Thoughts and Ramblings

The Play in Game Play

I have a friend I haven’t seen in a while who hates boardgames. He wants to turn and walk purposefully away, he says, when anyone at a party or after dinner suggests opening one up.

“I want to make things up on my own,” he says.

Roger Caillois

The statement’s a little unfair, I think, because we all like to make stuff up on our own. We hum our own songs (especially if we can’t remember the tune of that song we’re trying to hum), tell ourselves the story of our lives in our heads, add stickers to computers, pin up photos and cartoons in our cubicles (if we’re allowed to, and we grouse and stick pins in the boss doll when we can’t). I know I’ve drifted from “making stuff up” to “changing the environment,” but the impulse feels similar—particularly if you’re in an industrialized country that’s cut spending for arts education. You do what you can with what you have.

But here’s the question I want to ask when my friend isn’t around and it’s just us boardgamers: Where’s the play in playing games?

Roger Caillois offers a continuum with two poles (he offers a lot of other ideas, too, but we’ll stick with the continuum for now): paidia and ludus. Paidia is free-play. It’s finding yourself in an empty room with a bouncy ball and a couple of paddles. If you’re me and my wife, you’d start whacking the ball around just to see where you could get it to go. Ludus adds rules. A bouncy ball, two paddles, and a line in the middle of the room; now, you have to smack the ball over the line, let it bounce twice, and not let it hit the back wall, or it’s a point. First person to…oh, ten, wins. But even that example has a lot of freedom in it.

Snow Tails

The games that hobbyists embrace tend toward the far side of the ludic end of the spectrum. Power Grid? 18xx? Even Fluxx, for that matter. I’m still trying to respond to my friend (and a lot of other people like him) by trying to identify the sort of plays that game players are  looking for. Maybe it’s a foolish task, but I’m willing to be a little foolish.

I’d like some help with this, but my first thought is that the play space itself is complicated. When playing the Fragor Games Snow Tails or Friedemann Friese’s Fearsome Floors, I’m not alone at the table when I make husky noises during the former or mimic movie monster groans while playing the latter. The impulse to paidia is as strong as the move to the ludic. House rules, too, push the ludic structure open a bit. And then there’s the idea of gaming the

Fearsome Floors

game, of exploiting what are usually design flaws for an almost mechanical win.

Yes, a rules lawyer will insist on playing the game as written—especially if the lawyer is finding a way to improve their own position—but most of us, in my experience, recognize the play in the game. Of course, we are a bit peculiar, spending so much time parsing rules for how fast zombies move and talking like pirates. And it’s just fine that my friend runs away from anything not improvisational. Nevertheless, he’s missing, I think, that his activities have their own rules, and not acknowledging that fact makes his play a bit less interesting.

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  1. I'm really glad you are here James, you bring a touch of class to the website. I found this really interesting. I know I'm not a rules lawyer, because it is just too easy to go halfway through a game and realize you've been playing it wrong. What do we do? We usually just keep on going and say we'll remember it for next time.

    It's hard to comprehend someone not wanting to play board games because of the fact that there are rules. I can see not playing simply because you don't like playing board games, it isn't for everybody, but because you prefer to make stuff up on your own?

    Board games are another outlet for the suspension of disbelief in my opinion, not as much as say a role playing game, but it is there nonetheless. Thus it takes imagination to play a board game (and enjoy it). It's similar to being able to enjoy a good movie, which in your buddy's eyes should also be off limits ("I wan't to make stuff up on my own!"), or even a good book for that matter. To me his theory would seem to stem more from a lack of imagination, rather than a preponderance of it. Anyway, great post James.

  2. Elliott: You're very kind, sir. Just wait until I get into the stories about my reprobate youth!

    I think his argument might be that a book or movie allows him a kind of open space for interpretation that he can explore that a game doesn't. As you and I know, he'd be wrong about that…But I think his impression of boardgames might be limited to, oh, the Cranium family. Or Trivial Pursuit. As you and I know, there are far more interesting games available. And you're quite right to point out that they require a lot of imagination.

    I run into the same problem trying to explain why science, math, and other similar pursuits are imaginative activities. The answers aren't in the back of a book. You have to, well, imagine the solutions to problems.

    Thanks for the comment. It makes me glad to be working with the Gang!

  3. Thank you for the interesting post and comments! As a pianist, I see the opposition of rules to improvisation in a somewhat different light. I was initially trained classically, which is to say, I learned to interpret the great works of pianists and composers who lived before my time. That sort of "play" is exceedingly rules-oriented. Generally speaking, one does not edit or improvise upon those works, but plays them precisely as-written. (A few great pianists have been considered by the musical community to have "earned the right" to mess around with great compositions – I'm thinking of guys like Samuel Feinberg, Vladimir Horowitz, and Arcadi Volodos – but they are very few.)

    I have also played and studied jazz music from the time I was young, however, and anyone familiar with jazz knows that it is more of an oral tradition (as oppose to the "classical" written tradition) and that it is based around improvisation. Jazz as a form could be said to be much closer to Paidia than to Ludus, but musicians know (and I think listeners intuitively know) that in both cases there are rules.

    What makes classical compositions so engaging for both player and listener is the detailed, multi-layered conscious pre-construction of the music and the *precise* following of the rules from moment to moment; the individuality of the players comes through in the interpretation, but it is (for the most part) secondary to the ideas of the composer, who spent hours or weeks or years thinking through the various ideas that make up the work. And we (many of us, anyway) enjoy this!

    On the other hand, jazz music engages the listener directly through the individuality of the player, and *his* interpretation of the music is paramount whereas the composer of the tune he is playing is frequently disregarded. There is a great deal of free-play and spontaneous interaction in jazz, but it is still set in the context of an important rule-set (even in the most avant-garde situations – Cecil Taylor et al.). If you don't know the rules, you won't play the game – even though many interesting things come through bending and occasionally breaking those rules.

    From this perspective, I can certainly understand why some people would prefer less structure to more structure, in music and in games and pastimes. On the other hand, someone who wants to "make up his own rules" is highly likely to be playing alone, whether he is in fact alone or not.

  4. Michael: Great points! I think the flexibility of the ludus-paidia continuum makes it so compelling. In thinking about your response, it occurred to me that the composing itself would make a good example, too. You start noodling about on the keyboard–free play. As you narrow down the structure, you move closer to ludus. Eventually, if someone picks up the composition to explore, they take it back to paidia. Thank you for opening up another way to think about the idea!

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