Up for air! (Briefly)

Hey folks! Just a quick post to say that International Games Day 2014 is over and was a huge success – so that’s off my plate – but thanks to increasing family responsibilities I will continue to be sporadic in updating this blog.

I’m updating the site a bit more frequently as I add more details on services that I offer (and sometimes new services!) but those are largely incremental updates. The big things that I’ve added and will be working on in 2015:

  • I’m selling a bundle of tabletop games for libraries that also comes with a substantial discount on training – and the discounts are stackable across library services, meaning if you buy enough bundles the training is potentially free!
  • I’m offering Australian libraries access to a service called OnePlay which enables ebook-style e-lending of PC and Android games. It’s a promising start on lending for media we struggle to enable our users to access!

Contact me if either of these, or any of my services, interest you. And to be updated when I do get a chance to post more substantive articles – which are coming – please follow me (using the button at the bottom right of your browser window, or by signing up to the RSS feed).

Otherwise, all the best for the end of this year and all of next!

The art of games and play

This is a slight reworking of a post from an earlier blog, made here because it seems like a useful addition to the discussion of games in the wider cultural context.

I would propose the following tests for the status of art, good art, and great (or capital-A) Art:

Art is whatever is held to be such. It must involve some act of creation, but the simple act of bringing a natural phenomenon to someone’s attention is enough to qualify as creation for these purposes (allowing nature photography, or even running a hiking tour, to comprise art in and of themselves): directing your audience’s attention is after all a key component of any artform.

Good (or effective) art is art which elicits a reaction from a substantial portion, preferably a majority, of its audience – whatever the size of that audience.

Exceptional art elicits a strong reaction from its audience and can potentially change minds or even lives. It may never be seen outside a small group – ephemeral art left unrecorded in a natural setting, a transformative roleplaying session, an unrepeatably expressive performance of Chekhov or Mozart – but for those who experience it, it is unforgettable, a sublime encounter with truth or beauty. Obviously, as an audience increases in size (and therefore, inevitably, in diversity), the range of possible reactions increases, perhaps exponentially. What is good or even exceptional art to a given, small audience may have no effect whatever on the wider audience.

So great Art is art which can consistently evoke strong reactions across a wide audience, or art that a wide audience agrees across all its internal divisions to be good or even exceptional. (By some definitions, these reactions must be not simply reaffirmations of known emotional cliches, but something more complex; whether or not we agree with this addendum, my general point can stand, I think. It treats the idea of “greatness” as essentially one of scale, not effect – as with great wars, fires, events in history, etc.)

(Side point: does this mean that a single work of art which is only experienced by one person, but which has such a profound effect on them that it inspires them to affect the lives of millions, could also be described as “great Art”? On first consideration, I’d say yes. And I like this because it allows art to be “great” purely by dint of its effect without reference to popularity… But I’m interested in others’ thoughts.)

The problem is that this necessarily tends to favour certain attributes:

  • for breadth of dissemination and scope of potential audience: reproducible forms, then static forms, then scripted live performance forms, and least of all ephemeral forms;
  • for consistency of experience: “declarative”, artist-to-audience media forms over interactive forms;
  • for longevity (i.e. time in which to reach an audience): media which are self-contained rather than dependent on technological or linguistic platforms which may become obsolete;
  • for ability to connect (and maintain a connection) with a wide range of people: obvious or unchallenging themes and content.

(This of course ignores the culture within which the work is attempting to achieve recognition, which can shift these weightings.)

So how do games fit into this model?

Electronic games suffer on the second and third points – and I’d argue don’t make enough effort to escape from the trap of the fourth. As the technological platforms on which they are played become obsolete, they also suffer on the first, though this is changing as gamers begin to take seriously the value of archiving their medium.

Non-electronic games suffer on the second point, and often the first (as they are not always easily reproduced).

This in turn tends to instil certain fallacious presuppositions (simply by dint of long association) about what can and can’t be “art”, let alone “Art”.

The logic used by some critics who argue that games can’t be Art, namely that player interaction with the game – control of pacing and even sequence – nullifies the possibility of the experience constituting art, is one such fallacy.

Consider sculpture and architecture; Michelangelo’s David cannot truly be appreciated from a single angle, and nor can the Taj Mahal, and while the creators have some influence on the flow of their audience’s experience of their work, it is far from absolute.

Similarly, the rules of a game can constitute what I call “the poetry of system” – the choices that you make as you play giving you a personal, even emotional experience of the assumptions, assertions and underlying logic of the game. Nobody who has played Z-Man Games’s board game Pandemic could argue that it’s in any way a realistic simulation of combating contagious disease, but as an evocation of the deeper tensions between spending resources on dealing with immediate threats or on working towards the longer-term endgame it’s both a compelling experience and genuinely expressive of a real truth.

Playing gives you one or more experiences of the possible outcomes, but it’s the underlying balances and systems which are revealed through play that are where the art most strongly lies.

In other words: a given playthrough may vary, but it’s the systems that generate that experience which constitute the art, and possibly Art, of games – in exactly the same way that a play (coincidence?) may be performed or adapted ad infinitum from a fixed script, and the sheet music of a sonata may be played (also coincidence?) by a beginner or a maestro, but the quality of art (and possibly Art) still inheres in the script and the music themselves, regardless of the experience of the audience at any given realisation of the same.

I’d also allow – in fact argue strongly for – the particular “cosmetic” choices in which the game creator chooses to dress their system as being a crucial part of this, even though they are not part of the “system” per se – Pandemic‘s “flavouring”, or central metaphor, being the work of the CDC is clearly relevant, and Brenda Romero’s work is exploring this boundary extremely fruitfully, and along the way making some deeply important statements about choices, the context in which they are made, those choosing, and the complex interrelations of the three.

One final point. The very fact that games allow for a multiplicity of endings – or, perhaps, conclusions – by its nature allows them to make more ambiguous points about their subject matter than traditional media can. At the same time, it allows for very definite statements about the causes of certain outcomes to be made, as multiple playthroughs reveal the different contributions made by each decision to the various conclusions. To me, that hardly argues that they cannot make sublime statements. It just means you need to grok the intricacies of a system (and its fictional and/or real context) of decisions and consequences, rather than a system of other, more traditionally-understood symbols.

Making that step not only allows us to expand the definition of art, but fosters both theory of mind and “systems literacy” – the ability to think through decisions-in-contexts (with part of those context being the interests, goals and decisions of others) to likely outcomes, both intermediate and final.

These are things we need badly to foster at this moment in history, and if games can engender them, I say: Let’s Play.

This is not a particularly high-traffic blog, but should anyone be inspired to comment, I’m particularly interested in suggestions of other games whose systems allow for expressive, even emergent moments.

Talking points: Games, sharing culture, and connecting people

[First posted on the IGD blog on July 5, 2013]

Hello folks! This is the second of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from that original post:

If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language.

We’ve previously established that games are culture. And it’s in the nature of games that most of them require playing with other people, and reward engaging attentively with the people with whom you’re playing.

When it comes to sports – i.e. body-games – these benefits are undisputed, or even (somewhat self-fulfillingly) exaggerated. There are undeniable bonding effects to exercising together for a common purpose, as anyone who’s ever undertaken strenuous physical labour with others can attest. But it seems likely to me that a considerable part of the bonding effects of sports (and especially where that bonding occurs across team lines, where time spent exercising in close proximity is not a factor) is about the intensity with which you are having to anticipate the actions of others – to imagine yourself in their position.

Everyone from mixed martial arts fighters and football players to poker and go players (or practitioners of both, such as chessboxers) speaks of the importance of understanding your opponent. And in a team context, knowing the actions (and temperaments) of your team is just as important. Clearly, any game which involves more than one player is going to reward an ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.

(And even a single-player game can reward the same kind of engagement with its creators, and analysis of their themes and arguments, as a book; but as with books, it’s a much more serial relationship, with the creator thinking about the audience only at the time of creation, and the audience thinking about the creator only after publication. Game players are interacting more simultaneously and – especially if they’re playing over a common tabletop – immediately.)

And when that understanding is paired with an activity which one finds inherently pleasurable – such as the brainwork of a game – it’s no surprise that friendships are formed at least as often as rivalries. And because games are fundamentally informational in nature, the point of commonality has no inherent link to any characteristic such as fitness, gender, age (barring the very young, because of their lack of neurological development), race… meaning games can be the basis of friendship between wildly disparate people.  Think of the intense relationships formed over the chessboards of World Championships, where there may not even be a common language, and you can see how this might work.

In fact, there is a long history of games being consciously used as bonding exercises. The modern obsession with sports, which has its roots in the character-building (and in more cynical cases, army-building) ambitions of the Victorian-era educators, is just the most recent incarnation. It’s mentioned as early as Book One of the first work of Western history, Herodotus’s Histories: the ancient Lydians, faced with a famine, used games to keep their community together through 18 years of grinding hunger, eating only every second day, and playing games on the days they didn’t eat. And in the context of a starving populace, it seems hard to believe that this was Olympic-style athletic games; the games here were probably something like modern tabletop games.

This is very much applicable to the library, if we choose to use them this way. It’s a recurring theme in the comments about past IGDs. It was also an ongoing motif in the study trip I took from Australia to the States, where I spoke to people from over a dozen library services about the uses of games. Games were used to provide constructive channels for socialisation, especially for teens; but targeted appropriately, they were just as effective for adults and indeed for groups of mixed ages. (The lack of links here is because this was not regarded as worth documenting: the games were not catalogued, their use was not recorded, patron feedback was not monitored, and no metrics were captured. After all, it’s only games…)

So if you have stories about games encouraging people to socialise across demographic boundaries, share them below!

(Click here for our third Talking Points post – “Games and theory of mind”.)

Game review: Hanabi as metaphor for intelligent life

It has taken me a shamefully long time to crack open the copy of Hanabi I picked up after hearing it recommended in a podcast by the Three Donkeys crew. Despite playing it first on January 4, I knew within a few games it was going to be a near-certain personal Game of the Year for 2014. I’ve since played it for hours with my partner, chasing a perfect game (so far our best score is 23, 4 actions short of perfecting all 5 fireworks – so close!), and that opinion has only been cemented.

Hanabi‘s core conceit is simple: players are working together to try and play cards in various colours in sequence, but each player cannot see their own hand, instead relying on information from other players which is controlled by a very strict economy. In other words, the only person who can actually do anything with a card (play it or discard it) is the person who can’t see it.

Hidden information in games is nothing new – it can more or less carry an entire game, as is pretty much the case with poker. What’s so ingenious about Hanabi is that it not only forces us to confront the unyielding reality that we can never really know what’s going on in other people’s heads, as any such games do, but to do so in the framework of having to collaborate with those people.

Emotionally, it is far easier to engage with the problem of other people’s unknowability in a competitive or even hostile framework – the resentment that our more basic natures reflexively feel towards the things that make us exert ourselves meshes well with a goal that involves somehow triumphing over them. (One could argue that this is at the root of many modern socio-politico-economic ills.) This is part of the pleasure of competitive play: expressing that basic egoistic subjective sense of the self’s defiance against the world, but doing so in a consensual context where that hostility is licensed, constrained into forms that contain the possible harm, and channeled in ways that mean that even the journey to defeat can still be a pleasurable experience.

But real life – especially a good life – is much more about getting inside other people’s heads in order to help them, whether because doing so helps us too, or simply because we love them. And that’s what Hanabi is all about.

The puzzle that you are collaborating to solve – sort cards drawn randomly into sequences of 1-5 in 5 different colours – is childishly simple. But the fact that you know nothing of the cards you hold except what your partners tell you – and vice versa – plus what you can see of cards that have been played or discarded, and what you can deduce from all that information, makes other people not only a crucial part of the puzzle but utterly indispensible to the solution. Feeling antagonistic towards them only distracts you – and probably them – from the problem at hand.

This forces the higher functions of the brain not only to engage with the intellectual problem at hand, but to examine and control those resentful lizard-brain “how dare you make me work” impulses. In other words, you are not only practicing being smart but being good; blaming other people for not automatically conforming to internal expectations is at the root of evils ranging all the way from petty to genocidal.

The way the information economy works is also ingenious, but I would rather leave the review at this point than further explain the rules or focus overmuch on the technical. They are simple to learn, and I hope the mystery will encourage you to pick up the game.

So let me simply conclude by saying that I highly recommend that you play Hanabi, and take care to honour the spirit of the rules about communication, not just the letter. It thoroughly deserves the Spiel des Jahres[1] it won, but more importantly, it is not only deeply pleasurable: it is rewarding.