Of loops, cycles and boxes – What keeps us playing

Board game criticism is rooted in understanding what happens during a game. If all you’re interested is answering whether a game is fun to play or not, such an understanding is appreciated but rarely essential. For criticism to work, we need to understand how games function and the effect they have.

I want to try and sketch an approach to break down a game into its functional elements. Beginning with the lowest common denominator of board games: interaction. This is based on feedback loops. Which is the idea that a player action I take changes the game state in some way. This change results in new options to let me influence the direction the game will take. My actions have consequences, and those result in situations that allow or necessitate further actions by me.

As a very general comparison, we could look at a game of tennis. After serving a ball, my opponent plays it back to me. This goes back and forth until one of us fails to return the ball following the rules of the game.

Once we play tennis at a sufficiently high skill level, our focus no longer lies in playing the ball back without breaking any rules. Instead I will try to play the ball in such a way, that my opponent has a hard time returning it to me.

This tennis comparison also highlights another thing: if the feedback loop is too short or has to restart too quickly, play is underwhelming. If we only manage to get the ball over the net once or twice, before one of us has to run and get it, our enjoyment of tennis will be limited.

To enjoy the game, our back and forth needs time to breathe. Something that we can do, once we can pass the ball back and forth with ease (more or less). In “The Well-Played Game” DeKoven uses a similar tennis comparison to talk about play in its purest form. Most boardgamers tend to refer to terms like “flow” and occasionally “immersion”. At its core, I consider them all to describe the same phenomenon. It is the moment when we are deeply invested in the game and lose ourselves in the act of playing. This often comes in paradoxical form of concentration which is both challenging as well as exhilarating.

But this experience doesn’t necessary follow from a simply feedback loop. In order for a repetitive form of interaction to pull us in, said interaction must be coupled with a reward cycle. Our actions need to result in some sense of reward, which further motivates us to keep playing. This reward can be very different from one game to another. It is generally just referred to as “being fun”.

Things get interesting once we start to look a little closer. Because the reward cycle can manifest itself on different levels. There is, for starters, the formalized reward: victory points or our incremental approach to winning the game. At heart, this is a way to articulate and measure our competitive drive. Whoever gets the most victory points, wanted the win the most and had the skill to prove it.

(figurative illustration)

But I think it’s dangerous to see reward cycles and victory points as closely related. It’s true that we often evaluate an action in a game, based on how many victory points it garners us. But it is just as accurate that most players, do not get positive reinforcement from collecting points. After all, victory points aren’t the only thing we base our decisions on.

Which is why an interpretation of a game’s theme based on the analysis of its victory point sources is inadequate and superficial. We judge the events of a game based on what we feel during play, and not the formal reward that the rules system grants me. I would need to look a game without a single thought or opinion of my own, in order to plausibly accept that I would judge a game’s theme primarily on which actions score me victory points and which do not. I would have to understand the game’s rules as a formal set of ethical laws of our shared game fiction, and internalise them uncritically. Only if I had no moral position of my own towards the game’s theme, would it be possibly to map the game’s victory points allocation onto a statement about the game’s theme.

In practice, though, it requires some from or critical engagement with a game in order to name the reward cycle we’ve experienced. Or put differently: we have to think about what we play, before we can tell what was fun about it.

When I think back on my positive game experiences, I find that most of them aren’t easily transferred to whatever the rules tie their victory points to. This is most apparent in games that are conversation-heavy. Examples include social deduction games like The Resistance, Insider or Werwolf; but also negotiation games like Chinatown, Bohnanza or Pandemic.

In every one of these games, the formalized reward cycle only provides a framework for the actual interaction, that we enjoy. It’s the act of play itself, I found fulfilling and rewarding. When I look at more complex games, it’s the tasks themselves that motivate me. Whatever victory points I end up scoring are merely a formal acknowledgment of the actions I took, I ended up enjoying the most. What excited me the most, was puzzling, focusing and just working my way through the game’s challenge. (So it doesn’t come as surprise to me, that many gamers who discover this kind of experience seek out more complex games to have an even bigger challenge to tackle.)

In some circles, this has lead to the belief that games are in some sense like a Skinner box. It’s a test set-up in which positive feedback is used to observe the behavior of lab animals. The argument goes that players are brought into the positive feedback loop of a game, in order to condition them to adopt certain patterns of behavior. The game is fun, when we do certain things in it. So we will repeatedly do those things, in order to have fun.

At first glance, this comparison seems plausible. After all, positive reinforcement (and sometimes negative feedback) plays an important role in measuring our own behavior. People, who are completely indifferent to outside feedback, are quickly seen as sociopaths. But the reason, why I don’t share the Skinner box comparison, is closely tied to the reasons, why I don’t consider victory points in a game relevant to the critical evaluation of a game’s fiction.

As players, we do not experience a game passively. It doesn’t impact us in the same way a book or movide does. Instead we are the ones to actively implement it, place it into a real-life context and evaluate it based on our personal beliefs. This is not only true of a game’s thematic content, but of its mechanical incentives and – maybe even more importantly – of the aspects of the game, we find most rewarding.

Any piece of criticism that aims to answer more than the question of whether a game was fun or not, must consider how players and game design are connected. We can’t critique a game’s themes, ideas and concepts while ignoring how we engage them, utilize them and – above all – which emotions we associate with them.

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