The Appeal of Imaginary Geographies

Let me write about an aspect of one series of games, because it might say something about games at large. Let me say it quickly, because it might preserve some vitality in these words. And because I have other work to do today.

Take a look at the city above. The section where the city walls narrow. The straight, Roman road between them, with just a single, short fork from it. The incomplete district towards the top of the picture. The towers watching over murky, recessed alleyways next to the city walls.

Carcassone: The City, like other members of the Carcassonne family, has players participating in the creation of an imaginary environment (tied loosely, if at all, to the actual town of Carcassonne). Here, as the title implies, the environment in question is a single city. In the original Carcassonne, it is a region, dotted with cities, and overrun with roads. Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers substitutes forests and rivers for settlements and highways. And so on. All are geographical.

Of course, what may be created in each game is limited by rules regarding the placement of tiles and other pieces (or, at least, it should be, if players are playing the game as intended). Also, it is clear that a player’s intention to score well should predominantly, although perhaps not exclusively, guide where he or she places tiles.

However, it is in part because of these constraints – rather than in spite of them – that Carcassonne is stimulating to view in terms of aesthetic creation. A player can do very little to either direct or predict what landscape any given game will produce. Yet all are guaranteed to have a substantial product and (barring mathematical flukes) the visible result will be unique. To play Carcassonne is to participate in the creation an ephemeral imaginary geography (though, interestingly, it is immediately created as a map – rather than being called into being as a place, and then mapped subsequently). Even within a game, there is the tease of what could have been: the moments whereby the chance to close a city are resisted, or, say, when two roads could have been linked, but were not.

Thus, each entry in the series, even The Kids of Carcassonne, contains a teasing nod to the contingency of being and non-being. The prod is subtle: few will ever be shaken into conscious thought about it, but it’s there.

Through the Desert

Through the Desert (Photo by Jose San Miguel)

And it’s not unique to Carcassonne, nor to tile-laying games. Route and network building games also generate patterns which the players, either singly or collectively, cannot determine – and offer countless paths which will remain untaken. There’s doubtless something related, some similar interface of the possible and the actual, in other forms of game, but when the product ceases to be meaningfully geographical, the aesthetic dimension of the imaginative work involved must be considered at least somewhat differently. I’ll set those other cases aside here, and return to the example of Carcassonne.

In the odd game of Carcassonne, the final result might be recorded with a photograph, but, naturally, this is seldom the case. And the photograph does not record any of those possibilities a player considered but rejected. So, typically, we have before us a contingent geography soon to be cast aside forever, and within us we have layers of quickly fading mental images of geographies that either were not, or will not be realized.

In short, then, the game pulls together two orders of imaginative processes.

Firstly, there is that which responds to an existent stimulus – (in part) that which views wood and cardboard as a city. Secondly, there’s a creative register. A board game, however attractive it might be to look at, is not a static artwork – it can and must evolve to function as a game. Once it cannot evolve any more, the game is over. One therefore experiences aspects of being the artist and the audience at once – though each role is shared with the other players: the former, especially, is a process which deeply entwines the players.

I have days where I feel I can only write the most clunky of sentences. Yet there are games I can play where I can participate in creating something multi-faceted, something richly imaginative (though, of course, if I play while in an iffy mental condition, the chances of me winning may well be low).

When it is argued that there is game in everything, I worry that people forget that there is game in a game. And, therefore, the game has a depth of game to it that this comparison can only deny (there is always one more layer of game in a game, as the first layer of a game is game, whereas the first layer of something else is not).

This can make the task of describing the imaginative and aesthetic aspects of a game troubling, as the idea of the game is weakened by these comparisons. If I can have sketched even a  fraction of the depth of one of our most nuanced games, I’m pleased. A game is a deeper thing than language would ordinarily allow it to be, and its geographies richer.

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