Print and Play

Julian is Thinking about Game Design, Oh No

Is there a snappier, better way to refer to games that are not video games? “Physical games” sounds like sports and/or foreplay. Actually, right: sports are also games, but they already have a great word of their own, which is “sports.”

“Pen and paper” and “table top” have nice alliteration but refer to generic tools that don’t always apply across the larger leisure gutter of “things that are not sports or done with electronic screens.” Like, it would be weird if we called all sports “ball and basket” or “hole and goal,” though now I wish that we did do this.

Actually, no I don’t. I once— once— engaged in the annoying dweeb’ry of calling something “sports ball” because I really could not follow what season or league was going on, and a coworker at the time just tore into me about how it wasn’t cute or funny and I wasn’t better or smarter than people who enjoyed popular things, and so on and so forth. Okay! I did not think I was better or smarter than people who enjoyed popular things, though I do find the defensive assumption that “everyone” in the room can relate to and follow certain topics extremely alienating. More so, I commuted through Fenway Park and what-used-to-be-called Boston Garden for a substantial enough part of my young adult life that I have simply had more interactions with sports fans than I have with sports games, experiences which have cumulatively left me with disinterest at best (Red Sox fans are the loudest but Celtics fans are the meanest, for whatever it’s worth).

So I guess, even if it were abundantly obvious that “hole and goal” were meant in a positive manner, my reality is the “greater Boston area,” where everyone has an inferiority complex (the “lesser Boston area”) triggered by some pet issue or another, so you can’t just be playful here, since someone will always think you mean to say the assumed quiet part loud— “I am better than you”— and then try to fight you. And I am too tired to die on that hill (which is probably literally Bunker Hill). As a grown man, albeit a New Englander, I only want to get into fights about important things, like city council gossip and discontinued L.L. Bean plaids and what to call genres of weird PDFs I make and share with my friends on the internet.

In other words, I’m messing around with playing cards as a tool for interactive narrative-like design again and when I try to organize my thoughts about the category of “games that are not sports or video games but the other kinds” (working title), the further subcategories become so apparent that I wish they didn’t all sound strangely formal and academic, and that genre terms did what they were really supposed to do, which is to efficiently summarize a set of expectations and general reference points.

My understanding is as such:

  • The oldest is card games, which come from both divination and gambling, which are only recently and superficially different. I’m including dice and spinners as cards here because I feel like it.

  • Board games came later, and most of what we now understand as board games probably came out of 19th century social hygiene efforts and movements. I think what makes a board game that uses cards different from a card game that uses a board is that board games were meant to be played in your house and include everyone in the house as a player, so as The Family could learn about Morals together, or something. My hottest take that I will not substantiate with citations here is that anything that’s ultimately about cognitive or social health is therefore a board game. A crossword puzzle, for example, is a board game because we all know that when kids and old people do them that it’s kind of “productive.” Unless that crossword puzzle is the pretense for a scratch ticket. Then it’s a card game. Don’t @ me.

  • Table-top games, particularly the kinds with maps, miniatures, and data tables, were straight up military strategy exercises made popular through fantasy settings. RPGs generally are “about” fighting, and I’m not convinced by subsequent efforts to reskin fighting into collecting, courtship, or other metrics— instead of creating non-violent RPGs we kind of just dragged a mechanism designed for doing violence into other areas of simulated life. We’re a bit in the weeds here, yes. The most interesting RPGs that I have found in the last few years have gone one of two ways with the understanding and acceptance that RPG stat mechanics are about violence no matter what you slice and dress them up as: 1. “let’s get rid of most counting altogether and have people daydream more open-ended directions, which doesn’t exclude violence but at least doesn’t mandate it” and 2. “let’s lean even harder into this and confront the player with how this mindset colors so many parts of life and have them sit with the friction of that more consciously, constantly— everything is already always violent.” Will there be a point where both of these feel obvious and trite, which could signal their ultimate success in moving the shape and conversation around RPGs elsewhere? Maybe! Positioning these two as opposites, as I’ve just done, is also fake. Anything is possible.

  • Story games, like CYOA, probably owe their lineage to pulp serials. The most opinionated and schooled nerds I know are the interactive fiction people, so I’m ready to be very wrong here, but even though CYOA itself didn’t exist until the hyper-individualist “consumer choice as personal power” 1980s, I also feel like they’re mostly an expedited American Psycho-approved way to bully the author, which readers of pulp serials have been doing for hundreds of years (and maybe thousands if the poets who recited epic tales ever got accosted about changing the endings, and you know what, I am 100% sure that this happened sometimes, I know it in my gut). See also: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle un-killing-off Sherlock Holmes, or Louisa May Alcott begrudgingly giving Jo a heterosexual marriage plot. More so: did I just make the case that interactive fiction, with all it’s rich and nuanced history and broad capacity for seemingly infinite kinds of stories, is High Speed Authorial Harassment? No but not not no.

Anyway, I’m trying to do a thing with cards. I will say more about that later when I have something to show besides my horrible taxa of Games That Are Not Sports or Video Games But The Other Kinds.