This is a guest post by Phil Eklund, founder of Sierra Madre Games and designer of the board games Origins: How We Became Human, High Frontier, and Pax Porfiriana. It is an edited version of an essay that originally appeared on the hobbyist website BoardGameGeek. Feature image is from Eklund’s near-space exploration game High Frontier.
Sometimes, I am told that my works are not games, but simulations. I usually counter that “games vs. simulations” is a false dichotomy and ask my detractor to define what a “game” or “simulation” is. He invariably declines, perhaps asserting that definitions are unimportant or subjective.
Let me state my thesis plain. Although not all simulations are games, all games are simulations, defining “simulation” as “a selective re-creation of reality.” Further, all games are works of art, defining “art” as “the selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s value-judgments, following the principles of aesthetics.”
A game can be compared to another great art form, the novel. Both have a protagonist with a challenge to overcome and a conclusion where the struggle is resolved. In both, the protagonist can succeed or fail. Both reveal the artist’s value-judgments and, ultimately, his philosophy. Both obey aesthetic principles: plot, structure, goals, selectivity of subject, clarity of expression, and integration of game elements.
In a solitaire game, the challenge to be overcome is in the game processes. In a multiplayer game, much of the challenge comes from the decisions and skills of your opponents. But winning is secondary to the experience and story.
In my most recent game, Greenland, the emphasis is on the exciting story to be told. Indeed, even though the turns are a generation long, the saga unfolds as if in a role-playing game. Suppose your sword breaks in battle. If this were D&D, you would curse and go to the blacksmith to fix it. But what if the blacksmith starved generations ago and his craft was lost? Or if there was not enough iron or fuel to spare for a charcoal furnace? What if the defense of your entire culture centered around one piece of metal, handed down from generation to generation?
For the design of Greenland, I included everything important for the survival of a culture, using value-judgments based on my philosophy to determine importance. As a board game auteur, I integrated every element into an artistic whole, according to my vision, a vision distinct enough that most can recognize my work without seeing my name.
To be an artist, you need something to convey. You need to believe in something. You need context, principles, and long-range direction; you need connection among your goals, coherence among your turns, and a broad overview uniting your disparate experiences, conclusions, and actions into a sum. In short, every artist needs a philosophy, the means by which he comes to make value-judgments.
Are very abstract games also “re-creations of reality”? To a lesser extent, but yes. Reality runs by particular rules, called Laws of Science, and favors those who master the rules. In this way, the rules of even the most abstract games mirror reality.
The fact that the universe is causal and follows rules is not a priori. Rather, its something I learned at the ripe age of 3 months. When I do this, that happens. What I love about games is that, like textbooks, they give what is known about the rules but, unlike textbooks, they provide a means for self-discovery of the applicable answers.
The post-modernist theory of art claims it is up to the viewer to interpret or provide meaning. However, random splashes of paint or plotless word salads are not art. And one who has no clearly-expressed vision or is concerned only with what is trendy, popular, or faddish is no artist.
I was recently asked, “How do you, as a designer, go about selecting which ones to make random and which ones to be player driven?” I agreed that because art is a “selective re-creation,” one cannot include everything; each artist selects what to include based on what she wishes to convey with her work. In my works, I include only the most fundamental things that are on topic.
An individual’s control of his environment is entirely a product of his technology and his working philosophy allowing him to utilize his technology. Any simulation should judge human potential in exactly these terms. You should not, for instance, be able to control asteroid impact events until asteroid deflection technology is developed or control the weather until reproducing Dyson swarms are developed. And you would also need to be free of “Prime Directives” or Green philosophies, which may otherwise inhibit you from interfering in natural events.
Games have many didactic advantages in teaching us about reality, particularly the importance of rules and definitions. But they have shortcomings, too. The fact that most games can have only one winner seems to be tied up in so-called sociobiology, which itself is tied up in the fact that the next generation depends on the two strands of the double helix (and only one individual can contribute to each strand). This competitive constraint means that games have difficulty in modeling cooperation and deal-making, which breaks down when a winner is apparent.
A political element almost impossible to model in a game is what I call a “BSU,” which stands for “Base Societal Unit.” A BSU is the fundamental unit of society, objectively speaking. On Darwinian grounds, I believe the BSU is the individual; I am an individualist. But there are plenty who believe in alternate BSU collectives: humanity, nations, working class, the poor, etc. Many of my games (Origins, High Frontier, Pax Porfiriana) attempt to represent differing BSUs in the same game, but I run into the “unit” problem. “Units” are the link between math and reality; even the most ardent Popperian has trouble combating the fact that one unit plus one unit is always two units. Units are also essential in game theory; see the definition on the first page of my game Origins. A game can only have one fundamental unit; for instance, if your units are individuals, it’s hard to reformat them into a collective, such as a nation or caste. You would need a different set of rules.
In summary, games, like all art, fulfill a real human need. But games have the additional benefit that they reflect and illuminate all branches of reality: epistemology, the nature of humans, history, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.
Phil Eklund, rocket engineer, professional game designer and producer, recently moved from Arizona to Germany. He specializes in “experience games,” simulations that cover a comprehensive sweep of all aspects of a subject in unprecedented detail. He has always been fascinated by the rules that run the world, and the first step to discovering such rules is believing that they exist.