Divisions of Play

I am, on the record, one of those people who spends their time pointing out that there’s not a hard dividing line between board games and videogames. That the nature of the different platforms is permeable, that there’s flex and give between the two, and just because one of them can do things better or worse than the other doesn’t mean that they’re separate disciplines.

Yet, while they’re both games, I do find myself thinking about them in different ways, certainly when the time comes to talk about them, especially here, on this blog in Game Piles. In broad terms, I tend to care about the point of videogames, and the engagement of board games.

I know that part of this is going to be industrial. There’s an entire set of games that are primarily marketed as linear narrative experiences, and even games that don’t necessarily present themselves primarily that way create the impression they do. Overwatch is a game with very little in the way of coherent, moving, narrative story that you want to follow along with, even though you spend literally every moment of that game as she is played running around in a gameplay loop that explicitly does not want to advance or reward that narrative.

I mean how often do you see me talking about games that are themselves pure play loops, with neither beginning or end? I milked Star Realms for three articles, but it was a board game first.

I think it’s kind of funny, too, because videogames, with their procedural rhetoric, are really good at making a point, but I’m not necessarily always sure I understand the point they’re trying to make. Games like Call of Duty (Pick One) are typically constructed to be in the vein of classic war movies, with the idea that Soldiers Are Good, But Wars Are Bad, but do they do a good job of that? Does that interpretation feel more clear than others? Is it coherent? These are the kinds of questions you can bring to bear on that kind of work.

Board games – which in this case includes things like card games and even narrative games and RPGs – on the other hand, make a lot of small stories. It’s not like they lack the capacity for narrative. I mean D&D is a plot engine with a combat system attached. When I talk about those games, though, you’ll notice I very rarely talk about the stories those games tell – even the ones that want to tell stories!

When I wrote about Imperial Settlers in my honors thesis, I did write about the narrative that game constructs, and the way different mechanical choices and incentives created strange, disrupting visions of what was or wasn’t important in that narrative; you could construct pyramids to house dead emperors as swiftly as you could construct new blacksmiths, for example. That was part of a critical analysis of how that game reinforced its values, and what I would do to address that in a competing design.

It does feel, to me, a lot like a type difference; I talk about board games one way, videogames another way. It even means that some kinds of board games – like Fighting Fantasy gamebooks – get to live in this limbo where I kind of don’t talk about them as themselves, but instead talk about them in this vague, gestural way, talking about the genre rather than the ideas in each version itself.

Now, is this a rule? Not necessarily. After all, there are some games I engage with just for the playing. I have put a lot of time into Picross,  for example. It is however generally worth my time to reflect on what kinds of things I think about when I engage with different types of game. What about single player board games? There, there’s a narrative I constructed – should I share that? What about digital board games? Should I be telling stories about the D&D games I’ve played in?

I sometimes say that my aim is to Use Games To Talk About Anything, and while glib it is important to me to show the way that games both enable conversations and how they connect to all culture (which in turn, connects to everything else). This is mostly, using games to talk about the ways I talk about games.

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