“Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” —Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man
When we think of play and games we do not think about the outside world, our happening societies and bustling metropolises. Games are an escape from the reality of the work and personal stress of our lives. The whole point of games is that they exist in a realm outside of “real life.” Right?
But games are increasingly simulating regions of “real life.” This is obvious in the realm of narrative-driven video games—they can be seen as a new medium of fiction. There we expect an author to have hidden some message for the player if the story is deep enough to warrant it. Where somebody is actively telling a story, we expect a worldview.
Yet even a game stripped of any narrative element has a worldview hidden in the mechanical medium of gameplay. Even card games and board games have a worldview. Stop and consider what Monopoly tells us about business and real estate. While everyone may start equal, random chance quickly sorts out who gets the lucrative deals and who’s stuck with poor properties.
Although Tarot cards are now famous for their fortune telling tricks, they were originally playing cards. People played regional variations of the same game, tarot or tarrock or tarocco, all over Renaissance Europe. So what did the gameplay look like? Face cards like kings and queens duking it out to collect all the other cards, while trump cards named Death, the Pope, the Emperor, the Wheel of Fortune disrupt their plays. Hmm… that sounds a little like 15th century Italian history… which also happens to be when and where Tarot was invented.
You see, games bear the impression of the time and perspective they were created in. More often than not, game mechanics represent a perception of actual “real life” processes, even if only as an abstraction of those processes. Whether these gameplay mechanics accurately represent the processes they depict is only partially interesting. Let’s also ask, what do they suggest about the perspective of the development team behind the game? And what about how players interact with these mechanics, like when they try to game the rules?
This blog wants to dig into these questions and explore them using examples from real life. Can a game with a progressive narrative undermine its message with contradictory gameplay? How does a game simulate an experience using abstract mechanics? What makes Crusader Kings 2 players widely commit in-game fratricide, incest, and ethnic cleansing? And what does the answer to that question tell us about this portrayal of the medieval world?
One part game analysis and one part cultural criticism, this blog is aimed at people who are willing to temporarily abandon the idea that the play of a game happens within a magic circle where nothing is real—people who are interested in games from a cultural standpoint and as an interactive art medium.
My approach is similar to Youtubers like Errant Signal or Noah Caldwell-Gervais. Though Errant Signal does have a blog, I’ve linked to his Youtube page as well, because the blog is out of date by nearly a year.