Tuesday, January 03, 2006

You mean, like Merlot?

I've been running a game group for close to ten years. A lot of you, and you know who you are, have been spreading the love and joy about "better boardgaming" to the masses for this long, or longer in some cases. The result of this is that we who like these games are now the snobs of the game world.

The word "game" as currently used in the English language means "PC or video game". If you ask someone where a "game store" is, you will be directed to a store with racks of Sony playstation cartridges. If you tell someone that you play games or design games, they assume you mean computer games. A mass media list of the "top thirty games" for last year meant the top thirty video or PC games. "Gaming" is a hot term because is means hordes of pimply teenagers with disposable cash, tech grrls, and business suits extolling marketing segments, all collecting around virtual iconography and black boxes of witchcraft and wires.

"Board game" isn't doing any better. "You mean, like Monopoly?" is not just a derisive catchphrase with which we identify the teeming hordes of smirking, clueless citizens; it is a real question (much like, "How do I find the 'e' so I can click on 'the Internet'?" in another field).

When these citizens ask me about my game prototype, the question they ask is, "What is it about?" Now to me, my first question about a game is, "What is the game like?" Because, frankly, what it is about doesn't interest me as much as how the game plays. This is not to say that theme is totally unnecessary. But first things first. This is not the case with the rest of the world. If you say, "The game is about the Lord of the Rings", they will say, "Really? It sounds like fun." It does? Just because it is "about" the Lord of the Rings?

Yes, that is what it is all about. To me, 150 games of Sorry with different themes is 150 games of Sorry. It plays the same. It's still dumb. Not so to the rest of the world. These citizens can actually rank, in order, which games of Sorry they like based on the theme of the game. "I love Lord of the Rings Sorry. I would never play Powerpuff Girls Sorry." and so on.

In researching my Parlor Game post, I noticed that there were dozens of games that had essentially the same mechanic but had different themes. For instance, a game of additive remembrance, such as "The Minister's Cat" is a different game from "I went on a Picnic". The same is true for a variety of Simon Says games. The same game. Different theme. Yet I'm sure that you could have found hundreds of people who would tell you that they loved one of them and hated the other.

This post from Creating Passionate Users tells us why. In summary: when you learn about a niche culture, you perceive the objects within that culture differently. The movie Sideways demonstrated this within the wine culture; the main character can't stand a type of wine that most people would find pleasant and enjoyable. The article goes on to say that to sell these types of objects, you need to educate the consumer.

There is always a trade-off. When you know nothing about art, you might like 90% of all art. When you know a lot about art, you may like 20% of all art. Net loss: the enjoyment for 70% of all art. Net gain: a deeper enjoyment of the 20% you now like. And, a realization that the 20% you like is still so big a field that you won't exhaust it during your life. So who has time for that other 80%, anyway? It also means that you now have to be passionate about finding that 20% you enjoy, because it isn't going to be available at Walmarts.

If you are a passionate gamer, you should be able to understand that people who are not passionate about gaming have no more clue as to why you would like a deep game than you have a clue why someone would like ... just pick anything about which someone else is passionate but in which you're not interested.

As long as BGG remains a gamer's site, the best games for passionate gamers will always be on the top of BGG: games with fine tuned mechanics, beautiful components, complex game systems; these games are generally ugly and not fun for average citizens. The games don't associate with any of their favorite media stars, they have complicated rules, they take a long time to play, they are hard to play. The top games on Amazon and so forth are always going to be Lord of the Rings Monopoly, Bratz Sorry, and Flintstones Chutes and Ladders.

Fine gaming is a learned taste. We are the spokesmen and women for this game experience. Accept this. Do it in style.



huzonfirst said...

Excellent and incisive article, Yehuda. You've succinctly summarized what many a gamer faces in and outside their hobby. In any field, there's always a fine line between embracing your passion for it (based on your specialized knowledge) and not appearing snobbish to those outside the field. Kipling said it best in "If":

"If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue; Or walk with Kings, nor lose the common touch".

We should all resolve for 2006 to maintain our love of our hobby, while still not looking down on those who don't understand it (which can only make them more hostile to gaming).

taxovich said...

I stopped reading after the comment about pc/video gamers being pimply teenagers. Not only is it incorrect (see http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2004-05-12-gamer-demographics_x.htm ), but if any group of "gamers" fits the pimply or teenager (or both) criteria, it is the CCG crowd. Heck, BGGers frequently refer to the age, complectedness, and smell of typical Magic players as being elemental in their decision to kick the habit.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

taxovich: True enough (about pc/video gamers). I cry poetic license.


taxovich said...

LOL. and i don't lol while reading web chatter often. i actually did read your post, and i agree, mostly, with your argument about "gamers'" games being complex, tuned, pieces of art. i do, however, think that theme plays a very important part in many games (in nearly all of my favorites, at least). i think that form should always follow function in a game, but if the form matches the function, the game will be much more enjoyable. case in point: ra vs. razzia! i love both games, but if it were up to me, razzia! would be the one with the thick tiles, playing board, big box, and some kind of pseudo-disaster element (maybe a strike on a specific business, or a robbery, by a rival family). i think razzia's mafia theme makes the bidding and set collecting mechanics more intuitive.

as for the niche factor, i have had the good fortune (misfortune?) of getting into a gaming group where everyone has a large collection, so my purchases have been largely big imports which forced me to look outside the local gamestores (and, in a few cases, outside the country). there is a good reason for the small print runs of companies like splotter, warfrog, and r&d games: the games are too large and complex to appeal to more than a few thousand dedicated gamers. i recently acquired a couple of splotter games and, although they are masterpieces of elegant mechanics and beautiful artwork, they are too complex and involved to see frequent play even with a group of well-versed gamers.

i guess what i'm saying is, i agree with you that there is a certain "snobbishness" to boardgaming, but it is just like any other hobby. indie music fans generally view mainstream music with disdain, believing such mass-produced "art" to be too uniform, meaningless, or consumer-friendly to be worth the silicon it is printed on. i think any gamer would agree that monopoly is worth spending a minute playing, whether the quik-e-mart is among the properties or not. however, as with independent music, designer boardgames survive because they demand and reward the time/financial investment required. there is no mass advertising or radioplay to promote the games, they are promoted by gamers (look at the buzz, and subsequent sell-out of the first run, of caylus).

i'm rambling, so i'm going to quit and go to bed.

gamesgrandpa said...

Very insightful. Good food for thought. I like your comparisons. Makes sense. I guess I liked it.... :)

Thanks for a good blog, again.

Unknown said...

You're right, it was interesting. :)