Immersion

There was a brief period of my life where I was an academic. I was embedded daily in scholarly culture, surrounded by people who were all interested in tangentially similar things to me, and we all were having similar sorts of conversations. My days were spent studying and thinking about literature–what it is, what it can do, how it does the things that it does in different ways, and where to situate it within a particular cultural and social context.

I loved books, but I found that I was becoming a type of critical person I didn’t particularly enjoy being around.

So I left.

I left for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was very similar to what Lisa Ruddick writes about in an excellent article called “When Nothing is Cool“:

Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation. Academic cool is a cast of mind that disdains interpersonal kindness, I-thou connection, and the line separating the self from the outer world and the engulfing collective. 

The simple truth of it was that I and others picked apart something that I thought was singularly unique and cool to the point where it ceased to have meaning. Ask me about Steinbeck, Morrison, McCarthy, O’Connor–I’ll have a breadth of criticism available to provide on cue. Ultimately, the study of books became stale and uninteresting because I lost the ability to immerse myself for some time. I’ve regained that ability, but I no longer really want to drop back into the academic waters.

So what does that have to do with board games?

Well, for starters, I don’t want to do that with board games. So when I talk about what I believe immersion is, and what it can be in the context of a game, I’m going to do it in such a way as to preserve the connection to myself, which in turn preserves a connection to fun.

So, here we go!

Immersion: or, stop thinking about thinking

Immersion is a beautiful thing, especially for people who are adrift. I have struggled with a sense of meaning and order my entire life. Religion and faith, while fascinating to me, never had an ontological pull that strapped me into a chair and shouted a reason to live at me. Many people who know me personally are surprised by this (I’m a pretty bubbly dude), but I am often disconnected from the purpose that drives many people to achieve and accomplish.

This is precisely why games have been compelling to me. They are designed experiences that have an ability to drop me right inside a particular set of rules and meaning. Some people call this distraction, to which I respond, distraction from what?

Immersion, in my experience, comes in many different varieties, but can often be categorized into two different branches: the puzzle and the thematic experience.

Puzzle with friends

I enjoy a wide variety of games, but some of the best provide an interactive puzzle, with myself and my friends trapped inside. The end of the game is the way out of the puzzle, but until we get there, we’re going to be climbing all over one another, pulling one another’s hair, and generally just being nusances to each other. Concordia is my current example of this. Everyone is trying to build these little trade houses all around a map of ancient Rome or Greece or something, and the object of the game is to have the most points at the end, determined by the spots where you build your houses, and the types of point multipliers you can purchase to make your commercial empire more profitable.

In my experience, most games of Concordia have each player picking a path to success and trying to work toward it, maximizing their own gain along the way and minimizing the gain of the other players. It’s never combatative, but far more interesting than a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, because you can optimize yourself better or worse, and the boundaries and ruleset of the game reward you for doing so. You’re almost never karate chopping someone else’s stuff, because within this generic Greco-Roman world, you are trying to make money, not get into wars.

Some games, particularly eurogames like Concordia, do not go out of their way to provide thematic immersion, but are immersive nonetheless, in a way that a Rube Goldberg machine is immersive. You want to see how all the parts and switches play against one another, and you want to see if the choice you made mattered in reference to the game you just played. Puzzle-like games are immersive meaning-making machines, which is an exciting prospect (when done well).

Themes to die for

The second is a sort of thematic immersion. In other words, are the toys the game provide cool?

There are probably people who will get up in arms when I start referring to games as toys. I don’t mean it reductively. There’s a wall up when we watch a movie, play a game, go see a show, or play with a toy–a wall between us and reality. That wall protects us from the fact that the actors are actors, toys are toys, and that the story is a lie. Games do the same thing with their components and rules. A seamless interplay between cool toys and interesting rules builds the wall between us and reality.

War of the Ring is a fantastic example of this. Setting aside its near clockwork perfection as a design, the game really does make me feel like I’m the baddest bad boy (as Shadow) or the goodest good boy (as the Free Peoples). The toys are good. When I’ve got a massive pile of soldiers stomping all over Helm’s Deep, I’m in it, and when the Free People’s player sends some Ents in to wreck my party, I’m even more in it.

Just look at it!

Often, Theme and Puzzle intersect and you get a beautiful game. I think Great Western Trail pulls this off well, featuring just enough Old West to make you feel like you’re about to mosey on down the trail. But don’t forget about optimizing your cow deck. And moving your train everywhere in the world. My favorite thing about GWT is how it makes everyone start talking in the game’s language, using “delivery spam,” “cow strategy,” and “being a dick with the buildings,” without anyone batting an eyelash.

THE TRAIL THE TRAIL

Immersion isn’t about turning your brain off, it’s about turning off the part that doesn’t help you live a happy and healthy life. Immersion is indulgence in a fantasy that makes you feel good, and I can think of few better reasons to do something, especially because this particular indulgence is harmless, and might teach us a thing or two along the way.

The Mechanisn’t: Intro

More often than not, board games are described in a similar pattern to this:

  • “Lord of the Rings with hidden movement!” (War of the Ring)
  • “Farming with worker placement!” (Agricola)
  • “Egyptian myths fighting each other with customizable powers!” (Kemet)

In those three examples, I’m doing a theme + mechanic equation. It’s easy to explain what a game is when you describe it in terms of it’s constituent parts, as long as those parts are familiar. Movie genres are this way too. Hereditary is a horror movie about a messed up family. Categories are useful. They help us move and sort information, and put it into boxes that make sense. Board games often involve points, and winners and losers. They’re quantifiable, and this characteristic lends itself towards categorization. Mechanics are a useful way to describe a game, and the elegance of a mechanic ought to describe how good the game is, no? Only if we believe that categorization and mechanics are the only things that matter. For me, games are experiential and human experience cannot be easily judged and neatly divided up into categories.

I want to talk about mechanics in a way that does more than just describe what they do–I want to talk about mechanics in a way that describes what they promise, and how those same mechanics can interact with materials, emotions, theming, personality types, and environment. I think these sorts of conversations can give us a better and fuller understanding of what makes a game interesting, and how games with similar mechanics offer fundamentally different experiences.

For people who haven’t bought into what I’m saying, I’ll engage with a video from Paul Dean here real quick. In his review of Friedemann Friese’s 504 (embedded below), he echoes the game’s marketing as an “experiment.”

What’s the goal of the experiment here? For those who don’t know, 504 is a game about making (possible) 504 distinct games by combining different mechanics, held together by a common ruleset.

This experiment’s central conceit or thesis is that games are mechanics, and all it takes to make a game is to combine different mechanics together with a strong enough glue (in this case, the rules) and voila! You have 504 different games.

Now, I’m not reviewing 504 here, because I think the concept is cool, and I admire the ambition of the design. But, it does illustrate what I believe to be a false premise about art and experience (which board games surely fall under the purview of). The experience of a Van Gogh is not just brushwork. A game is not just endless recombined mechanics.

The combination of the elements that make a game a game generates something larger than the constituent parts. Games are not just mechanics, just like a movie is not just actors or a director or cinematography. Games are their designers and they are also their mechanics, and the people who play them, and the artwork, and the theme.

If you like Friedemann Friese (I do), you will find something of value within the design of 504, because you like the way that he pulls together a game. However, in my opinion, when an element becomes the defining characteristic of anything, I lose interest. People, games, it doesn’t matter. The sum is more important than the parts for me. That’s what I’ll be working with when you see the title “The Mechanisn’t.”

Thesis

There is a wealth of content about board gaming online, much of it created by extraordinarily intelligent and creative people. As a critical person, whenever I decide to add to a conversation, I second guess myself, concerned that the more dilutes the good. I think this is what therapists call a poverty mindset, in that it is centered around the belief that we live in a limited universe that only has a certain set of things and resources available to us.

Depending on who you are and what you believe, you might agree with this mindset. I think that’s valid, and a lot of reviews and board game criticism revolve around this mindset. There are a limited amount of dollars that most consumers have, and therefore there ought to be some consideration given to taste when making purchasing decisions.

But I suppose that I am more interested in games in the abstract, rather than games in the concrete. It’s why I enjoy some games that get critically panned, and that I often dissent with commonly held positions about different games. For me, what a game is trying to accomplish is often the most important thing. When I have been a writing teacher, I almost always evaluated my students on what it was they were trying to do, rather than what they did (within reason). In my mind, this attitude encourages us to develop in the way that we are exceptional and unique, rather than reinforcing some idea about what people, places, and things are supposed to be.

My first game, Apothecary! Link in the menu bar above.

So I want to create interesting blog posts, videos, and games that grapple with questions about what games do and what they can do, and how these games generate certain types of interactions and imaginary worlds, and discourage others. 

For me, Bernie De Koven set my star in how I think about games. To paraphrase his central conceit in The Well Played Game, in order for us to have a “good” or “enjoyable” game, we must agree on what it is we are doing when we play that game. Rules, mechanisms, theme, environment, and the players we play with influence that. I find that often I and others are not attentive enough to the way we frame the activities we do with one another, and I think this is an error, and one that I try to work through with what I will write about on this site, and what informs the games I design.

But I won’t really be reviewing much on this website. I might talk about games that I like, and games that I dislike. But mostly, I want to create a resource that’s worth a damn for people who are interested in thinking deeply about games (dorks like myself hopefully) as well as people who don’t know what this board game thing is all about. 

Join me, won’t you?