The Roles We Play

This year’s Games Developers Conference featured a panel discussion about board games. Aptly titled „The State and Future of Board Games 2023“. After a mere 15 minutes came an incisive and very accurate comment: any game with two or more players is fundamentally about social interaction. It becomes a Gesellschaftsspiel, a social game.

I want to use this as a jumping off point to talk about the social roles of players. By which I do not mean the kind of roles described on the back of a board game box. The roles, we allegedly take on, when playing a game. I’d go so far as to say, that we practically never engage these roles. In fact, they are simply a rhetorical trope used by publishers and critics alike to conjure images, that are appealing without being particularly informative. In Kuzooka, we don’t inhabit the roles of caged animals, nor are we ancient city planners in Akropolis. We are and remain players sitting at a table.

And it’s the role at the table, the one we actually inhabit, that I find worth investigating. Within that role we have tasks and responsibilities, that we need to fulfill for the game to work and for us to enjoy it.

Generally speaking, a player’s role can be split into three distinct fields: administrative, operative and performative. Or to put it differently: we implement, we act and we play.

Not every part of our role
is of equal weight

The administrative field covers, as you might have guessed, administration. This relates to rules as we generally understand them in the context of board games. We obey those rules, we apply them and we make sure that they are upheld during play. This is most apparent when we setup the game. We shuffle cards and deal some out to other players. We move tokens on our board, to mark certain effects or events in the game. We pass the start player marker to the next person. But this part of our role also covers which spaces on the board we are allowed to move our player piece to. Our administrative tasks aim to create the quasi-legal frame within which we play. We implement the game’s instructions without exerting any influence of our own.

Almost everything that makes up the administrative part of our role is documented in the rulebook. On occasion, we might get some enjoyment out of our administrative actions. It’s fun to roll a bunch of dice, to fill a gap by placing the right tile or to tick off boxes on our scoring sheet. But it’s still considered good design, if this administrative part of the game is kept to a minimum. Specifically because it is mindless implementation of explicit instructions. In our administrative function, we are basically extended machinery of the game. We are movable playing pieces, controlled by the people who made the game we’re playing.

Ironically, rulebooks are often judged by how meticulously and precisely these automating instructions are communicated. When it is this approach specifically, that is the biggest reason why people stay away from modern board games.

The second area that defines the player role is the operative one. Simply put, it has to do with everything that relates to our decisions. Which deck do I want to draw from? Which space do I put my die on? Which player am I going to attack this round? Whereas the administrative part includes no decisions whatsoever, the operative part is purely decisions and no automated actions. It’s the part of the experience, in which we plain interact with the game. Which means it also covers the parts that deal with weighing our options, calculating our chances or simply relying on our gut as to which action we should take.

So it should come as no surprise, that some games are criticized when this operative part of our player role is too limited. It makes players feel as if “the game plays us”, as opposed to us playing the game. It feels as if we have too little agency over the events of the game. The unspoken expectation being that the bigger our operative role, that is the more decisions we’re given, the more fun and enjoyment playing the game will yield. But that isn’t necessarily so. A game with a comparatively small operative part, can still lead to a successful social activity. This seems quite obvious in both luck-heavy games, party games or some take-that games.

The reason for this, and the reason why purely administrative and operative tasks do not turn a game into a social activity, has to do with the third aspect of the player role: the performative.

Board games are always a type of theater. As part of the game, we are given a social role which we try to inhabit as well as we can. It’s worth noting that there are no objective criteria to determine how well we fare. It must be down to how the group at the table responds to us fulfilling our performative responsibilities as players.

We’re not race car drivers,
we’re competitors.

As I said before, these roles aren’t about theme or what it says on the box. We do not take on the role of a spice trader in Middle East, or a European explorer in the 17th century or a political leader of an intergalactic empire. Our performative responsibilities have to do with our role as it relates to other players at the table. Our roles are defined by the social dynamic they engender, which makes it our responsibility to perform those roles.

If we fail to do so adequately, our experience suffers. The game is simply no fun. Which is not to say that in a conflict-based game we ought to be at each other’s throat as much as we can. This can be one way in which we fulfill our performative obligation. What actually matters, though, is whether we play our role in a way that is accepted within the group.

If a game assigns me the role of an opponent, that is somebody who must win the game at the cost of other players, I have to carry out and perform this role. That means I have to accept it and show that I am in direct conflict with other players. It’s not enough to “just know” that this is a conflict-heavy game. These conflicts must be evident within the magic circle. They must be openly expressed or better yet evident in our behavior in order to be recognized and accepted as part of the game.

The most blatant form of doing so is trash talking: intimidating our opponents or boasting about our skills. In a healthy gaming environment, it is obvious that all this bluster is theater and not a sincere attempt at psychologically manipulating or bullying others. In other games, the performative element may express itself through complaining and whining about your streak of bad luck or a crummy hand of cards. In a take-that game, the performative element is seen in how much we “get mad” at others over hindering us in getting what we want. In a cooperative game, our performative role might reveal itself in consulting with each other, praising good ideas or accepting other players’ suggestions. When it comes to games with a more complex challenge, one that demands inventiveness or some planning skills, we might fulfill our performative obligations by responding to another player’s success with being impressed or otherwise showing some kind of appreciation.

It’s the performative element of the game that allows us to dive into the experience of playing a game. It validates and affirms the magic circle of our shared play. It needs players to fill out their roles like in a play. This turns a strictly regulated task that we bring to a specific end, into a game and an experience, we can all enjoy.

A game which includes two or more people is first and foremost a social activity. In order to make it a satisfying and entertaining experience, we as players must fulfill certain demands. One of which is playing our role.

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