I've been meaning to engage you in a discussion on your views on games for a while now, since at least the time you posted the interesting proposal to have videogames share their rules with the players (perfectly possible and perfectly sensible, by the way). In this case, I began to write a reply in your comments but it radically became an uncontrollable ramble, so I have moved it here. Perhaps I can interest you in a brief exchange of perspectives?
In your piece, Watching vs Performing vs Mastering, you say there are two distinct aspects to boardgaming:
These are: luck and strategy. Passive and active entertainment. Watching and performing.
I'm going to raise some points of dispute here, and it comes from two sources. Firstly, your reducing on the one hand alea (games of chance) to passive or watching, which in my estimation undersells this form of play radically; and on the other hand, the characterisation of active entertainment/performing as being strategic - which reads to me as picking out one particular activity over others.
Ultimately, we're going to accord in your conclusion of different players enjoying different things, so really this is just my nitpicking of minutiae in the hope that something I offer is interesting!
1. Are games of chance passive?
You want to make the claim here that a game of pure chance (Caillois' alea) is passive, and can be compared to watching a movie. I believe you are phenomenologically mistaken here. I can well believe that for you this claim is true, but this does not describe this kind of play universally for other people. The participant in a game of chance is psychologically invested in a play-activity which for them has agency (albeit, in an apparently illusory fashion). The throw of the dice is their action. It does not involve any calculation or decision (i.e. it does not involve deploying the orbito-frontal cortex), but it is still worlds apart from the pure mimicry of theatre, film and book storytelling, in which the participant has no action or agency at all.
You can see this clearly in role-playing games. The player recalling a good session does not recount the actions of their character as if they were recounting a story they read, they recount the actions of themselves in the fictional world – and the die rolling is as much a part of this experience of ownership over the outcome as the decision making. For many players, it is more important. This is not a form of passive entertainment at all – one is taking the action and discovering the unknown outcome for oneself. Similarly, if you think the player of a lottery scratchcard is enjoying passive entertainment I encourage you to look more closely!
The same, I will claim, is true of the role of chance in boardgames and card games. Yes, I'll grant you, that there is a distinction to be made here between the enjoyment of the ebb and flow of chance and deliberative play, but I cannot endorse “passive” as characteristic of the former. To describe the compulsive gambler as addicted to a passive entertainment is a very strange claim indeed!
2. Is all active entertainment strategic?
I also find troubling your suggestion that the “active” aspect of boardgames can be understood as expressly strategic. I'll try and put aside the fact that I use strategic as one of many in a suite of terms for player skills, and focus on how you deploy the word: as a description of the act of decision making (or calculation) within a game i.e. the action of the orbito-frontal cortex, which I term the decision centre in virtue of its key cognitive function.
When you're called upon to think or make a decision, you are enjoying active entertainment. There are different levels of active entertainment, from the simple (trivia: do I know it or not?) to the complex (how do I get my battalion to that base?). Regardless of complexity, you can rank better or worse players, and most of the time you can work to improve yourself.
So you distinguish here between (say) trivia and the decisions of a strategy game. But wait one moment – should you really be conflating trivia with decision-oriented play? Trivia is a form of memory play, like the game Memory and its ilk, although one based on one's long-term aggregation of information rather than short or mid-term memory. You call this simple – and in terms of decisions it surely is simple, it doesn't involve the decision centre at all except, perhaps, when judging between competing memory fragments. But I would suggest that it shouldn't be considered under the framework of decisions at all. (I'll certainly bet the hypothalamus is the main activated brain region in trivia games, not the orbito-frontal cortex).
Neither is the only aspect of boardgame play which is essentially decisionless, or at least, for which decisions play a lesser role. PitchCar is based on a physical skill, for instance, although one might object in this case that there is a decision element in that one can attempt clever moves on the track. But take Jenga or even KerPlunk – yes, there may be a decision (which block or stick do I remove?) but it's a miserly take on all these games to suggest that this is what the play is about for the players. It in effect ignores the physical dexterity element of these games to characterise their play as being “strategic”.
And so too with Pictionary or Oddles of Doodles, and here the required skill has changed in character quite considerably, as the ability generating play here is that of communicating with the other player(s) via pictures rather than words. This requires more than just decision making skills, it requires an ability to conceptualize the other player's mental framework sufficiently in order to determine the best way to get an idea across to them. Decisions are involved in this, certainly, but characterizing those decisions as “strategic” seems to miss what is interesting about them.
I write these challenges to your piece in the full knowledge that your ideas were not meant as a grand theory, but rather an exposition inspired by your thoughts on various matters relating to boardgames. I hope you will take this exploration in the spirit it was intended, as a stepping point to perhaps expand both your and my own future thinking in this regard.
We are in agreement that there are different forces at work in play, which result in players enjoying different activities. Also, I agree with you (in respect of the latter half of your piece) that it is unfair to cRPGs to suggest there is not a skill element to be mastered. Indeed, part of the appeal of the very form for its staunchest adherents seems to lie in the player's systematic tackling of the vast array of questions relating to the efficient options for advancement. That it is possible to substitute mere quantity of time for this kind of problem-solving in order to progress is one of the great strengths of this form of game. Would that other games had this safety net in place to help the “amateur” or new player from getting stuck!
You are and remain my favourite commentator on the subject of boardgames, and I continue to enjoy your blog for the unique perspective it brings to bear on the subject.
Only a Game