Bouncing off Iain's initiative to be more aware of sustainability in the board game industry, I began thinking about that and some associated questions.
In our increasingly polluted and overheated world, there's a valid question to be posed about consumer culture. Americans especially are largely possessed of a frame of mind that often means having more stuff is a positive outcome of modern society. No frame of reference is distinct from this mindset, from really wealthy people owning dozens of cars of which they can drive only one at a time to regular people owning collections of kitchen gadgets and power tools that see little use, if any at all. Of course, this same situation exists in the form of media, especially the one that this website is oriented around: board games.
Most of us have long been aware of the segment of the board game world that buys games for the sake of owning them, rather than actually playing them. They're collectors in the same way that many action figure and comic collectors are. They're not interested in playing all of Reiner Knizia's titles. They just want to have a complete collection of them with perhaps one or two plays here or there before moving on to another focus of their collecting efforts. That in itself is a pursuit in the same way that stamp collecting is. There's nothing inherently wrong with it, as it's not harming anyone else directly, and as I've said for most of my life: "Everybody's gotta have a hobby." If it brings someone more joy to have Root and all its expansions sitting on a shelf in pristine condition, rather than actually on a table being used by them and their friends, hey, knock yourself out. You do you. One question does arise when we look at the macro perspective however. As noted, they're not hurting anyone directly, but are we, as a society, hurting everyone obliquely?
On the one hand, certainly, cardboard requires resources. Wooden and plastic figures require resources. Shipping said productions around the world requires resources. All of those resources are, in some small or large way, contributing negatively to the world around us, whether through deforestation (cardboard), petroleum production (plastic and shipping), petroleum use (shipping and production), or any of a few dozen other examples. In that sense, board games are contributing to the overall consumer perspective (More stuff!) that is poisoning/burning our world. On the other hand, this is what keeps the designers and producers of said games, many of them people we directly know and love, doing what they do for a living. As much as I don't want to contribute further to global warming, I also don't want people like Cole Wehrle and Eric Lang to not be able to make a living at what they love to do. I've spent most of my life trying to make a living at something I actually enjoy and I don't want to condemn anyone else to the drudgery of doing something they despise solely in order to pay the bills. But that brings this to a matter of both collective and personal responsibility. Certainly, we must all act together to solve the problems that modern society faces. From a personal perspective, I suspect that's less difficult for me than many others.
I'm not a minimalist, but I've never been very materially inclined. Every car I've ever owned has been used and lasted more than a decade. I wear shoes until they have holes in them. If something is still functional, I'm normally pretty reluctant to upgrade or replace it. I tend to just do with what I have, even if I have the financial room to do better. That doesn't make me better than anyone else. In some cases, it makes me mildly ridiculous (When my partner and I met and she noticed that I'd worn through the soles of my sneakers and was starting on the next layer, she asked: "Isn't it time for some new shoes?") The exceptions to that perspective have always been books, music, and games. I no longer have as significant an environmental concern about the first two, as they can now be produced electronically (which, yes, still has downsides; let's not be pedantic here.) That last category is the stickler but I've adjusted to that by essentially declaring that I'm in "trading only" mode for the past few years. I have a pile of around 130 games on my shelf. I have zero inclination to add to it for anyone but a select few designers whose output I've always appreciated. I'm currently in on two Kickstarter projects from a couple of them and they will likely be the last of my Kickstarter involvement. In the last year or two, every time someone brings up a new game on the TWBG fora, I find myself somewhere between disinterested and actively repelled. I've long since determined that I won't be extracting the amount of "value" that I'm accustomed to from things like cars and shoes from the stack of games dominating a wall of my home. Consequently, I don't really feel like adding to it.
But that question of value is, again, a very personal thing. How many plays is enough to make a game that costs $100 "worth it"? How about a game that costs $30? One play? Five? Ten? Will I be able to play all of my 130 games ten times each? Probably not. Some of them will and have gotten many more than that. But some simply won't. I don't feel compelled to start selling things off simply because I won't use them immediately in some kind of Marie Kondo statement about the lack of joy they bring, because the potential joy is still there. I'm just not interested in adding to the pile in the hopes of generating more joy. I have enough saved up, I think, and I want to get that "value" from what's currently on the shelves, which means that buying new games has pretty much fallen into the same category as most other things in my life: the games I have are still "functional" and so I'll play them until they aren't, which will take a long, long time. Luckily, unlike shoes, when they do become non-functional (i.e. not interesting), I can exercise the option I've been using to remove non-functional games, which is trading. My most recent successful example of that approach was trading a copy of Heroes of Black Reach for Outer Rim, playing Outer Rim once and being completely turned off by it, and quickly trading it for a copy of Ethnos. The only environmental cost incurred in that respect was in shipping the three different games across the country, which is still a cost, but less of one than producing whole new copies.
But speaking of costs, there are more involved than solely energy and materials. I noted above that books and music can now be produced almost solely electronically, negating the need for things like paper, plastic, and aluminum. Although board games can also be "produced" and enjoyed electronically via things like TTS, I'm simply not interested in that medium, as it detracts from what I think is the essential experience of getting together with other people and enjoying the game. I have played and continue to play video games with people in distant locales and I have played games on TTS and enjoyed our time doing so, usually with members of the TWBG community. But board games, to me, are a more social and, thus, shared experience that almost demands that other people be in the same room to fulfill that experience. I want to be able to look up and see the reactions of my opponents when the game turns in a new direction. I want to be able to communicate with them fully- facial expression, tone of voice, body language -when we're tramping across Terrinoth or building a caravan Through the Desert. My enjoyment of the game is often directly linked to the people I'm playing with, in the same way that collectors' enjoyment of possessing said game, regardless of whether they ever remove the shrinkwrap, is an emotional experience for them, as well.
How do we measure the value of our emotional experiences against the potential harm that they can bring? There's a host of philosophical perspectives that identify material objects as something to be avoided or discarded in the hope of reaching a better perspective. From Gnosticism to Dualism to some aspects of Stoicism (of which I'm an adherent) to the dictates of many major religions ("camel through the eye of a needle" and all that), there is often a trend toward rejecting material excess and the accumulation of wealth. There's little doubt that one could look at my wall of board games and think that it's both excessive and an example of useless wealth. However, it's also something I enjoy that, given that they're already produced and sitting on my shelf, aren't hurting anyone directly or obliquely, at this point. It is, to a certain degree, a sign of previous damage that now is simply in stasis; getting no worse and no better and still satisfying my desire to extract enjoyment from it. It becomes a question of fine lines drawn. How much do we hold ourselves responsible for the accumulation of excess? Is my determination to not add to the pile but only to trade away parts of it for new parts sufficient to absolve me of previous sins?
There are a number of voices on TWBG that decry the current excessive state of board game production; suggesting that there's no need for the masses of plastic figures and piles of vividly illustrated cards. From a certain perspective, that's true. There's also no "need" for physical games at all, given the presence of things like TTS. But there's still some value inherent to them for people like me. The fact that Ankh has a literal pile of monstrous figures in it is simply an expression of that kind of game. Designer Eric Lang said that his first approach to all three parts of his mythic trilogy was to make something that looked cool on the table. There's nothing wrong with that, even if some people consider it gauche, because the visuals are part of the play of that kind of game, just like any video game. People have been building and painting Games Workshop's models for almost 40 years now in an effort to have the coolest-looking army on the table while they play GW's games. This is a phenomenon that goes back even further, as fancy-looking chess sets, often tied to a particular IP like Lord of the Rings, have been in existence for even longer. Chess is still an abstract game. You don't need to have those fancy representations of pawns and rooks. But they're part of the experience and suggesting that having so many of them is a problem with that type of game is trying to impose one's own preferences on others.
But that brings us back to that broader perspective. Is it a more beneficial choice for the world-at-large to instead focus on things like RPG's which need only one manual and imagination? Or on abstracts that could be substituted with coins and a grid drawn on a piece of paper? Where is the line between doing the right thing for humanity and our environment and enjoying one's short existence in said environment? If I sold my entire collection today, I'd make a decent amount of money that I could probably do something "better" with than have it sitting on my shelf. Would that make someone else's life better? Maybe. Would it make my life better? Maybe not. Again, apply that to the broader board game world as a whole and it may certainly make the lives of people like Patrick Leder and Scott Almes worse because they'd be out of a job and the joy that their games generate among thousands or millions of people would be lost.
I don't think there are easy or pat answers to any of these questions. I think Iain's initial impulse- to try to reward those companies who are attempting to limit their impact on the environment -is a sound one. Instead of simply rejecting the current state of affairs, he's suggesting that people inform themselves and, in turn, support those producers who are working to still produce their games, however elaborate or fanciful, in a manner that perhaps makes us all a little more comfortable about spending money on our accumulation of excess. It doesn't reject the drive to consume, but perhaps is the first step in shaping it toward something that's more palatable for all of us. Meanwhile, I'm trying to get my 13-year-old copy of Chaos in the Old World on the table again...