In a recent video blog, Scott Nicholson speaks about attending a talk by game designer Frank Lantz, in which Lantz suggests that all games and sports may be conceived of as digital.
I recommend listening to the talk, ‘The Aesthetics of Games,’ whether your interest is in designing games, or simply in playing them. There’s plenty to think about in it, and I don’t intend to cover more than a fraction of it here. A lot of it I do agree with. However, here I’d like to explain why I find the central idea that ‘all games are digital’ misses something, and is of debatable value in appreciating games.
Thinking specifically with reference to board games, it’s clear that often a player’s choices are both finite and known.
In particular, worker placement games appear digital in Lantz’s sense. Going into the final round of a four (or five) player game of Agricola, for instance, the starting player should have about 30 potential action spaces on which to place his or her first family member. Certain occupations and improvements played during the game might have added new action spaces (for instance the Clay Deposit and the Tavern); and, if an action cannot be carried out – say if a player has already grown his or her family to the maximum size – those spaces cannot be taken simply to block others. Still, even with a few variables, the number of available choices at a given time is limited, and visible.
However it feels false to judge the process of playing the game purely in terms of the number of actions available. The options open to a player might be limited but the range of possible reasons for selecting an action is limitless.
A player might chose an action to earn himself or herself victory points, to screw up his or her neighbour’s plans, or to surprise his or her playing partners for its own sake. Or there might be some other entirely less rational reason. Often enough, I’ve been the last player in the last round of a game of Ticket to Ride, with three or four short routes I could claim. If there’s a red route among them, I’ll probably go for that. The combination of nature, nurture and game-playing habit which leads to that choice doesn’t feel like it can be described as something digital.
As an exercise, let’s also think about this: What would normally be an awful decision in a given game, and is there any reason why a player might ever rationally make it? It should say something about the range of reasons available for making a decision which does impact upon the outcome of a game.
Sticking with the last round of a game of Agricola (hopefully this will make sense even if you haven’t played), it’s hard to imagine a situation in which the starting player might take an offer of three wood, when six has accumulated on another space. But I don’t think it’s impossible.
If you are the starting player for the final round, and you’re virtually certain the player to your left cannot win, letting her pick up half a forest’s worth of wood should not be a worry. Let’s in addition say your own goal for the round is to build a big, point-hauling improvement which requires wood – for instance, the Mansion. You only need three wood – perhaps if you leave the six wood to your neighbour, she can fence with it on the second pass, and deny that opportunity to a better placed rival, denying her vital points. Perhaps. Probably less than once in a blue moon might anything of the kind arise.
But still, the game offers the space for this kind of thinking. And I see little digital about it.
Moreover, I’d say this is where the game is. Not in the decision arrived at, but in the thoughts leading to it. Would a group of people who all took the uppermost and leftmost legal action space in a session of Agricola be playing the game, or merely pretending to? In short, these unquantifiable flights of thought seem to be what makes interacting with a game ‘play.’
To be fair, Lantz, in his talk, contends that while ‘paintings are about looking,’ a game ‘is like that for thinking and doing’ – about noticing yourself thinking and acting, and the structure it exists within. But where the outcomes of the thought are often very clearly structured in a game – even for the most disciplined of chess players, the thought itself cannot be digital, and – I feel – is not usefully understood to be so.