At what point is it that you start to enjoy playing a game? Depending on my energy levels, and general mood, for me it’s often from the moment I take the box from the shelf. The resistance the box lid shows to being lifted, followed by its sudden lightness when there’s enough room for air to get in – there’s something pleasurable to that (though I see no appeal at all in watching videos of someone else doing the same, but that’s another matter).
I suppose, in large part it’s enjoyable as a first sign of hour the next hour or two will be spent and the pleasure there should be in it. In a similar way, as a child I used to enjoy hearing the clank of the central heating because it meant the evening was about to get a whole lot more cosy. Not that I’m a drooling dog the second I open any cardboard box, though – I’m sure if I were opening a box full of my old bank statements, I’d not get quite the same pleasure.
Then, of course, I guess there are little joys even before this. Before a game is ready to be played. For one thing, there’s the process of punching out chits, and sorting out pieces that a newly-bought game offers.
To some extent, I feel uncomfortable with myself to admit all of this. Part of me wants to deny the pleasure of the comfortable and routine as acceptance of mediocrity (part of me also wants to deny the pleasure in sorting out the components of a new game because it’s somewhat expensive to do so too regularly, but again, that’s another issue). Could I not be feeling a greater fire in my soul by doing something new?
Maybe. Wiser people than me see the routine as fundamentally unemotional.
Not too long ago, I came across an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, entitled ‘Habits in Everyday Life: Thoughts, Emotions and Action.’ (From 2006, should you be interested.) Its authors Wendy Wood, Jeffrey M. Quinn and Deborah A. Kashy suggest that ‘several theoretical perspectives provide a basis for anticipating that habitual behaviors are associated with less intense emotions than nonhabitual behaviors.’
In particular, they highlight what is known as the cybernetic model of self-regulation, advanced by Charles S. Carver and Michael F. Scheier, whereby ’emotions emerge from discrepancies between one’s behavior or related outcomes and one’s goals and self-standards.’ In other words, a familiar action which produces a predicted outcome should not give cause for emotion. Bad news, it seems, for a lot of board games. I pay wood and bricks, I know I’m getting a road. I get ten victory points, I know I’ve won.
However, Wood, Quinn and Kashy also make the point that ‘one implication of the limited emotional responses associated with habitual behavior is that when people do experience emotions during habit performance, these emotions are likely to be linked to their thoughts rather than to their behavior.’ Sounds better for games – those that make you think, anyway. However often you’ve played Settlers of Catan, there’s probably some thought to be done before shelling out for a road. Could the wood or bricks be valuable to anyone in trade? Maybe I should save up for a new settlement?
But, still, I think drawing on this kind of psychological theory misses a great deal in this case. It’s not that the routine actions in Catan are nothing, and the thought – from an emotional perspective – is everything. I enjoy the game’s basic processes. I enjoy collecting resource cards. I even enjoy going through the show of opening trade negotiations, even when I know I’m in a position where nobody would want to make a deal with me. The habit is not irrelevant to the emotion.
With respect to board and card games, I think it’s of fundamental importance to their appeal that, while there’s thinking to be done, it occurs in an environment where predictable, habitual actions tend to predominate, allowing for a sense of comfort even during the most challenging moments. The strain and the comfort interface strangely – almost opposite orders of emotional experience occurring simultaneously sometimes – but maybe that’s part of the hook board games have; in terms of the experience of playing them they’re a very particular pursuit.
And, even where a game is praised for being different every time, I think the reassurance of familiarity is seldom far away.
Let’s take Dominion as an example. While it might offer entirely different kingdom cards from one occasion to the next, it essentially asks players to create a machine capable of the same function each time: a player’s deck, if constructed well, should be consistently capable of generating eight coins per turn, in order to make the purchase of Province cards possible (though this is different if playing with the more expensive, more valuable Colonies from the Prosperity expansion).
Of course, I appreciate that there are combinations of kingdom card which make collecting duchies, and even estates, prudent. But I’d say either is fairly rare (though the cases where collecting either is desirable are exciting for being unusual).
However, even in these unusual cases, I would nevertheless say the satisfaction in Dominion is in bringing order to chaos – making the unusual routine. The game can be to said to be about taking a bewildering, unfamiliar combination of cards and making them perform a familiar task (collecting victory points, probably through accruing Provinces). In that much, it pulls together the challenging and the comfortable elements of playing board and card game, which sit apart in many cases. In Dominion the mental challenge does not emerge in spite of a comfortable, routine context – the challenge precisely is to restore that comfort. In a sense, it’s tidying away – another of board gaming’s peculiar comforts – made into a game.