So there’s this lovely article going around at the moment: Video games are boring. It’s worth a read, but I’ll summarise: The author is a video game designer who’s been excited by the recent boon in people playing games, only to find that her favourite games fell flat with her friends. However in some instances they had limited but amazing experiences with them. Her conclusion is that video game development has been driven by video gamers for a very long time and has failed to break outside of a mould preferred by that group. It could be a much more vibrant field if it had more voices from a different backgrounds. It could be more if it had games that keyed more with the experiences most people are having in their lives. Games can and should be more than they are. So my question for the day is: Are the same things true of board games?
I’d like to start with a few qualifiers: I don’t entirely buy the article. There are plenty of computer games that escape the traps she describes that come to mind. In some cases cool indie games that decide they’re doing something interesting with the medium, in other cases unkillable ever growing commercial powerhouses that break the mould of twitch gameplay and DIAS (Do it again stupid) gameplay. However I think there’s an important truth underlying it – games are predominantly made for gamers and use gamers as their play testing group which shapes development.
I developed Shenanigans: The Musical using a playtest group that consisted primarily of musicians who’d never played a (real) board game before. I wrote an article about how different development with that sort of group of playtesters was. I cannot speak for the average game designer, but I certainly discovered that I had expectations about how players would interpret different elements of a game or the social contract that would exist around sitting down to play.
Certainly I can see that the possibility space of games is unnecessarily constrained. There are a lot of attributes that it is widely accepted that a good game *should* have which don’t strictly generate an unplayable mess if they’re absent. Why aren’t there more games which have deliberately unbalanced sides to allow players of different skill levels to play together with an even chance of winning? Why aren’t there more games which focus on telling a story that’s relevant to the lives of the players? Why aren’t there more games that don’t completely fall apart if one player decides they’re going to help their friend/partner/crush at the expense of their own position?
That last question seems particularly interesting me. As a group we’ve decided that certain issues are not and should not be design issues. When we see people engaging in that sort of “helping in a competitive game” behaviour we throw up our hands and say “They are playing wrong.” The social contract of a game is you don’t do that, if you do it then you’re ruining the game for everyone, those players must change or leave.
Now I’m all for social contract and it’s undeniable that this behaviour will totally wreck a lot of games. However I wonder if that sort of social contract has made us insular and lazy. A designer can avoid considering swathes of people and behaviours because they can rely on social contract to force such players out. Games become more samey because they can assume that all players will have a certain set of behavioural traits. It’s not difficult to imagine games being stuck in a bubble because we’ve gone to such lengths to design the walls of the bubble to be really nice and provide a smooth, balanced play experience.
So those are the arguments for, let’s consider against.
Board gaming has more physical limitations than computer gaming. There’s an extent to which a limited design space is made necessary by qualities like component count, cost and weight. Also features like players needing to do any required calculations by hand. It is natural that greater physical constraint leads to more uniformity of design.
Besides, it’s a smaller industry. Even relatively small computer games projects have a fairly meaty budget. By contrast you’ll occasionally see games that make it to reality because a couple of people decide to get it done and manage to find the support.
There’s also a lot of room for experimentalism in board gaming at the moment. There are load of small groups putting out innovative games, but you also see the occasional bold experiment from larger publishers. Risk: Legacy was an experiment. So was 504. They’ve both done alright for themselves.
Going back to social contract for a moment – yes we design games with a particular mode of play in mind – but designers are capable of acknowledging and working towards more than one type of contract. The expectations of how play will work in a competitive game is different to the expectations for a cooperative game and the design challenges that people focus on are distinct as a result.
You can also see it in party games. I still love In a Bind and I think Escape the Nightmare grew out of a desire to have a party game that’s got some more serious crunch to it. Similar things could be said of social deduction games. Game designers have embraced different forms of social contract and wound up developing different genres of game to match and that’s fantastic!
So I don’t think that games are falling into the trap set out in the original article and I’m not sure that computer games are either – but it is a real trap and we can go there. Avoiding that is worthwhile. There is definitely something to be said for looking at ways that people naturally play games, but that are often rejected and to think about what it would be to make a game that’d suit people playing in that manner. Or to look at other types of social contract and ask “How can games infiltrate this group?”
I think that great games that can fall out of breaking (some) rules developed through the things that we’ve tried so far and that serious digressions are worth making from time to time. I’m going to spend the rest of the day working on a game with no objective 😉