What does it mean for a curious mind to be more interested in staring at a spread of wood and cardboard on the dining table than in watching what’s going on outside the window? Is a deep interest in playing board games a way of resisting engagement with the world?
Certainly, the fact that there are very few board and card games which directly engage with current social and political issues might suggest this much. But diverse people play games. Many must be interested in current affairs, yet there are not games which reflect this.
When the situation in present-day Greece is so dramatic, for instance, why do no games address this? If you are a designer, why not set a game there, rather than producing yet another game about Ancient Greece?
I suppose different designers have different reasons for not using contemporary themes. Certainly, a look at a pair of games which do address recent situations can show there are problems when games address current issues.
Both Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?, and Andrew Sherrin and Andrew Tompkins’ War on Terror ask questions of the ideological struggle which characterized the first decade of the century. The former is rigidly po-faced and attempts to tie itself to real events: the first sentence of its rulebook states that it is a ‘card-driven board game simulating at the strategic level the ongoing bid by Islamic extremists to impose their brand of religious rule on the Muslim world.’
However, this attempt at authority through apparent veracity only heightens the extent to which the game’s inevitable simplifications come across as crass pastiches of its subject matter: for instance, the fact that Islamist governance in a country is always functionally equivalent to ‘very poor’ betrays a game unable, or unwilling, to deal in nuance or ambiguity.
But then, it can be conceded that Labyrinth already has a densely written 16 page rulebook in smallish font. Though details are absolutely critical in speaking well on a complicated subject, what could Labyrinth do but squash its details?
War on Terror shows one alternative. Not only does it address the conflict entirely less seriously (the terrorist player must sweat through the game in a balaclava with ‘EVIL’ written on the forehead), it also distances its gameworld from reality (though its cartoony map is ostensibly of our own world, oil can be discovered anywhere, and terrorists can originate from anywhere). Through its humour, War on Terror speaks more effectively than Labyrinth. Its pastiche is of the unhelpful, and downright detrimental, simplifications made by the media (and other public figures) about the war in Iraq and the wider struggle of which it was part, rather than of the conflict in itself. The humour might wear thin with repeated plays (or even by the end of single play), but a wit which outstays its welcome is certainly better in many respects than a charming voice which misinforms.
Designers may well feel reticent to directly address current issues in their games because they do not wish to repeat the failings of Labyrinth, in fudging an issue they wish to clarify. There is, of course, little chance that a game about, say, Greek finance might offend its players sensibilities in the way a game about terrorism could, but it would still have spurious value if its representation of complicated situation were too basic.
However, the example of War on Terror shows that a game can usefully address itself to the world without attempting to simulate it directly. Applying this to my imagined game about present day Greece, it would be possible to follow War on Terror‘s lead, and allow the epicentre of a financial crisis to be in a random or semi-random location. Whether the game dealt with world leaders trying to resolve the crisis (or to limit its impact on their country) or with businessmen and businesswomen trying to work through the crisis, admitting the game was removed from reality would prevent mechanically necessary deviations from fact from undermining its larger thrust – recreating thought-processes and interactions that come about in times of global uncertainty.
Another concern might be that a game which addresses an of-the-moment issue risks having a short shelf-life. I’m not sure how true this might be. Though variables are too numerous, and data not freely available, I would be interested to know whether a game like Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthew’s Campaign Manager 2008, about the US presidential election of that year, has struggled in longer term sales (and I’d also like to know whether its sales benefited in the short term from its connection with then very recent events).
I, for one, hope that specificity didn’t hurt sales in this case, and that it doesn’t in general. While Campaign Manager 2008 uses events from the US presidential election, it is really about electioneering and politicking in general – after all, the players are not (shock) really running for office, just recreating, in a limited way, certain aspects of doing so. I might learn something about the particular election of that year through playing (in that there is factual information on many cards), but more likely my real interest is in the broader processes the game abstracts.
And, herein is the biggest point. I think for some people addressing the world in terms of facts makes the most sense. For some, tackling the world in terms of processes makes more sense than dealing with it in terms of facts. Having data is one thing; doing something with them another.
For those process-oriented people, a game with a current theme might feel, in one sense or another, too rooted in facts. But, by failing to utilize the world as it is now, there must, inevitably, be processes and interactions which have emerged in our time which game designers are failing to explore. War on Terror shows we needn’t let the facts get in the way when dealing with the contemporary.