Games, ideas and the issue of communication

The other day I read a blog post championing the argument that games communicate ideas to us. And I balked and instinctively said “no”. I couldn’t immediately put into words why I found this argument so off-base. I’ve tried to narrow my thoughts down here, with hopefully some semblance of success, but if this all reads somewhat all over the place, it’s only due to my not yet pinning down this conception of games I have in my head. But let’s start with my basic premise:

Games do not communicate ideas. At least no more than any inanimate object that you put on your table communicates an idea. A vase for example. Or a tea cup. They have a function, but that function does not include communicating ideas. It’s something we can make games (and other inanimate objects) do, an additional purpose that we imbue them with, but it is not a function that games inherently possess.

If we absolutely need to find ideas in them to talk about, the best we can do is taste them like expensive wines. Then we can speak eloquently about the notes of wood, lavender or summer sun we sense as we gorge ourselves on the alcohol and the cleverness of our own comparisons. That is not to say that such an argument can’t be made, or even that it’s bound to be wrong. Only that talking about the ideas expressed in games is at best a very niche and self-indulgent undertaking. It’s great to talk about it with your fellow “ideas-expressed-through-games” enthusiasts, but for the majority of people it’s little more than a passing interest.

But I see games primarily as a popular medium, not one of the learned elites. It’s a medium that aims to be approachable and understandable to everyone who engages in it, and not simply to those who have the educational privileges to “fully appreciate it”. That is why I am most interested in looking at how games are played, how people engage with them and how we can best express and articulate this engagement. In other words, I want to talk about how the medium is used and not how we can interpret it.

Depending on what part of board gaming you want to talk about, an allegory to other media seems apt. As far as the creation of games go, film appears to fit nicely. It’s usually a group effort often attributed to a single person (the director or designer), while everybody else’s contribution are assumed to exist in support of that director’s/designer’s vision. This is “auteur theory”. The idea that a complex creative work can be traced back to the craft of one genius individual. While this is incredibly flattering to the ego of that individual, it’s not the most well-respected approach in film theory today. It’s a convenient model to use, but this convenience might make us prone to overlook meaningful nuance.

Ambition, heroism or endurance? What is this game about?

From a criticism point of view, auteur theory does two things which make it appealing to apply to board games. One, it simplifies board games into a singular source of meaning (i.e. authorial intent) which can be interpreted, made explicit and then presented. Play becomes an attempt to discern just what the artist is trying to say with their piece. Criticism by extension serves as a way to re-articulate their “statement”. (Maybe for the hoi polloi.) The other thing “auteur theory” does is that it inscribes the game itself with a message it communicates. An “auteur” writes a text that we, as readers, read in order to understand its message. In a similar way a “designer” creates a game, so that we as players can play it to understand its message. Whatever the game allegedly says is inscribed into its elements. At most, the auteur’s identity or background provides additional context to discern their intent.

But as we all know: for every complex problem there is a simple and elegant solution, which is wrong.

And to be clear identifying the artistic potential and cultural value of games is a complex problem. Because games in general (and board games in particular) are centered on interactivity. Beyond being a way to use the game, it also describes how we imbue the game with meaning. That is to say, our interaction is not just about placing tokens, playing cards or rolling dice. Our act of play requires us to attribute meaning and value to the various elements of the game. Victory points do not matter in and of themselves, we attribute value and meaning to them. The tangible elements of the game are not the things that they represent, but we treat them as if they had certain properties of what they represent, within the context of the game. A yellow cube might stand in for a bunch of bananas. We don’t treat that cube as edible or heavy, but we do treat it as if it was worth money (or some other currency) within the economic system of the game. We call the yellow cube “bananas” and our evaluation of it is not based on the production costs of the cube or its tactile quality, but on the value and desirability we attribute to it within the game.

If we were to speak about ideas represented through this element of the cube, we might wax philosophically about its square shape being a commentary of the commodification of natural resources. It might be a commentary on the brutal nature of capitalism forcing the natural curve of bananas into the rigid mold of a cube. Its miniature dimensions might make us feel like literal titans of industry as we move countless bananas across continents to make ourselves wealthier. And if I were so inclined, I might drop a few references to Adam Smith, Friedrich August von Hayek or even Karl Marx for good measure. But what such a write-up illuminates is not the game as it is played, but the ego that has written these words. (And I am writing this is somebody who is not a humble person, but I’d like to think I am at least somewhat self-aware.)

When we sit down to play this hypothetical game about the international banana trade, the cubes have a function. They take on a certain value within the game and we operate the game’s components as part of play. Out of this a narrative emerges. It is not unveiled, nor discovered. It is constructed from our interaction.

Placing a wooden piece on the board and claiming ownership over the delineated area in which it sits, is not a feature of the game itself. It’s not like a written text, that would establish this relationship through words. Nor is it like a painting or film that relates the two through visual language. It’s not even like a computer game where such a relationship is hard-coded into the software itself. In a board game we have two distinct physical objects that players put together and declare to have some additional function.

Outside of providing us with physical objects, a game selects a vocabulary (or sometimes jargon) for us to use, when we declare the yellow cubes and areas on the board to have some additional meaning. But that doesn’t equate to executing the game’s narrative. We could call the wooden cube a family member, a worker or even an army. We might choose to call the delineated area on the game’s board may a room in a house, a factory in a city or even an entire nation.

What’s important to note here, is that this vocabulary is not enforceable. It is voluntarily adopted by its players and often changed to fit the group’s idea of what the elements should be called. Some games feature currency that is given a historically-rooted name: Fiorin, rubles, credits, NuYen, etc. In my experience it is quite common for players to swap in a more natural-sounding or familiar term instead. Sometimes it’s called gold or simply money. But this practice can easily expand into other elements of the game. Infamously in the board game Puerto Rico, many groups refused to call the worker tokens on the plantation fields “colonists” (as the rules suggested) and opted instead for the more obvious, and contextually apparent description, “slaves”. Even in cases where groups refrained from saying the word out loud, the dark brown discs were thought of as functionally “slaves”.

In fact the work that goes into making a game feel more thematic and immersive is predicated on acknowledging that players can and often do reject a game’s vocabulary, if it doesn’t seem cohesive with the experience of playing the game. That is because a game’s theme, or more accurately, its narrative is not created by the game. It’s not created by its rules or its visual presentation. Neither on their own, nor in combination.

It is we players, who conjure the narrative that lies on top of the physical game. We use it to elevate our experience of play. We are the ones who look beyond the material object before us and imagine an additional dimension to our interactions. We are the ones that create the fiction that defines play.

In film and television we speak of “suspension of disbelief”. That is our willingness to accept that the bald Englishman in a red and black jumpsuit is in fact of French descent and captains an interstellar vessel. That he is not, in fact, an actor on some soundstage in California.

With board games we are far more active. It is not enough to merely suspend our disbelief and think of a yellow cube as a bunch of bananas. A game’s theme or narrative is not something we are exposed to. We don’t have to willingly take in and accept it. It’s not something that is broadcast to us, that we simply receive.

We are intimately involved with giving the mundane, physical objects of the game an additional, albeit fictional, meaning. We create the theme of the game by treating the fiction as temporarily true. For the duration of the game, its objects carry additional meaning, additional value and are given additional relationships to each other. We do this in order to play a game.

In a very literal sense we are the ones telling the story of the game. The game itself provides us with the narrative building blocks, basic relations between them and one of possibly many frameworks, we can use to ascribe value to them.

Our decisions determine if this game is a tragedy or a heroic epic.

But it is our engagement with the game, our playing of the game, that lets us create a narrative out of the tangible and material components that come in the box. We are not merely the actors of a script, or the audience of a play. We are quite literally the co-creators of the game’s narrative.

Once we embrace that a game’s narrative is created by us, we must also conclude that we are not reacting to the game, we are not executing a script pre-written by the game’s creator, nor are we receiving some kind of message the game communicates to us.

We are taking over what the game’s creators have prepared for us, and make it our own.

Which is really just a very laborious way of saying, that games don’t communicate ideas, they give us concepts as tools to play with. What we make of those tools, may or may not cohere into something that resembles an idea or even a statement. But that is because of the choices we make in playing the game. It is not because the games have ideas or statements encoded within them for us to figure out.

This doesn’t (and shouldn’t) discount the validity of designers trying to convey something with their work. It’s a way of saying that a game enables players to create theme, narrative and the expression of an idea. Its design is a set of tools, a sandbox if you will, but it isn’t a text to decode in order to fully understand what it is saying. At most, examining a game for the ideas it supposedly communicates is like reading the residue in your coffee cup to infer your barista’s mood today. Simply asking them might be the more sensible approach here.

If we want to talk about ideas and statements as they emerge in our plays, we shouldn’t analyze the game but our plays of it. We should look at the things we do, and how we relate to each other. We should look at our own thinking processes as we play. The ideas that grow from our plays weren’t communicated by the game. But they may certainly be supported, if we choose to play them that way.

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