A New(?) Paradigm
So today is International Tabletop Day, a novel holiday mascotted by a cartoon caricature of Wil Wheaton. As a global event, it transports me to such extremes of ambivalence that I can’t be bothered to write with my (usual?) formality. Today, I have to be personal, and I have to be passionate.
First off, there should never need to be a holiday to remind people to play with their friends and loved ones. International Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19) is a necessity. National Hug Day (January 21), likewise. NaNoWriMo and NaPoWriMo (not to mention NaGaWriMo) need to exist because they motivate people to do things that, while the end results are pleasurable, are a hellish grind during the creation process (anybody who thinks writing is easy doesn’t care enough about writing). But you can’t institutionalize play, or it becomes ritual, or worse. Celebrate it, yes, but if you are only playing a game because the calendar obligates you to do so, you aren’t playing, are you?
On the other hand, I am right there with Wil Wheaton and Quintin Smith that tabletop games need more visibility. Here is a medium so amazing, so rich, so transporting, and so vibrant–we are currently at a historical creative and cultural apex–yet, to the eternal frustration of its adherents, nobody believes you when you talk about how rich, amazing and transporting tabletop games can be. Video games are finally gaining cultural recognition as more than just for kids and nerds at, ironically, the same historical moment that a bevy of prominent voices in electronic games, including the aforementioned Quintin Smith (writer at Eurogamer), Richard Ham (creative director of Syphon Filter, Fable II and BRINK), and Gabe Newell (Valve Software recently announced a tabletop game inspired by Portal, pitched and designed almost entirely in-house) are beginning to proselytize switching off the screen and going cardboard.
I’m about to add to their numbers. While I’m not as prominent as Smith, Ham and Newell (note to self: potential name for folk rock trio), I’ve been a proponent of Taking Games Seriously™ for as long as I’ve been brave enough to do it (there’s still a stigma attached to the term that makes it feel crushingly embarrassing to admit yourself a gamer, no matter how strong your convictions on the matter). And now that places like Entropy exist, where we’re openly encouraged to do just that, I still feel like a lone wolf when I geek out about card or board games. Even though almost all of us can at least admit to video games being part of our cultural ecosystem, whether or not we actually play them, tabletop games are seen by many as another step too nerdy/frivolous. But they aren’t, and here’s why:
The Allure of Allegory
Let me tell you why I play games. Scratch that; let me tell you how I play games. I don’t play them socially or competitively. I will only buy a video game if the single player campaign is worthy, and I’ve actually spent most of my board gaming time playing solitaire (which is not nearly as pathetic as it sounds). I play games in the same way that I read books or, usually, listen to music: by myself, in a calm, quiet space, softly illuminated, surrounded by darkness. In fact, I play games in the exact same way that I write, and although it hadn’t occurred to me until this moment, I think that I get the same thing out of both activities: a chance to play in an imagined space ruled by specific but not immutable processes, manipulate concepts and images creatively in such a way that a narrative emerges.
It’s something I haven’t read nearly enough theory to write about intelligently, but narrative is important. There is an evolutionary basis for why it brings us pleasure, having to do with our ability to predict permutations of cause and effect in a way that was once crucial to our survival (e.g. if this noise is heard, a panther will appear, and if I remain on the ground, I will be eaten; but if I hide in a tree, I might be spared). I am pretty sure that I stole this idea from David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife, but I didn’t actually steal it because it is impossible to claim copyright on an observable fact. Watching narratives unfold tickles our pleasure center. Predicting, manipulating or subverting those narratives tickles it even more.
There is also something powerfully appealing about figurative language, which creates tiny but enticing micronarratives for us to ponder. Figurative language, including metaphor and allegory, appeals because it stresses our brain’s ability to string together narratives to the maximum. “You’re telling me that my eyes are like stars? Okay, I can see that; they do twinkle. But if my eyes were like stars, would that also imply that they are ageless, celestial, containing the souls of gods and heroes?” If narratives are all about making connections and following implications, figurative language entices us because it tells us “these two ideas are connected” and leaves us to forge the links on our own. The more obscure the connection, the better; Zen kōans are allegories so obscure that people can literally spend their entire lives engaging with them.
A lot of people wouldn’t be satisfied with the explanation that “metaphors are important because neuroscience,” but they actually are important. Figurative language allows our brains to play around with concepts that are not based on observation alone, that, in some cases, are directly opposed to observable reality. This, in turn, makes us deeper, cleverer, better human beings. If there’s such a thing as “poetic truth,” it lives in metaphor and symbolism.
Metaphor and symbolism are everywhere in games. The notion of “play” itself is figurative, like “playing house” or “playing soldiers”–let’s pretend, just for a little bit, that this stick is a rifle and everything that implies. The oldest games, like checkers and Go, are highly abstracted ways of playing at war, and probably serve the same purpose as play fighting does in nonhuman animals. I don’t play games to compete, but I do play them to, well, play, and a large part of that is interfacing with and exploring the game’s metaphors.
What do I mean by metaphor here? Let’s start with the simplest concept: “hitting X is
like swinging a sword.” That concept isn’t all that exciting anymore, though–it’s such a cliché–but now that we have motion gaming and gesture-based touch gaming, there’s a new influx of metaphors to entice us. On a deeper level, games use symbolism, by necessity, to quickly convey important information to the player, making their interface more user-friendly. I like to use the chart on the right to describe this concept. In the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, there was no way to realistically graphically portray the idea of “flight” or “growth” without creating a hopelessly muddled and confusing mess of pixels. So Nintendo forged this symbolic language of power-ups, where a single feather represents the concept of flight, a mushroom represents rapid growth, a star represents invincibility, and a flower represents fire (hanabi, literally “fire flower,” is the Japanese term for fireworks). I single out Mario, but you can find similar shorthand in any game of the era. Finally, there’s the way the visual landscape metaphorically stands in for the protagonist’s inner mindscape–another necessity, since video games are just not very good at the same forms of character development that books are good at.
A Case for Cardboard
As I wrote previously, exploring this figurative landscape is a huge part of the appeal of games to me, and (I think) something that places the activity more in the ballpark of literature than most people care to admit–and, I’d argue, games are at least as complex as literature when it comes to their figurative landscape. But as exciting as I find all this, a few years ago, I discovered my interest in electronic games beginning to wane. Those clever, expressive power-ups of yesteryear? Good luck finding them in Call of Duty, in which a gun is a gun is a gun. The metaphoricality of the visual landscape? Still present, but it’s less necessary now that video game cinematics are fully voiced and motion captured to the smallest nuance of expression. And even the metaphor of the control interface, as I previously mentioned, has gotten stale. Yes, I know the R trigger on the controller is like a gas pedal. Next you’ll be telling me that life is like a roller coaster.
That’s why, when I discovered board games, it was like an awakening (speaking of overused similes). Here is a medium that, because it is physically incapable of photorealistic full-physics simulations, is endlessly creative with its use of metaphor. Here’s a medium that gives us a million different things that a rectangle of cardstock can be like and hundreds of delightful ways to explore that analogy. In Dominion, players use cards representing sources of wealth to purchase more cards representing things like woodworking, moats, bureaucracy and militias, which are then added to their small deck so that when it is reshuffled, it becomes a dynamic civic engine used to squeeze ever more money out of your hand of five cards so that you can eventually purchase provinces and estates, which (although they are necessary to win the game) also go into your deck, actively decreasing its efficiency as your far-flung dominion spins out of your control. Friday uses almost all of the same mechanics to represent the personal development of Robinson Crusoe as he is hardened by years of survival on the island. And Mage Knight folds that same deckbuilding mechanic into a parfait of equally clever mechanisms to simulate the process of “leveling up” in an electronic or tabletop role-playing game.
This is a medium in which no part of the metaphorical framework is ever taken for granted. Pressing X is like swinging a sword, you say? How about flicking a disc across a table in Catacombs? How about choosing whether to display the weapon for moderate damage or discard it from your hand (because you swung it hard enough that it broke) in Pathfinder Adventure Card Game? How about pulling a block from a Jenga tower in Dread because you know that, as competent a swordsman as you are, it just takes one bad swing to send the entire situation toppling down onto your head? Or how about not swinging that sword and, instead, exploring the figurative landscapes of commercial fishing, spelunking, epidemiology, subsistence farming, Arabian myth, neo-noir detecting, 18th century family planning, fashion designing, or good old-fashioned Foggian expeditioning?
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said we were in a historical apex. In the past 5 years (since before I even knew this world existed), we’ve seen the medium expand into dozens of creative new directions simultaneously. Apart from the deckbuilding mechanic mentioned above, we’ve had Space Alert, a game in which player frantically and cooperatively plan out their movements within 10 minutes of real time while a klaxon blares in the background, then recover the black box of their Sitting Duck class spaceship and find out how hideously and hilariously things went wrong because somebody forgot to refill the starboard generator, so that player pumping away at the heavy cannons was answered only by a hollow click and the gaping beak of an interstellar octopus. We’ve had RISK: Legacy, which takes a familiar and dated property and makes it entirely new by adding in a board (and rules) that is permanently, physically modified as you play. We’ve had Love Letter, a fully featured, deeply replayable game that consists of only 16 cards. In a few months, we’ll have Panicobloc, the game demonstrated in the video below, which really looks like a performance art score. And so much that’s in between.
I’ll stop here, because I’m just gushing at this point. Let that be my contribution to International Tabletop Day, and one of the most candid things you’ll see me write, though far from the last time I plan to address tabletop games on Entropy. Because I think that play is important. Odds are you won’t see me at a convention center hunched around a game with a dozen strangers, because that’s not the way I play, but I’ll be participating nonetheless, exploring the figurative language of Archipelago or Lord of the Rings: The Card Game in the quiet and the dark and my little circle of lamplight.
Editor’s Note: Feature image is from Fantasy Flight Games’ Android. In honor of International Tabletop Day, I’ve linked to the publisher’s page for each tabletop game mentioned above so that if anything strikes your fancy, you have a place to find out more. If you’d like to play solitarily, in solidarity with me, have a look at Land of Enin, a gorgeously designed free game that you can print from your computer and be playing in a matter of minutes, or Endless Nightmare, a creative active participation game that is similarly free and easy to prepare.