Saturday, July 16, 2011

Well is the game called great

Last night we fêted Bastille Day and the highlight, as always, was Pete's game. This year it was a version of Family Feud with questions about the French Revolution. We had to match the most popular answers from a 'survey says!' French poll in 1989. It was great fun with Clément reading the answers in French to everyone's confusion. Personally, I love this stuff, but not everyone does. To that end let me try to express a little bit about my love of games, why I try to include them wherever I go (including this site), and our tradition with games.

Games cover an enormous playing field, but there are few key elements of a game.

1. A game is fun. Everyone from Wittgenstein to Roger Caillois (
Les jeux et les homes) choose this characteristic foremost. It must entertain. If it's not fun, there is something wrong with the game, or you.

2. There are rules. Oh how we love to play with this one! In fact, along with Calvin and Hobbes, I would say we have brought creating game rules to the level of a game itself. I could say a lot about rules, but in the interest of brevity, I'll only mention a few thoughts.

It seems to me that often people don't like games because they don't like 'arbitrary' rules. I find that people who believe with conviction in certain rules of life, do not like to suspend them—even for a game. I say this lovingly, because the best example I know is my mother. She continually says she hates games and (while that's not totally true) it's because she lives by a very discipline set of rules which, incidentally, have served her well. It's not that she can't have fun. It's just that her view of the world is too rigid and unchanging to allow her to suspend those rules without effort.

On the other hand is Chesterton's
Ethics of Elfland.

When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula.
Yes, there are certain rules for behavior to mitigate the vagaries of life, and there are certain rules of science if you wish to achieve an outcome. But 'arbitrary' game rules allow you to see the fundamental truth that, from making friends to making beer, it is magic. We are all enchanted. Obeying game rules reminds us how 'arbitrary' life is and allows us to embrace the magic. Paradoxically, it also allows us to have more fun in life.

3. There is a goal. Often getting to the goal means conflict.
Often people like or dislike games depending on the conflict involved. Games can be competitive, but it's not necessary. There is almost no competition in Maffia or Murder. On the other hand, the 800 meter race is pure competition, but for me it has little fun and, therefore, not a game. (It is competition, but no conflict, as the rules forbid interfering with another runner.)

Our games are typically very low on competition which is what I personally prefer. We rarely know who 'wins' the game. We often change sides. Most of us are more concerned with the game play and making sure everyone participates and is having fun, than trying to win. Trying to win is important or the game would lose meaning, but we often admire imaginative game play more than scoring.

I think sometimes people place too much emphasis on the competition and lose the value of the fun. I will remember Clement's reading of the answers long after I forget who won, which was Kathleen, by the way. She out scored Clément.

So, for those who are still conflicted about games, I urge you to try to participate and love the fun of games.

"No human being is innocent, but there is a class of innocent human actions called Games." —W. H. Auden


Big Myk said...

This was a great blog entry and pretty much completely accurate. Let me add this. My Augustine professor in college had the highest regard for games. He used to say that humans become as gods when they create games. Every game is an entire universe complete in itself with its own rules of cause and effect which bear no relation to actual cause and effect. In the real universe, it does not automatically follow that, if you and 10 others can advance a ball 10 yards in four chances, that you get four more chances. Nor in the ordinary world do you get to collect all cards played by each of the players if you have discarded the highest card played which has the same symbol on it as the card first played. Whenever we play a game we enter into whichever universe has been created for that purpose. When the game ends, the universe dissolves, and we return to the ordinary rules of physics.

Big Myk said...

I've already mentioned Johan Huizinga and his Homo Ludens [Playing Man]. He says that play has six main characteristics:

1. Play is voluntary and free. “Play to order is no longer play.”

2. Play does not constitute ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. “Nevertheless…the consciousness of play being ‘only a pretend’ does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome ‘only’ feeling.”

3. Play is spatially secluded and temporally limited. “Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is ‘over’. It plays itself to an end.”

4. Play not only creates order, it is order. “All play has its rules. They determine what ‘holds’ in the temporary world circumscribed by play…Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over.”

5. Play is for play’s sake. “It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.”

6. Play holds a social position within a culture, and is often associated with secrecy. “It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

Patty said...

There takes a certain amount of self confidence to play games. I think most people who hate games are uncomfortable and embarrassed by them. I dislike games that require complicated strategy and lots of thinking; my sons on the other hand love those games and hate games that are mostly luck. A good friend of mine dislikes games because she is very shy and doing something with all eyes on you - like pictionary and charades is terrifying. Bob hates trivial pursuit type games because he does not remember facts, he prefers a game that involves figuring something out or a strategy. Most people dislike games they are terrible at - I will not play the board games my boys like because I am lousy at them (and they take forever). I love pictionary and charades because I feel like I can compete on the same level as others. No one wants to play something where they are made to feel inadequate in some way. The French Family Feud sounds like a game right up my alley.

James R said...

You're right. Few people like games that they are not good at, myself included. But I have met some people who rise above the rest of us mere mortals. Somehow they are able to completely disassociate themselves from the winning and losing part and (at least apparently) just partake in the joy of the game. To make a gross generality, I find these are usually females. It's hard to tell if these people are angels or mentally retarded—at least during the game.

James R said...

Here's the board game you will like along with your sons: Spy Alley.
It takes just enough strategy, you always have a chance to win. and it is over in a half hour or less. The only down side is that someone can be out in the first few minutes, but the chances are very low.

Big Myk said...

But then, you have people like me who love to play games that they are no good at. I love hockey, but I'm terrible at it. I'm not that fast a skater and I'm bad at puck handling. That doesn't stop me from enjoying the game. Or, take Settlers of Catan. My kids will tell you how bad I am at the game. But, if anyone wants to play, I'm the first to second the motion. The same is true of Ticket to Ride. It's a great game, but the last time I played, Renee just made fun of me the whole time. Perhaps I'm just a masochist.

James R said...

Myk is one of the few, the brave, who simply love the game for itself.

I think your Augustine teacher and I would get along, as this passage from "The Mac Bathroom Reader" by Owen Linzmayer will testify:
"When I sit in front of my 'tabula rasa' computer screen ready to create a new game," explains Harvey, "I feel a bit like a god and hope I can create software which gives others a taste of the Mysterium Tremendum."