns supreme. The rules of the game throw us into the chaotic whirlwind of a pitiless universe. Play is an experience that continually confronts us with our own powerlessness. As it happens, the Coen brothers based their entire filmography on this one emotional note.
To some extent, of course, this is all just aesthetic preference. Some people like to listen to sad music, others to happy tunes. Some people like to watch heart-wrenching dramas, instead of uplifting comedies. Some players like games with a lot of randomess, while others prefer a game that offers suffiecient amounts of control over what happens.
But this isn’t about celebrating one personal preference over another. All genres mentioned above have their place in their respective media, regardless of how close they align to personal tastes. Not every piece of music, every film or even every game provides the emotional experience, you’re looking for and appreciate.
The same is true for the amount of control you get to exert in a game. It’s part of the emotional experience of play. How you fare at the end may be tied to how well you played, or it may be down to external circumstances. It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life. (Picard)
Good film tragedies are not defined – as people sometimes forget – by their sad endings. It’s actually the experience of catharsis at the end, that lets us leave the theatre feeling good and with a sense of closure. Hitting that emotional note is something most board games can’t manage. The most recent release that came closest was The King’s Dilemma. Because this attempt at providing catharsis requires a gaming group that’s capable of recognizing the game’s outcome for what it can be and allowing it to happen, too.
I’ve found that I’ve come to appreciate it when I leave a game without feeling like I’ve left the fantasy world of meritocratic performance reviews. That an experience feels more authentic, and closer to my lived reality, when I didn’t have my fate in my hands. It feels more honest, when the game’s end is the result of an impenetrable jumble of factors and interdependencies. Especially when those are out of my control.
A game’s rules puts limitations on our desire to control a its outcome. Maybe criticism should wonder less if those limitations were drawn too narrow or too wide. Maybe we should be thinking about how it feels or what it means to only have as little control as a design will grant us.