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Notes on Board Games

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Notes on Board Games

Game Information

There Will Be Games

Most board games are mediocre. This shouldn’t be controversial: most books are mediocre. Most movies too. Culture is a lot like the universe it tries to give meaning to, which is to say a mess, when it is anything at all (and it’s mostly nothing, or communities of nothing that amount to, in their patterning… something). A recent thread here on the “Golden Age” of board gaming has us wondering if the medium is in decline, and whether or not what we thought was gold was only ever wood-product with gold paint smeared on it.

Every medium of culture invites these anxious conversations about the past. “Weren’t movies better in the 70s?” says the lover of Coppola and De Palma, celluloid grain and disco. “What’s better than The Shawshank Redemption?” says the man in his dorm room beneath posters of the old gods: The Boondock Saints, Bob Marley, The Wolf of Wall Street DiCaprio (Tiger Beat DiCaprio would cancel him out, if he and Tiger Beat were remembered). This nostalgia is naturally self-serving; the nostalgic person uses their knowledge of the past to declare themselves superior to the present, bound though they mercilessly are to the present. Brann in Game of Thrones is nostalgia taken to its most tedious and artificial ends, the conflation of knowledge for a personality; Brann of all people should know better that knowing doesn’t, by itself, make you a person worth knowing. 

Did the medium peak with chess? I’ve already written about how Gloomhaven probably isn’t the best board game of all time, and, if you took seriously the word of Gloomhaven fans on Reddit, you’d already know that I was “pretentious”, an “idiot”, a bad writer and teacher, a worse carrier of history, a defective Brann. Questioning what’s popular is always bound to run you into trouble.

This past week, the Met Gala celebrated Susan Sontag’s famous essay Notes on Camp” by theming their red carpet event “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” Most of the outfits on display were mediocre, pale imitations of the camp sensibility. Sontag defines camp as follows: “Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.” 

I can’t help but think that what is missing from so much criticism (and, more broadly, fan appreciation) of board games is the willingness, which is the same as a heely vulnerability, to see the world as that “aesthetic phenomenon”. Games, the thinking goes, should be fun first, artful…later. But aesthetics brings to the table questions of beauty, artifice, and taste, about which Sontag has this to say: “Most people […] allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free -- as opposed to rote -- human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It's rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.)” Or, as the Dude says, speaking for those of us with heavier tongues than Sontag: “Yeah, well, you know, uh, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

There is a taste in fun, then, that brings aesthetics back to our game tables. And interrogating that taste in fun seems worthwhile, even if it leads to uncomfortable questions and blinking, sputtery answers.

I’m aware that invoking Sontag and the Dude have already doomed me and this essay to failure. So it goes. And my aim here is messy—to think about board games as play and art, as pieces of culture that reflect that culture, as good, bad, and mediocre, as wastes of time that lay waste to time. I am aimless, which is probably appropriate for writing about games. What better technology do we have besides games to save us from our aimlessness?

These notes are also for Oscar Wilde.

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” —Oscar Wilde preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray


  1. To start,  games are structural. They groan with the structural weight of themselves the way buildings do in the wind, ships on the waves, books in hands. 
  2. Avoiding the cracks in a sidewalk because they’ll break your mother’s back is a game because it’s structural; its boundaries do not trespass space and time. It isn’t a good game, necessarily, but the structural backbone, in both game and mother, directs the player to perform a set of limited actions. Failure is possible, as is deviance: the player who willfully breaks the rules is a pervert (and a murderer, in the case of mother). 
  3. The pervert tends to avoid games even as they make a game out of their relationship with reality—the rules don’t apply to perverts, except for one: all rules deserve to be broken. 
  4. Though we play games for many reasons—to teach, to socialize, to have fun—the underlying reason we play games has to do with our fear of death, destruction, the welter and the waste. Play is really an act of resistance to the natural order of the universe, which is disorder.  If you can read these rules, you are not dead. Not yet. 
  5. And if the player does die, as some games like Risk allow, it is a table-flipping event. Who can blame the player, who is really alive, who proves his life by destroying the game? Well, we can blame him for killing the rest of us, momentarily, so that he might live.
  6. The White Tiles Are Lava and the Black Tiles Are Land is also a game. It isn’t a good game, necessarily, but it tells us what games are: arbitrary systems of laws, imposed by arbitrary authorities, with arbitrary rewards for following the laws, and punishments for breaking them. 
  7. The White Tiles Are Lava and the Black Tiles are Land tells us what games also are: metaphors for life and death, the struggle to survive, often at the expense of someone else’s perishing.
  8. If games are metaphorical, that means games tell stories. 
  9. All games tell stories. This is because games are played by creatures who can only make sense of the world, and of games, through story. Even abstract games, like Set, tell stories. Set tells the story of shapes learning they aren’t shapeless, colors learning they’re not alone, patterns telling chaos to fuck off. 
  10. Go tells the story of conquest, territorial control, the very fine balance of the natural and unnatural worlds. 
  11. Chess is the YAS QUEEN of the ancient world.
  12. Chess is also the story of how a slug of a man who can’t even stand to look directly at his enemies still gets to be the king. It is endlessly modern in this regard.
  13. Chutes and Ladders tells the story of how some technologies bring us panting closer to god, while others send us squealing toward hell. 
  14. A storyless game isn’t possible because games are the byproduct of the oldest human story: building against the welter, and waste, and darkness.
  15. Games tend to foreground their laws and background their stories—they are practically biblical in this regard.
  16. The laws of games are also known as mechanics, and we will get to mechanics, but I want to talk first more generally about laws.
  17. Laws aren’t synonymous with morals, though they depend on an underlying structure of moralism that can be, itself, right or wrong or right in places and wrong in places, majority-right or majority-wrong. 
  18. In Leviticus, God speaks to Moses, saying: “And with a male you shall not lie as one lies with a woman. It is an abhorrence.”⁠1 God doesn’t explain why homosexual sex is “abhorrent” in the moment, like a gamer slurring through the patchily written rules of a Fantasy Flight game. You can try to rationalize the rule, since the Israelites make a lot over “wasted seed” that doesn’t end in fertilization, but then again, nothing is said in the Bible about lesbianism, though Canaan wasn’t too far from Lesbos, where Sappho was plucking hyacinths out of the hair of shepherd boys and giving them to women she wanted to fuck. 
  19. Laws are often badly justified because the underlying structure of moralism that supports them is badly justified. 
  20. Bad laws often reveal a bad underlying structure of moralism, all the rotten apples that have fallen from a Bad Tree of Knowledge.
  21. History spills with rotten apples; the future will spill with them too. This is the eternal recurrence Nietzsche and his greatest shill, Conan the Barbarian, talk about, and we are doomed to repeat ourselves if even our games repeat our moral failures.
  22. Game mechanics, which are their own arbitrary laws, most often reveal an underlying structure of amoralism for their designers, who so rarely think about rights and wrongs that do not apply to the lusciously oiled moving parts of their machine-structures. 
  23. Moral games exist in spite of designers. This is because games are (mostly) played by creatures with an intrinsic moral sense who, in spite of themselves, can’t help but bring that moral sense to the table.
  24. When the computer Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1997, it was a victory for mechanics/laws, and a failure for humanity/morality. 
  25. Many gamers are not interested in moral games because immoral games offer easier, less social forms of entertainment that don’t try to answer this problem of how we all live together with minimal suffering.
  26. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a violent, immoral game because one of its primary mechanics for engaging the world is the headshot. The player cannot progress further in the story of the game without shooting. Imagine if Tolstoy had called that one book of his War & War⁠2that’s Red Dead Redemption 2. 
  27. From a moral standpoint, shooting the head of a digital creature isn’t the same as shooting the head of a biological creature, but our time is finite, and, given the finite amount of activities we will ever get to do, we might hope that we helped real, biological others more, in the aggregate, than we shot the heads of digital chimeras. 
  28. François Truffaut said of war films that to depict war was to “ennoble it”. Truffaut was concerned that celluloid sexes up suffering; the distance of fiction, the directorial mediation, the acting and special effects—an actor holding synthetic bowels slicked in slime, screaming, moves us on our couch, but we’re couched in comfort. What can we do when no one is really suffering, and we’re so far away?
  29. Responding to controversies swirling around Zero Dark Thirty’s false depiction of how torture led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow said that “to depict events is not the same as endorsing them.”⁠3 
  30. Bad history, bad fiction, bad games invite bad readers, bad players, bad actors. Trump can claim that torture is effective, why, it got us Bin Laden—even liberal Hollywood made a movie about it! Rockstar can claim that Native Americans and African Americans hold no animus toward white men the likes of John Marston, those head-shootin’ rascals—he helped us complete the American Fathers Quest!
  31. My students often cite Saving Private Ryan as one of their favorite films but do not know what country Normandy is in. Their ignorance isn’t the film’s fault—the film’s fault is that bloody excitement will always trump restrained disquisition. Few teenagers would show up to the film version of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz with tubs of popcorn.
  32. The quality of the food we eat while watching these movies and playing these games isn’t a coincidence—junk excuses junk. 
  33. Gloomhaven is a violent, immoral game because one of its primary mechanics is the annihilation of an Enemy. You do not play a game like Gloomhaven to simulate the complex channels of peace negotiation, of Cohabitation with Conscious Others. You play it to kill, to get a sweet new dagger that kills better.
  34. Games that feature politics, alliances, alternatives to annihilation—these are the beginnings of an underlying system of moralism. 
  35. Dune, Twilight Imperium, and Diplomacy allow players to do some things that are intrinsically good and right, though they are still, at heart, variations on a theme, and that theme is dominance.
  36. Dominance has many names: the winner, the king, the father, the point-leader, the first player, the first across the finish line, the Alpha and the Omega, God, the LORD who “says, saying”, in case you weren’t sure He was talking.
  37. Dominance is never enough, least of all for itself—when he is asked what’s best in life, Conan, seated higher than the rest of the sweaty men at the feasting table, says, “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
  38. Winning somehow tastes sweeter if the losers are left in a state of sensual suffering. Inis, a game of territorial conflict, articulates this in a devious, cunning way by encouraging players not to wipe their opponents from the map: rather than obliterate, you stand on your opponents’ necks.
  39. Inis is, by the way, an amoral game that leans immoral. I love it, in the same dubious spirit that I love Conan.
  40. Thulsa Doom, Conan’s arch enemy in the gloriously immoral movie, is also obsessed with dominance, but he cultivates it through a cultic following; he gives up steel for speech, politics. He is the Mitch McConnell of Hyboria, a realpolitiks-spewing manipulator who has no underlying system of moralism. He acts for himself, and the cult acts for him. He is also a snake, which goes to show that you can take the man out of the Garden of Eden, but you can’t take the Garden of Eden out of the man. 
  41. I don’t know if I should have to gloss on my love for the Conan movie, but I will: we can and often do love culture that is immoral. We can only hope there are better works of culture that we love too.
  42. Games generally present dominance as a simple binary: steel or speech, annihilation or conversion. 
  43. Most adult games are centered around dominance because most adult games have not climbed up the stairs from the basement realms that ennoble the likes of Conan
  44. That stereotype of the gamer—the basement dweller—isn’t so offensive as to be meaningless. The basement is an architectural metaphor here, since it is both foundational and windowless; it insists on a space for itself absent a social awareness of the world beyond.
  45. On the other hand, children's games often foreground what’s good and what’s right—sharing, cooperating, listening, words that feel so baldly sincere and pat that I winced typing them. My wincing is a sign of cultural conditioning: inherent goods embarrass us because our culture leans lawfully evil.
  46. We should at least question a medium where children have access to more moral material than the adults who watch over them. 
  47. Cooperative games like Hanabi and Shipwreck Arcana are children’s games, standing on top the shoulders of each other, disguised in their trench coats. 
  48. I said I wanted to talk about mechanics first, and I did, but what does that leave us? What are games about? Story—remember, games tell stories.
  49. Many stories should never be turned into games. We understand that some suffering is too great, too unknowable, to force into the rigid structure of a game. In this understanding, we gamers are perhaps more in the right than cinema. What games dare go into the gas chambers of Auschwitz the same way Spielberg’s cameras do?
  50. Of Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, Stanley Kubrick had this to say: “Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't."
  51. The director Jean-Luc Godard accused Spielberg of profiting off suffering while Schindler’s widow, Emilie Schindler, lived in poverty in Argentina. The intersections of commerce and art, capitalism and morality, always lead to these dreary conversations: suffering, it seems, demands an account but not a ledger. 
  52. (We shouldn’t trust the likes of Godard who mistreat the likes of Agnes Varda.)
  53. And yet we still do it—we still make games out of stories that should not be games. The “should” here isn’t technical; of course we “can” make these games. The “should” here is moral, asking: is it right to make a game or is it wrong to make a game?
  54. GMT’s Gandhi, made by a white man who isn’t Indian, aims to turn the history of Indian independence from the British into a game. Why do gamers want to make play out of real history? 
  55. I imagine there are many gamers who will play Gandhi as not only a vehicle for entertainment but also as a vehicle for understanding history. But History as Entertainment strikes me as morally dubious. History, I think, should be treated with the reverence and awe, the fear and the trembling that attends the churchgoer; but unlike church, disbelief, and a debilitating lack of faith in a singular Truth, are the holiest of holies in history.
  56. Consider how people made a meme out of the death of the Pompei person, crushed by a stone in the Mt. Vesuvius eruption: image copy copy copy copy
  57. History as Entertainment takes someone’s worst day and turns it into someone else’s half-assed tweet.
  58. Defenders of History as Entertainment will say, in a contract of sorts, that people two thousand years from now have permission to laugh at our suffering, too, but we should be skeptical of the idea that suffering transubstantiates to hilarity the way wine transubstantiates to blood. We should also be skeptical about contracts that don't pay out for thousands of years, since Scientology does the same thing.
  59. The old formula goes: Comedy = Tragedy + Time. I imagine we can make a similar formulation for historical games. 
  60. Tragedy + Time? ⇒ Make That Historical Game!
  61. But I’m not sure any of us can agree on the value of time here; and how do we account for the culling of different perspectives good history requires? And who gets to set the boundaries of the tragedy—those who directly experienced the trauma? The second and third generational inheritors of that trauma? Or the calmly observant outsiders who conflate their tears, borne from empathy, to be about the same as, or close enough to, the tears of the victims? But crying during Schindler’s List isn’t an education in suffering what the Nazi’s victims suffered. We forget this because good storytellers like Spielberg overwhelm us to blubbering ecstatics—but real trauma begs for a word bigger and seaworthier than overwhelm. As Roy Schneider says in another Spielberg film: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
  62. The board game medium is dominated by white, male, American and European designers and players. We shouldn’t be surprised that whiteness and maleness is centered in board gaming, and that forays into the stories of others set off all the theorist alarm bells that could wake the Edward Saids and Sontags and Foucaults in their cold crypts.
  63. But media consumers, and gamers certainly, are selective about their hearing—the bell tolls for some games and not for others.
  64. Where is the 9/11 game with a United 93 Resistance Track? If the question offends you, then you must believe the hard threshold exists between an acceptable game and an unacceptable game. If Gandhi feels acceptable to you, might it be because you have little emotional or cultural attachment to the man and his struggles besides a puny historical “interest”? And that this fun takes place in a country and in a history far enough from your own? 
  65. Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, but he lives on as a “leader token” in GMT’s Gandhi. We’ve tokenized him quite literally.
  66. Where is GMT’s AIDS? One player plays as ACT UP, the other as the Reagan/Bush administrations. Reagan/Bush wins if the It's a Homosexual Disease Track reaches 10. 
  67. We won’t have to dread the arrival of GMT’s AIDS because, like whiteness and maleness, the board gaming medium predominantly centers heterosexuality. Straight men care about war and resistance when it centers around other straight men, when the warring is bloody but not about blood.
  68. And while we’re talking about history, we need to think about how we handle something even more elemental—story, real or not. The toolbox we have to interpret stories is so much heavier than the toolbox we have to interpret games.
  69. Stories are infinitely interpretable, and we’ve devoted thousands of years to making bigger infinities out of those interpretations. We were once so good at this form of interpretation that we have a name for it: cultural literacy.
  70. And those people who made cultural literacy a life’s pursuit were once called critics.
  71. Civilization needs critics as much as it needs water, food, shelter, infrastructure, and pornography. 
  72. And yet criticism is losing. We are in the middle of the Trump presidency, so this might be inevitable: close-reading the failures of this presidency has only made Trumpism stronger, more immune to critique. And the critical thinking skills we once thought would save us have been co-opted by conservatism: the post-modernist dismantling of certainty and authorship, cultivated in academia, has led us, in a torturous red line, to “Fake News”. Roland Barthes could never have anticipated “The Death of the Author” would be used to misread the Mueller Report. 
  73. Board gaming is a tiny medium in comparison to movies, video games, even books and newspapers. When rumors spread that the most prominent critics in the medium receive payment from designers and publishers, we shrug or we moan. Then we roll those goddamn dice. Do we really expect The New York Times to report on $2000 payments to The Dice Tower for running previews of games? The controversy is so small it begs a smaller word than small, a smaller boat.
  74. Similarly, Shut Up And Sit Down ran into trouble with their recent review of Blood on the Clocktower, a game that doesn’t even physically exist, outside a few circulating prototypes. Gamers were concerned that SUSD violated their long-standing practice of not reviewing Kickstarter projects before distribution. How was SUSD’s behavior different, these gamers wanted to know, from, say, a Magic Bullet Infomercial? Besides the breathlessly excited Britishness?
  75. Critics have always existed in that quivering, liminal space between consumers and producers. Sometimes the critics were the defending ramparts, and sometimes they were the battering rams. Consumers belong inside the protective walls of the city in this metaphor (as do vulnerable producers and artists—monopolies like Disney can go fuck themselves in the shrubs). The rise of Kickstarter in board gaming has made consumers the desperate knockers at the gate, howling to be let in before the invading hordes arrive. Except…the invading hordes are also the consumers, since they now fund the producers, and the horde banners say: THESE SWEET SWORDS YOU BOUGHT US LOVE YOU MOST WHEN THEY SMASH YOU! Should we expect a medium’s criticism to thrive when the only ones assuming risk are that medium’s fans?
  76. Risk is missing in games—risk on the part of the producers, who must understand that all art (and games are art) runs the risk of not satisfying all or any tastes; risk on the part of critics, who must understand that criticism shouldn’t be about protecting fans from their own unwillingness, which is the same as an invulnerability, to interrogate culture; risk beyond financials on the part of fans, who must also risk being vulnerable to each other and especially themselves, to recognizing the bitter truth that not all tastes are sweet. 
  77. Fans claim they want “honest” and “ethical” criticism, but they are bloviating: a fan is someone who already made up their mind long ago and arrives to criticism to see their mind echoed. 
  78. In the 90s, Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs really could thumb the market one way or another, a power we no longer associate with criticism. The forms of the critics long ago rotted on the rampart spikes.
  79. These past few weeks, a wave of celebrities, from Ariana Grande to Justin Bieber and Olivia Munn, could be found attacking “bloggers” and critics for negativity. So what if Justin Bieber lip-synced at Coachella, you motherfucker?
  80. Screen Shot 2019 05 13 at 8.58.35 AM
  81. Bieber isn’t unique in his privileging of “joy” and “positivity” and his dismissal of criticism as an intrinsically negative discourse. Fans peddle the same tired thinking.
  82. A fan is a critic who’s gone mad with love. Fans often fail to recognize that critics are capable of love, and certainly positivity, and that they, critics, want to be mad from love too—except everything mostly sucks, and things mostly sucking keeps the critic’s madness from spiraling. 
  83. We might do well to remember that: the critic wants to love, is so capable of loving enormously. 

 


1 Excerpted from The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter

2 The Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s War and War is, incidentally, a true work of art.

3 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/9809355/Kathryn-Bigelow-interview-for-Zero-Dark-Thirty-The-director-on-the-trail-of-terrorism.html

There Will Be Games
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Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #296987 14 May 2019 08:03
well done
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #296988 14 May 2019 08:14
I don't like board game reddit or really reddit in general, but you know the main reason they got mad about the last piece was because you hadn't played Gloomhaven, right? I don't even disagree with the previous article's purpose or message but it seems like you're deliberately ignoring that.

I'm very confused as to the purpose of this piece. About half is actually what the title says, the rest is observations and the world's longest segues back into super brief notes that are ostensibly about board games. If this was a blog post I wouldn't mind, but it's an article on a board game site. Was there an editing pass on this?
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #296989 14 May 2019 08:54
I'm totally down with the "taste" angle, and I think there's something there that people forget when referencing "mediocre board games" and that is: Your individual taste is what vaults a mediocre game into a great game for you.

Case in point: Stratomatic Baseball. I've played Strat for 35 years and can safely say it holds zero charm if you aren't into baseball or the history thereof. The goal is attempting to recreate a statistical persuasion via rolling dice and cross-checking those dice rolls to individual charts. It can certainly be classified as actuarial anti-fun. AND YET... when I see a little number-chart card labeled "Stan Musial" squaring off against a little number-chart card labeled "Sandy Koufax" then HOLY SHIT I am kind of hard at figuring out who will "win" that number-chart card battle.

Being invested in the topic is the difference between a mediocre game you leave on the shelf, and one you buy, play, and take to heart. And that's kinda cool.
BaronDonut's Avatar
BaronDonut replied the topic: #296991 14 May 2019 09:25

Vysetron wrote: I'm very confused as to the purpose of this piece. About half is actually what the title says, the rest is observations and the world's longest segues back into super brief notes that are ostensibly about board games. If this was a blog post I wouldn't mind, but it's an article on a board game site. Was there an editing pass on this?


Well, it's a riff on "Notes on Camp," a seminal essay that's getting talked about right now because of the Met Gala. As far as purpose, I think we could use a lot more writing that seeks to contextualize games through far-reaching inquiry and connection to other cultural objects / theories. I personally think we could use a lot less of just talk about games plz, and just because this piece is written in a rangier mode doesn't mean it's poorly edited or doesn't deserve a place here. I think we need to expand our thinking about what games writing can be / do.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #296993 14 May 2019 09:50
I'm aware of Notes on Camp. Notes on Camp advances its points in almost every bullet. Each subsequent note builds off of the last. It has structure. This is all over the place.

I'm not asking for it to be a review or whatever. If anything I want more non-review content. This just didn't work for me.
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #296997 14 May 2019 10:59
The reason why Susan Sontag could be so dumbly incorporated into a value-agnostic thing like the Met Ball is because

1) her best, early work began the process of an ideological reading of mass culture, which was uncommon among the not-French in her day, and then

2) She spent the rest of her career walking her early work back in favor of the sort of value-agnostic crap that regularly got her published in the NYRB back in the seventies, stuff like “Does Kissinger look dapper in a hat?”

Sontag’s writing as a guiding principle (not just her, but her whole cohort in the seventies) is partially the reason we’re living in the Met Gala IMHO world we live in now.

“Should we expect a medium’s criticism to thrive when the only ones assuming risk are that medium’s fans?” is such a great question.
JonathanVolk's Avatar
JonathanVolk replied the topic: #296998 14 May 2019 11:09
I love the Sontag, but I’m not sure razor focus is its chief virtue. Camp isn’t about clean, simple lines—as the endless debates about it in the decades since Sontag wrote the piece make clear.

But I do want to make a point about how a camp sensibility could stand to be cultivated by gamers like the ones on that Reddit thread. The irony of my not playing Gloomhaven was stated immediately, and served a larger point about fandom as an echo chamber.

I really do believe people should be required to read Wilde before talking about their tastes. Seriously. Games aren’t the same as novels or plays or poems, sure, but I think reading novels and plays and poems (and Wilde) could make our games better. Literacy is an endless pilgrimage, in that regard.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #296999 14 May 2019 11:13
83 We might do well to remember that: the critic wants to love, is so capable of loving enormously.

83 numbered points. Aside from Conan the Barbarian and maybe chess, I'm no closer to getting an idea of anything you actually approve of.

That's a lot of words to say the world sucks and can do better, but won't.

I'd be a lot more interested in hearing something about what you love enormously than in a rehash of why the critics have it so hard. No surprise, it's always because everyone else is so stupid. That's a tired, tired thought.
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #297001 14 May 2019 11:23
Reading Oscar Wilde is the precondition for being fully alive!

There should be an “Oscar Wilde’s Socratic Dialogue” board game.
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #297002 14 May 2019 11:25

Not Sure wrote: 83

I'd be a lot more interested in hearing something about what you love enormously than in a rehash of why the critics have it so hard. No surprise, it's always because everyone else is so stupid. That's a tired, tired thought.


The negative contrast version of this is that he’s asking why it’s necessary that anyone do criticism at all. It might not be within your wheelhouse of important questions, but it is a question that comes up on the site quite often.
JonathanVolk's Avatar
JonathanVolk replied the topic: #297004 14 May 2019 11:33
Not Sure wrote,

83 numbered points. Aside from Conan the Barbarian and maybe chess, I'm no closer to getting an idea of anything you actually approve of.


Chess is great but computers are better at it than we are, and I like people more than computers. Conan is great but it’s nothing to live by.

I'd be a lot more interested in hearing something about what you love enormously than in a rehash of why the critics have it so hard. No surprise, it's always because everyone else is so stupid. That's a tired, tired thought.


The problem of our culture is that stupid people rarely cause problems—Gorilla Grody brought this up in another thread here, how it takes a certain amount of intelligence, paired with an authority over epistemology, to destroy the world. Trump isn’t a complete idiot—we ignore his intelligences at our peril.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #297010 14 May 2019 12:46
My eyes started to glaze over while reading the list, but I think that there are some good topics in there for future articles.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #297014 14 May 2019 14:45

Not Sure wrote: 83 numbered points. Aside from Conan the Barbarian and maybe chess, I'm no closer to getting an idea of anything you actually approve of.


That, and prime numbers.
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Space Ghost replied the topic: #297015 14 May 2019 14:49

JonathanVolk wrote: The problem of our culture is that stupid people rarely cause problems—Gorilla Grody brought this up in another thread here, how it takes a certain amount of intelligence, paired with an authority over epistemology, to destroy the world.


Not to get too far afield, but that is the way that modern governance has been trending for some time -- look back to MacNamara and the Whiz Kids -- he basically invented the use of so-called big data at the corporate level. To see the nefarious potential in all the "AI" that we are surrounding ourselves with, I can't recommend Weapons of Math Destruction enough.
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Jackwraith replied the topic: #297017 14 May 2019 17:06
@Vysetron: As the nominal copy editor here, I didn't get to this before it was published, but I didn't really need to, since Jonathan appears to be diligent enough about checking his own work to not really need someone stepping after him. I did start looking it over as I usually do for almost everything published here (usually just for obvious punctuation errors or whatnot), but ran into the same problem Shellhead did, which is where we talk about your actual point, which is content editing...

So, when MB first suggested overhauling the site, I think everyone had a vision of "games journalism" making this the one site that wasn't just someone doing their unboxing ritual in front of a shelfie. Thankfully, the idea that video has totally replaced writing has since been dispelled in the shameful detritus of Facebook's farcical "studies". But there can still be no debate that encouraging a modern audience to read a thousand words rather than watching a five minute video is still a challenge, but it's even more of a challenge when what gets published here isn't really about games.

I'm fine with Sontag. She has her voice and she's made some important contributions to public perceptions. But I'm not sure it's a worthwhile endeavor here because it doesn't come across as journalism or criticism or even criticism of the concept of criticism, so much as it does simple posturing. That's a charge that has been leveled against her writing, too; in that it's not so much about the topic at hand, as much as it is about the author's intent to declare him or herself above said topic and wondering why everyone else hasn't come to that same conclusion.

Like Shellhead, I got through about half of this piece before I simply gave up, because it felt like nothing pertinent or interesting was being said. It was a ramble, based on Sontag's most famous essay about a cultural style and not just one medium. I think it worked in her piece because its approach was broader than simply talking about films or books or TV. I'm not sure it works here because the focus is ostensibly narrower but the delivery clearly is not and, in the end, this isn't a site about cultural styles. It's a site about board games.

Now, there's nothing wrong with wandering off the res, stylistically. I've done a couple pieces and so have other people that don't have anything to do with a particular game or even a particular type of game... but they're still about games. I could sit down over the next couple hours and write a detailed analysis of how the 4-3-3 is superior to the 4-2-3-1, especially in the case of Liverpool with their extensive use of the high press and advanced fullbacks... and most of you wouldn't have a clue as to what I was talking about because 1) this isn't a football site; and/or 2) you're not football fans; and/or 3) you've never analyzed the game to the level that incorporates knowing the difference between formations and how they work. In short, that piece really doesn't have any place here because the audience for it isn't here and me saying: "But it's still about a game!" isn't really relevant.

I don't have any editorial input here. All I do is fix run-on sentences and police commas. If MB and Matt and Shellie are OK with this kind of piece, I'm not going to tell them they're wrong. Likewise, I'm not going to tell Jonathan he's "wrong" for having written it or taking a stab at a higher level of discourse about our (presumably) mutual interest. But there's a difference between discussing a topic at a higher level than "How long does it take to play?" and getting to what music critics used to call "self-indulgence" on the part of the artist. This piece is largely about what's going on in Jonathan's head, which is the source of the "self-indulgence" criticism and, again, not really about games.

But, again, if the genuine editorial group is fine with it, then they are. I'm not going to rail against it. I just question whether it's accomplishing much of anything other than providing a thread for two or three people on the site to demonstrate their cultural bona fides while everyone else really wants to talk about the main topic at hand. I thought the previous piece about criticism with Gloomhaven as the trigger point was relevant because it was about a perspective on criticism that involves board games, even if the Reddit crowd decided to get in a twist about whether he'd actually played the game, which wasn't really the point. But he did have a point and one which is relevant to the main thrust of the site. This one didn't do that or at least it didn't in the first half before I gave up on it. Feel free to criticize me for not having actually played Jonathan's piece, either, I suppose. (I've also never played Gloomhaven.)
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GorillaGrody replied the topic: #297019 14 May 2019 18:13

Jackwraith wrote: I'm not sure it works here because the focus is ostensibly narrower but the delivery clearly is not and, in the end, this isn't a site about cultural styles. It's a site about board games.


I guess this is the heart of the matter. If games are just games and don't have any interplay with culture, then I don't really see the point in NOT just producing content which is unboxing games in front of a kallax shelf. Or having a lot of people in the forums grope at the proverbial "review elephant" in the dark, attempting to describe the tail of reviewing, the trunk of it, the hide of it, and so on, everyone stumbling around and trying invent a vocabulary for it.

That said, Jonathan is adopting a very discursive style because the art of examining culture as a whole--reviewing, criticism, etc.--is in very deep decline. There are more questions than answers, and Jonathan is walking us through the questions. If the questions are important, or hit at relevance, then they'll be uncomfortable.

For my part, I enjoyed Jonathan's piece, though I may be one of the (unofficial) writers here who's style, like Jonathan's, tends toward the more effusive.

Had it been, say, a floor-covering specialist talking about how they just don't make rayon and padding they way they used to, and why this sort of vinyl resists water better than that one, I suppose my eyes would have glazed over, too. But he's writing about something I care about, something I think is relevant to games, so I was all there for it.
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boothwah replied the topic: #297028 14 May 2019 19:30
I enjoyed reading it.

/I read Grody's missives as voiced by a 50 year old Anthony Hopkins, two martinis in.
Just a bit of a snarl to go with the nods and winks.
//I'll buy you a beer if you ever come to my little village, GG.
///I miss the post that Barney would have put here....
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Jackwraith replied the topic: #297029 14 May 2019 19:33

GorillaGrody wrote: I guess this is the heart of the matter. If games are just games and don't have any interplay with culture, then I don't really see the point in NOT just producing content which is unboxing games in front of a kallax shelf.


Except that's not what I was saying. Please don't minimize my arguments; firstly, because it sounds like you're engaging in that posturing that I was writing about; secondly, because it sounds like you're dismissing everything I've written without considering it for a second. If all you're going to do is respond with the "stupid gamerz might not like the questions being asked about their precious hobby", then we're just talking past each other and I have zero interest in continuing this conversation.

GorillaGrody wrote: That said, Jonathan is adopting a very discursive style because the art of examining culture as a whole--reviewing, criticism, etc.--is in very deep decline.


That's an assertion that's both debatable and unsupported by significant evidence; in other words, an opinion (man.) Despite the fact that there are more critics out there for various media, it doesn't mean that the voices that do exist are any less good at their job, as it were. If that were the case, this place could have remained the sideshow clubhouse that it was and any of our efforts to redirect it would be a waste of time. You can say that Jonathan is helping to redirect it and I absolutely agree with you. My preference would be for something more pointed than a stream-of-consciousness piece that has only vague relevance to what our audience actually comes here to read.

Having played editor for a comic studio in the past, if someone had pitched me something similar to this idea, I would have kicked it back to them as being too much like Rick Veitch's abominable dream comics: of real interest only to Veitch and largely a waste of the reader's time and money. Tighten it, focus it, give me a point (or several) that the reader can latch onto and, by doing so, follow the thread of an argument, and we're in business.
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GorillaGrody replied the topic: #297039 14 May 2019 20:20

Jackwraith wrote:

GorillaGrody wrote: I guess this is the heart of the matter. If games are just games and don't have any interplay with culture, then I don't really see the point in NOT just producing content which is unboxing games in front of a kallax shelf.


Except that's not what I was saying. Please don't minimize my arguments; firstly, because it sounds like you're engaging in that posturing that I was writing about; secondly, because it sounds like you're dismissing everything I've written without considering it for a second.


I guess really didn't communicate my point, and I didn't mean to dismiss your editorial position, Jackwraith. It's a solid position, and one I would take if I were an editor. It's drawing the line that's difficult, for many reasons. 1) because there's little to no shared language except "it does X like Y, and X like A, four stars" which is helpful for consuming stuff, but not helpful for culling, or asking why and 2) because the forces of consumption are very powerful, and critical attitudes tout court have sort of been pathologized as "not useful to consumption." This is not just true of games but of, well, lots of things already discussed under this heading. The "decline" I mention above is not due to writers not trying, or to their atrophied skill, but to an environment which needs everything to be value-neutral in order to meet different market realities at different times until we're all dead from exhaustion. "Get to the point," is not a sufficient editorial policy in this environment...and I rush to add that I know your attitude is more nuanced than that, JW. Also that Jonathan has stretched the limit on the farthest end of it. But the limit does require some stretching. It's not just posturing.

(For my part, I was astonished to learn that I could just get on the blog and start writing on a member blog. I've always been a person who benefits from strong editing, so it was a little terrifying, and while I don't regret my own indulgences in the HSB, it would have been interesting to see what the pushback might have been. I don't know if that's how it works for the official writers here, or not.)
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #297041 14 May 2019 20:31
I brought Johnathan on specifically to write this kind of fussy, difficult, and experimental article. No one else is doing anything like it. You might hate it. You might find it refreshing. You might be annoyed by it. Or you might just not get it. But Jonathan is a very unique, very forward-thinking games writer that is just about as far away from the Vasel school as possible.
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Jackwraith replied the topic: #297042 14 May 2019 20:45
And I wasn't trying to imply that I had an editorial position, because I don't. I mentioned my experience in another venue just to cite an example of what I'd seen before and why I would have reacted that way (and am reacting this way.) As noted, I just do the copy editing on a volunteer basis (no one asked me, but I told Shellie I was doing it because I was trying to keep a consistent professional look to what we do here) and if what Jonathan is doing with this article is what the actual editors want, then so be it. As I said, I'm not opposed to it. I think it just falls outside my realm of interest and what I believe is that of the majority of our audience. That's not to say that it doesn't have value. At least three people in just this thread have mentioned that they enjoyed it.

This is the quandary of running a site like this: Do we aim for clicks and page views? (REVIEWS!) Or do we aim for quality writing? That's not to say that reviews can't be or aren't quality writing. But, clearly, there are already many sources for that kind of output. We'd like to do things more interesting than simply "Here's the latest consumer draw of the week!" But then we risk always having a niche audience in a niche hobby. What I don't want is the random reader to click on to something that he or she simply doesn't understand and not bother clicking back again. As you may have seen in the Reddit thread from Jonathan's Gloomhaven piece, there were the usual collection of "Saw he didn't play it, stopped reading, and knew I had no reason to go back" responses. Granted, those are the idiots that you probably don't care about losing as an audience... except that maybe he won't always be so closed-minded if he doesn't keep coming back to neo-Sontag arguments that he doesn't understand or feel inclined to connect to plays of Gloomhaven.

FWIW, I really enjoyed your blog about the Warhammer tournament. Having had many experiences similar to that, I could relate and, even if I hadn't been a regular player, I think the humanist perspective that you infused it with was really appealing. I hope you continue with it, Warhammer or no.
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Vysetron replied the topic: #297044 14 May 2019 20:57
Not my intent to say staff/admins aren't doing their jobs. If my earlier comment came off that way I apologize.

Jackwraith wrote: I thought the previous piece about criticism with Gloomhaven as the trigger point was relevant because it was about a perspective on criticism that involves board games, even if the Reddit crowd decided to get in a twist about whether he'd actually played the game, which wasn't really the point. But he did have a point and one which is relevant to the main thrust of the site. This one didn't do that or at least it didn't in the first half before I gave up on it. Feel free to criticize me for not having actually played Jonathan's piece, either, I suppose. (I've also never played Gloomhaven.)


This is exactly my issue. I read it, then picked through it for specific bits that stuck in my craw, then opted not to even bother because this piece wasn't written for anyone but Volk. I'll be the first to admit that there's an inherent self-centeredness to putting our opinions out there. A certain amount of ego is required in order to portray one's opinions as if they're worth a damn. This though,? This is on another level and it rubs me the wrong way. It's a mile long, chock full of fluff that doesn't support the points, and of use to a niche of a niche of a niche. If this is what greeted me on my first visit to FAT/TWBG I would have done a 180 on the spot.

Also I haven't played Gloomhaven either, though I don't think that should be a brag. If I haven't played a game I typically try to avoid writing a piece about it.
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JonathanVolk replied the topic: #297079 15 May 2019 12:01
I do want to talk about self-indulgence and intellectual masturbation, since it seems to be a really easy way to dismiss an argument without getting granular. I wrote 4000 words about games as art as moral/immoral works that we gamers and critics could stand to interrogate more thoroughly. And I put my points in numbers, for ease of refutation!

The purpose of my essay was to examine critically games as works of art that, like other mediums of art with far more critical scholarship and writing that isn't relegated to some GeoCities barn fire of a site like BGG, we can hold morally accountable. Say what you will about whether the essay does that successfully, but to see my motives called into question is disorienting. What are we even asking for here? An egoless writer who lives to serve the fans? Computers can already write convincingly human news stories about sports--I suppose, if the hobby were bigger, these computers could write about bad games too, since mechanics lend themselves to programmatic, mechanical analysis.

Y'all realize that one essay you disagree with doesn't mean you have to burn the whole house down, right? If "readers" decide they'll never return to TWBG based on this essay, something tells me they aren't readers.

And why is a moral argument about art being thrown back in the arguer's face? Especially by folks who didn't read the argument to the end? Right, Jonathan, but you didn't play Gloomhaven! Hypocrite! Except...I've said enough about why games, which foreground their laws, pretty quickly reveal to players like me whether or not I'm going to want to participate. That's point 15. And, as I try to argue in this piece, games that limit player choices to "Ever killed. Ever failed. No matter. Kill again. Level Up. Kill better." are morally questionable games--they're nothing to live by.

The irony of accusing me of self-indulgence, in an essay dedicated to Wilde, that springs from an essay about camp, doesn't escape me. Oscar Wilde was (and still is!) dismissed for being self-indulgent, campy. But he had important things to say about art and what's right and what's wrong. And Wilde largely doomed himself to imprisonment, by suing for libel, even though his friends warned him not to. I wonder if people forget this fact--the political madness of what Wilde did, self-indulgence that was also self-destructive, even though he was morally right.

In prison, Wilde wrote:

When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else – the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.


Wilde knew you couldn't take the critic, the tastemaker, out of the equation. It's all gorgeous ego, all the way down.
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Vysetron replied the topic: #297080 15 May 2019 12:30

JonathanVolk wrote: The irony of accusing me of self-indulgence, in an essay dedicated to Wilde, that springs from an essay about camp, doesn't escape me. Oscar Wilde was (and still is!) dismissed for being self-indulgent, campy. But he had important things to say about art and what's right and what's wrong.


I've read your piece in its entirety. I've read the material you "dedicated" it to. I'm aware of the necessity of ego in writing. That is literally the last point I made. Reiterating it as if it's a gotcha will get you nowhere. What "important things about art and what's right and what's wrong" were explored here? "Violence bad"? Yes, games have an incredibly troubled history with violence. This has been discussed in depth by many, but not here. What am I, the reader, supposed to glean from this piece?

The difference between you and Oscar Wilde is that you are not Oscar Wilde.
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JonathanVolk replied the topic: #297083 15 May 2019 12:52
LOL. I'm troll-feeding at this point, which makes me more the chum than the chum I'm throwing at your smug purple head.

I just don't know how to engage you, dude, in a critical conversation, if even quotation counts as identity theft--that shit is literal citation! I cower before the quotes of Wilde.