THE RULES OF THE GAME
0.5 Sep 23rd
Real-time multi-player games were around long before the Internet. Eric Zimmerman rummages through his personal archive collection of boardgames — from the morally uplifting to the gratuitously garish — and explains how flat planes of four-colour printed cardboard (plus a few other bits and pieces) can provide engaging “immersive experiences” that give pleasure to millions — no modem required.
Boardgames. You've played them. Those long, flat boxes stuffed full with the accoutrements of childhood play: a pair of dice, a deck of cards, a handful of brightly colored plastic pieces, maybe even a spinner or two. And don't forget the centerpiece: the board. There is an endearingly klunky, undeniable appeal to boardgames. But from what? Flashy graphics? Addictive gameplay? Sheer nostalgia? It's time to dust off those long, flat boxes, break out the boards, and find out.
The game inside the game
Every game has two parts: rules and materials. The rules tell you how to play and the materials are the things you play with. Flat and rectangular, the board is the essential component of a boardgame, the physical and metaphorical space in which the game occurs, the foundation and ground for all of the action. Every game is an artificial representation of conflict and the hard edge of the gameboard is the exact delineation of the zone of engagement. When your rook gets captured in chess, what do you do? You take it out of the fray. You take it off the board.
The conflicts modeled in boardgames tend to be economic or military, which is why so many boards take the form of maps — from the global conquests of Risk and Diplomacy to the iconic national economy of The Game of the States. The classic, unadorned grid gameboard represents territory in the abstract. Many of the earliest known games (Chess, Go, the Norse Hnefatafl) are grid-bound military simulations. Stratego takes the grid literally: the contested terrain is painted as a backdrop to the squares of the board.
Sure, games are inherently competitive. But they’re also inherently cooperative: game conflict is productive conflict. The board is the shared space for the stylized discourse of play, where the participants’ experiences overlap and intermingle.
In Candyland, the board is literally the world of the game. By placing your piece at the starting position, you enter its surreal, sugar-coated realm. Compelled by the rules, you draw cards and move your pieces forward in a race to the finish line. But why? Who really cares which plastic token reaches the end first? The other players, of course. Like you, they give meaning to the game by talking the thalk and walking the walk of Candyland. Translation: the first face-stuffing, sugar-hungry kid to the finish line wins big!
Gameboards recline supine on a table — and there is a reason for this. As the common ground for social interaction, the gameboard is a plane of possibility, at right angles to more dominant representational media, such as the perspectival window of renaissance painting, the vertical cinema screen, or the computer monitor.
All these vertically-oriented rectangles traffic in naturalistic visual immersion. What the boardgame offers, by contrast, is immersion into a system — the system of a game. Unlike painting, film, or even a computer game, a boardgame requires constant and dedicated participation from several players to move the experience forward. There is no perceptual illusion, no hidden projector, no computer software operating behind the scenes. At every moment, boardgame denizens inhabit the rules, playing them out, iterating the system to its next step.
At odds with vertical immersion, the flat board plays a strange game with representation. Rather than depictions of pictorial space, game boards are diagrams for interaction — so it’s impossible to consider their visual aesthetics apart from the system of rules that they embody. In Payday, the board appropriates the graphic system of a calendar month. Players trudge through work-week after work-week, accumulating and spending money as they await the glorious payday at month's end. Time and space, work and play, the comic and the pitiful — all are conflated in this ironic homage to the drudgery of a work economy.
Chutes and Ladders is a contemporaryupdate of the pedagogical Christian boardgame Snakes and Ladders, published in 1870 and one of the first boardgames produced in the U.S. Your utterly random progress through the game is assisted and hampered by climbing up ladders and sliding down chutes. Ladders are framed by good deeds (such as rescuing a cat from a tree) and Chutes by bad deeds (such as disastrously dangerous bicycle tricks). As you struggle to reach that final square of redemption, the narrative geometry of the board conflates ethics with mathematics. The moral: follow the rules, roll the die, move your piece, and trust in the Higher Order to mete out your rewards and punishments.
Gameboards are a functional part of a larger game system, their structure and layout an effect of the rules. That's why, when they’re presented as isolated aesthetic objects (such as in these pages), they seem curiously incomplete. The gameboard is the negative space of play, the artifact that remains when players are taken out of the equation. Only when a gameboard is filled with activity is it truly complete.
The Go To the Head of The Class gameboard is a lonely place: empty rows of desks define a space of pedagogical possibility, waiting patiently for the pupils/players to enter. And despite its aggressively wacky graphics, the gameboard for Bonkers is also more empty than full — the wide ochre spaces on either side of the path become crowded with cards, but not until the game is actually played.
Even as structural residuals, boardgames possess an undeniable graphic appeal. Because they have to operate as the ground for a system, they have an intrinsically modular and iconic design. Easy Money’s alternating tricolor stripes, Uncle Wiggly’s brightly numbered squares, and Gambler’s self-contained funky illustrations demarcate clean, understandable spaces that belie their underlying complexity.
Far from the simple grids of the classics, today's boardgames are eccentric and colorful spaces, loaded with the transitory signifiers of pop culture. Typically, boardgames are tied to content from other sources. The Incredible Hulk game hails from a comic book. The G.I. Joe Game and the Barbie Queen Of the Prom game link up with action figures and dolls. The Baretta Game, the Jetsons Game, The WWF (World Wrestling Federation) Wrestling Challenge Game and the NBC Game are all television properties. And in a curious case of game-about-game, the Xaxxon boardgame is derived from (of all things) the Xaxxon arcade videogame.
All these products desperately try to do justice to the visual punch of their parent media, with varying degrees of success. The Hulk and GI Joe boards translate well: both appropriate the force of comic book cover art with centralized character-based compositions, strong contrasting colors, and prominent skewed type. Others, such as the uncomfortably ornate Barbie game and the bleak, ugly disk of WWF stars, are less than perfunctory — merely cheap frames for garishly-branded content.
Graphic successes or not, the most striking thing about all of these pop culture boardgames is that, as games, they stink. Nobody plays them anymore. But despite this fact, emotional attachment remains. From roadside flea markets to specialty pop-culture stores, overpriced boardgames can be found sandwiched between lunch boxes, action figures, and the occasional Colorforms set. An overwhelming postmodern nostalgia rejects the games as games. Swept up in the museology of pop culture, they are valued as kitsch icons rather than as designed interactive entertainment.
The most memorable and evergreen boardgames — the ones that are actually fun to play, such as Mouse Trap, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit — usually define their own content. Others, like Pictionary or Scrabble let players create their own. In the twisted logic of hip nostalgia, there is an inverse relationship between fun and retro-fascination: the "good" games are eclipsed by the bad, the awkward, the mercilessly cheesy.
The future of fun
Increasingly, boardgames are dinosaurs from an era in which "multimedia" meant four-color printing and cute plastic tokens. Boardgames today support comic books, TV, and film, rather than the other way around. They don’t lead pop culture trends; they follow them. In the Information Age, the word ‘game’ signifies something digital: a computer or video game. And as technology increasingly implicates play as the dominant form of activity for the wired civilization, the future of fun becomes a serious question.
Space War (1971) and Pong (1972) were the first two bonafide videogames and, strikingly, both of them require two simultaneous players. 1 But in the decades since they were created, the single-player game has come to dominate digital entertainment design. From the solo-typing of early text-based adventures to the button-thumping of Mario to the lonely shores of Myst, computer, console, and arcade games have been predominantly single-player experiences. A few game genres, such as multiplayer MUDs and arcade fighting games, encouraged interaction — but they were the exceptions and not the rule.
Why the ubiquity of single-player games? In the days before personal computers, game coders were synonymous with game players. The one-t-one interaction between programmer and terminal was hardcoded into the tropes of computer play. There were technical limitations as well: without net connectivity, multi-player games meant several players had to crowd in front of a single computer monitor.
With the skyrocketing rise of the Internet, all that is changing. Once a special treat in a CD-ROM title, a multi-player mode is now a ‘must have’ feature for computer games. Arcade manufactures are experimenting with networked play. And all the new game consoles have a modem jack.
The vertical screen of the single-player game is a narcissistic mirror for the single computer user. But connect that computer to others on a network and what you get is a flat grid: the horizontal connectivity of net play. Sounds a lot like a gameboard, doesn’t it? From the ultra-violent battles of Quake death matches to the witty contests of Acrophobia, games are returning to their multi-player roots as enablers of social interaction. And for designers struggling to invent new ways to play, here’s a well-kept secret: interactive culture predates computers — by centuries. It’s always amusing to see the digital give a nod to the analog, whether or not anyone is really paying attention.
1 see Remote/Involved, by Alex Wilkie and Noortje Marres, pp. xx-xx.
The gameboard is a plane of possibility, at right angles to the perspectival window of renaissance painting, the vertical cinema screen, or the computer monitor.
In the twisted logic of hip nostalgia, there is an inverse relationship between fun and retro-fascination: the "good" games are eclipsed by the bad, the awkward, the mercilessly cheesy.
From roadside flea markets to specialty pop-culture stores, overpriced boardgames can be found sandwiched between lunch boxes, action figures, and the occasional Colorforms set.
Time and space, work and play, the comic and the pitiful — all are conflated in Payday’s ironic homage to the drudgery of a work economy.