Friday, February 17, 2006

Big Head of Pointless Steam*

Gaming is another form of literacy, and can be acquired.

I was perusing the Boardgamegeek forums and I ran across that statement. With a little thought I could milk that statement for an entire series of blogs. I will not inflict that upon you, dear reader. Instead I will make a couple points and happily resume putting the stickers on my new copy of Commands and Colors. (For those of you keeping score I'm up to the cavalry units.)

Craniac made the above comment during a discussion about the Golden Age of Boardgaming.

I am a bona fide boardgame snob. When I see people playing Monopoly, Life, Sorry, etc. I cringe. I must feel the same way a wine snob feels when his date orders the house wine at a mediocre restaurant, the same way a beer snob feels when his coworker brings a half rack of Milwaukee's Beast to the company party, the same way an English professor feels when he sees his students reading Harry Potter or Danielle Steel.

I know I am not alone. There are many other boardgame snobs. Just because we are snobs are we clued into a higher form of literacy? It certainly is a grandiose thought. It could be wishful thinking.

Is it true? Is boardgaming another form of literacy? If it is true does that mean some games constitute literature and some pulp fiction?

Let us work backward. The second question is undoubtedly true. Monopoly, Sorry, Pictionary, Scene It, etc. are mindless diversions that have mass market appeal much in the tradition of romance novels or serial thrillers. They are the gaming equivalent of pulp fiction. They provoke little or no thought. They have no socially redeeming qualities. They sell very well.

If you are reading this blog you know that there are richly layered, multi-faceted, strategically challenging boardgames. There may be a breakout hit or two, but in general the public will never embrace our games. To much of the public Car Wars, Apples to Apples and Munchkin are insider games.

I'm looking at the top 50 games on BGG. How many of these games would be recognized by more than 5% of the general public? Go? Acquire at #59?

Those two are my best guesses, and only because those two games are old enough to have some name recognition even if the person in question hasn't played the game, not unlike having heard of, but never having seen "Gone with the Wind" and "The Jazz Singer".

The games in the BGG top 50 may not be recognized by the public in general, and may have some strategic depth, but does that mean that they have some socially redeeming value as would be implied by comparing them to literature?

A good game is certainly thought provoking and has characteristics that only reveal themselves with multiple plays, just as literature is thought provoking and has meaning that only reveals itself with study. Stratego and Boggle can be thought provoking, as is The DaVinci Code which is decidedly not literature. Stratego, Boggle and The DaVinci Code are only thought provoking in one aspect each. Stratego can be a challenging memory game. Boggle is a variable puzzle, it is challenging to find the most solutions in a short period of time. The DaVinci code is thought provoking in that it causes the reader to seriously wonder if there is a nugget of truth in what is otherwise a completely over the top premise. While it is true that the more you play Stratego and Boggle the better you get, neither game has numerous subtle strategies that are only apparent to a Stratego or Boggle master with 400+ games under his belt.

Puerto Rico on the other hand does have strategies that are only apparent to a master, or "Puerto Rico Jedi" to borrow a phrase.

But so does checkers.

I don't know. I have many more thoughts on the subject, most of which lead me to think boardgames are not another form of literacy. I won't inflict them upon you. If I have some spare time to ponder such things I might delve deeper into such matters at a later date.


* Title lifted from this guy via Boggled Thoughts


Anonymous said...

Not picking on Koldfoot specifically, but why do people not consider popular fiction to be literature? Where is it written that true literature must be hard to read and/or over fifty years old?
I like the analogies to wine/beer and literature with games though.

Ava Jarvis said...

Deary, deary, deary me.

What's literature and what ain't is a long and debated topic even just in the realm of books, where you can either be incredibly conservative (scorning, say, books you believe to have been written as nothing but "romances"---and that would include Pride and Prejudice and Tale of Genji) to very liberal (incorporating more recent writings by greats such Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, even Alan Moore).

And then... there is the discussion as to whether certain media should be completely and entirely banned from ever being considered works of art---like movies, comics, basically anything with a visual element. One award, after a comic book won it (Sandman by Neil Gaiman in particular) decided to ban all comic books from ever winning that award.

Because they couldn't POSSIBLY be literature.

It is rather like watching religous arguments, or heated flamewars about (Unix) editors.

What is and isn't literature is not a settled question anywhere. It's like whether something is art or not---you would think movies and comic books would qualify, but not to some.

If an author explores themes and character motives as deeply as Faulkner ever did---but he did it as fantasy, and with humor---why is he not also literature?

Basically, I think the whole classification of literature just stinks with prejudice.

Coldfoot said...

Every generation deems their popular writers to be bards. Not only will few of those popular writers be remembered 50 years hence, but the greatest writers of the generation are often not discovered until after their death. Dickinson and Melville spring to mind.

ekted said...

Maybe some people can "acquire a taste" for the finer games, but that wasn't the case with me. I had all but stopped playing games until I found BGG. Then suddenly I stumbled onto medium-heavy euros and they just clicked. They filled the void that I had all along, like taking a huge pull on a bottle of Dom Perignon 1990 and going AHHHHHHHH, then wiping my mouth with my sleeve.

Melissa said...

Coldfoot, on a very basic level I think that there is definitely something that could be called 'game literacy' - which is simply an understanding of the mechanics of a game. I see it particularly playing with kids, but also with some adults, where they really seem to be unfamiliar with the basic and fundamental building blocks of gameplay - taking turns, knowing that you don't count the space you're on if you're moving forward 5 spaces - generally, understanding the way that a game works. (And if you think game literacy is a ludicrous term for this type of concept, how about metagame awareness - to borrow a term (metalinguistic awareness) from another field). There are some people who understand how games are played, and there are others who don't, or who need a lot of help. I'd back my Biggie to understand a ruleset ahead of a lot of adults & teenagers I know - she won't beat a group of gamers, but she'll understand the rules and mechanics ahead of a lot of people.

That's not to say that one type of gamer/person is more intelligent/valuable to society than another, just that there are certain basic foundation blocks of gaming (gameracy?) that are required before one can play games or progress to anything beyond the games already being played.

There probably are some further foundation stones in understanding and playing EuroGames; we can quibble about terminology, and take ourselves far too seriously in the process.

Anonymous said...

I am just glad to know that there are other gamer snobs out there. Good post.
And, I pose the argument that what is or isn't literature, or a literature-grade game, is based wholly on perspective.
So, we on this site can decide that Struggle of Empires is literature-grade, and it will be so.

Ava Jarvis said...

Every generation deems their popular writers to be bards. Not only will few of those popular writers be remembered 50 years hence, but the greatest writers of the generation are often not discovered until after their death. Dickinson and Melville spring to mind.

Asimov is still running strong, and I rather suspect Gaiman will be remembered for a long time. We have entered the information age, and I think nowadays people who are going to be discovered are probably going to be discovered relatively quickly (and before they're dead, unless they never publish anything).

I think without the 'net, Gaiman probably would have ended up on the road to post-humous glory. American Gods pretty much qualifies straight up as a classic just from looking at the style, art, set-up, and interplay of themes. And I don't say this just because I like Gaiman or the book.

Tolkien was that way, too. And many lit critics turn their nose up at the idea of Tolkien being a classic---even though Lord of the Rings is so strong and well-remembered by the general population. Only got stronger with the movies, and people will remember it and read it much more than they will ever do for Melville.

Altogether, we are all a lot more connected in the 20th century and definitely the 21st century, than we were in the 18th or 19th.

(And yes, I do like Moby Dick, although the chapter rather early on about the biological nature of whales is, in the eyes of modern times, almost completely inaccurate. It is not a book I would read again, though. On the other hand, certain Shakespearean plays, which usually only come to life for most people on the stage, I simply like to read....)

Anonymous said...

The literacy-literature connection is not one I expect the original author of the claim in question intended. "Literacy", as some of the other comments suggest, is used in a broad sense to mean something like the ability to understand what's going on in a particular domain. In the written word, being really literate means not only having the ability to identify words, but also being able to understand the relationships between the parts in a way that makes the writing intelligible.

This way of using "literacy" is easy to extrapolate to other systems, perhaps most famously modern computing. Most of us can easily understand the phrase "computer literate" without having it explained. That's what I'd try to keep in mind when understanding the idea of gaming literacy, rather than literacy in the written word. James Paul Gee has a book out, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy which uses the word in this way.

So the author's original claim, as I understand it, really boils down to the claim that there is a rich conceptual vocabulary to gaming, and that knowing how to recognize and use those concepts is a complex skill whose acquisition makes it much easier to think about and act with purpose in the world of games.

Anonymous said...

Melissa and rinelk have the right idea with their definitions of game literacy. I read that thread on BGG and believe the poster was talking about the ability of people to learn how to play games.

Learning how to play games is a skill that many people learn at childhood, then forget. You have to use gateway games with simple rules (TransAmerica, Bohnanza, etc.) to reteach them how to play -- and even then some of them have a tough time learning.

Someone else mentioned computer literacy as a parallel; another possibility is comic literacy. This doesn't mean debating whether Sandman will be read in high schools in the 22nd century; this means knowing how to read a comic. Folks who don't read newspaper comics -- and even some who do -- have a real tough time reading comic books because they don't understand the process. Left to right and top to bottom doesn't always work, especially in Chris Ware comics, and they get very frustrated.

The same can be said for learning the rules to a game. My job as a game evangelist is to find the tools needed to reach this people and convert them.