Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Board games: The politics of play

This is a review of a radio broadcast and a musing on the ideas it deals with.

Review

The radio broadcast was on the BBC World Service and is part of the series: The Cultural Frontline. The episode: Board games: The politics of play

It starts by looking at the boardgame Pandemic, and its happenstance relevance to COVID, and how it is used as a training tool. Next the programme examines the recent growth of the boardgame market to be so much larger than it used to be. The Golden Age of the 90s. The interviewer talks to Reiner Knizia – over 700 game titles – interviews Shut Up and Sit Down, who talk about the rise of new games often as a reaction to those created by the previous generation of straight white male designers. Next interviewed is Elizabeth Hargrave, the designer of Wingspan, who says that she wanted to design games she wanted to play, that were not about trains, castles and fantasy and not about colonialism and resource exploitation.

On the theme of new style games Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic, talks about his latest game about climate change. Another designer, Michelle Browne, talks about her World of Work collaborative game that “will offer the space to think strategically about the future.” The programme also interviews black designers, making games that they want to play and other games focusing on political choices.

Commentary

The radio programme is another example that the world of gaming has changed as it becomes ever more popular. The hobby was niche; a geeky thing of corduroy trouser-wearing bearded types. Even ten years ago when I was creating my online dating profile I hesitated about – and finally didn’t – list gaming as one of my hobbies!

I know also that CLWG recently had a debate on the role of females in games, and I have also seen articles elsewhere on the Derby House Protocols relating to inclusivity in wargaming.  And welcome these new challenges – both as an amateur game designer and as a teacher who has lucked out upon teaching computer games in a multi-ethnic London College.

It’s worse than that Jim, it’s poor design

However….

I actually shouted out – in disbelief – during this radio broadcast when I heard one of these new game designs still had “roll a dice and then move” as a mechanism. Really! Has game design come this far? Has that designer really been playing modern games? Perhaps the content of the game is more important than design? One of the designers featured in this broadcast bills themselves as an “an artist and curator“. And now they want to be a game designer. I shudder at the prospect.

I support the challenge of designing games for a broader range of people. I do so because I think games are a great thing – great as a social activity, as an intellectual exercise, like a puzzle and because sometimes you can learn from games. But what I learn from games comes from interacting with the players. I learn about social skills: communication, collaboration, cooperation, compromise etc. But the content takes a back seat. And I say this as someone who attempted to create a realistic simulation of medieval farming practice, as a game. Content in a game should take a back seat to playability.

I fear that some of these modern games come at the cost of playability.

I bought a new game because it was billed as “The Mental Wellness Card Game“. The Book of Beasties was launched at a gaming convention, it had all the right things: their “ambassador” was a minor celeb from children’s TV, a great presentation and a designer talking about his troubled mental health experiences. I bought it. I thought I could use this game in class to help teach “serious gaming” to my students. I even hoped it might help with mental well being. And then I played it; well actually, I failed to play it. I tried it with several different groups of players and we all failed to play it. It’s not a game. It’s an experience mediated through cards with a facilitator who gets the participants to share on theme of mental well being. Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a skilled practitioner this device does work, just not as an out of the box game.

Gamification and using games in classrooms

I am also not a fan of gamification, a subject touched on in the radio broadcast.

I say this as someone who has tried to use games in class.

And my simple take away is this. When the students are learning how to play a game they are not learning about the content embedded in the game; they are learning how to play the game. Learning a game occupies most of your cognitive faculties. Only after playing the game can you start to engage with the content. Then you can remind students of incidents from the game. Then you can look up some facts from the game’s content etc. But DO NOT expect the game to teach for you.

Final Word

Sorry, bit of a rant there. And I didn’t even start to ride my other rant-horses about why discovery learning is not for young students and game design should not be hijacked by creative types in education! Hint games are not just another type of art!

I’ll go and lie down now.

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2 Comments
  1. Peter Merritt

    Very interesting, Nick – and almost cost me a monitor (not you, some of the content)… As for ‘anyone can get in on design’, well,
    # The Short Stirling 4-engined bomber was envisaged as a very high-flying a/c – but then redesigned by the Treasury with shorter wings (thus max ceiling now a suicidal 15,000ft), so it could fit existing hangars!
    # Most WW2-era British tanks did not involve the Army in the early design stages; and even the USA’s fleet of light tanks was determined by the width of a train low-loader; tactics etc were secondary.

    Yes, anyone *can* design………..

    Even in my ‘day job’ of computer systems design, the development process is part science, part philosopy – and part alchemy! Finding a good blend of those who excel with such traits is what is so rare. I suspect that, in many ‘professions’ (other than those where failure is actually criminal), the fact that anyone not in a coma can – indeed, has the right to – have a go at causing a ball to move, paint a picture, design an office block etc, does not necessarily mean that the result is any good – in terms of widespread appeal for an appreciative, target audience. Sure, I could knock-up a yodelling and drinking game which simulates – using squeezy mops – the struggle for universal suffrage, the Battle of Passchendale and/or alien invasions. And I’m sure a few college students would download it! But the rest of the gaming world would rightly eschew such a monstrosity…

    OK, last thoughts:
    # I will accept – nay welcome – comments on *playability* from any person who is kind/mad enough to play one of my games. Any ‘history’ therein is always my limited take on events.
    # I tend to give more weight to the opinions of other designers when discussing the overall design/concept side – but will still listen to others (as with the many ‘fast access’games which I’ve done over the years aimed at passing Open Day audiences).

    Thanks Nick; very – intriguing.

    • Nick Luft

      My error in game design is to approach games from the Content first and the Game second.

      This constantly trips up my designs.

      Playability and engagement should be the priority, if you want others to play and get something from your game. If they engage in the Content / Theme / History / Story during or after the game, then great. But don’t expect the content to win on its own. If you do, then call it a history seminar mediated through the means of cards and map!

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