Games are systems: a series of inputs and outputs, of actions and reactions and interactions. They can be many things - frivolous or serious, light or heavy; they can appeal to the mathematical rigor of your neo-cortex or ignite giddy thrills in the reptilian part of the brain; they can be meaningless or they can be laden with meaning, and that meaning might be built into the game, or it might be something that we bring to it, and discover, ourselves. But for all the different types of games that exist, and all the different types of experiences we can have with them, they are, at their core, systems.
And because they are systems, that makes them an exceptionally good fit for modeling systems. Maybe a better fit for that than they are for other things. Much is made of games that try to elicit and explore human emotions, that try to tell stories about human beings who aren't trying to kill one another, but trying to love, or to grieve, or to forgive, or to ask forgiveness. And as I said, there are all sorts of games that can do all sorts of things, and the critical and commercial success of these games is nothing to sneeze at.
But I wonder sometimes if these things succeed despite the form rather than because of it. I remember something that Erin Lee Escobedo wrote - something I read long before she pitched Meltwater to us - about how games are very good at modeling conflict and resource management, but that attempts to model other experiences often function like combat - wearing down "emotional hit points" - and resource management - accumulating chits that represent happiness or fulfillment.
Films and books and plays and music are all achingly human, and they all speak to us in direct and human ways, but games are a collection of rules and mechanics and tokens and tracks. If something human is communicated, it's often because of the other humans at the table. I remember playing the game Dead of Winter with Mary and our friend David, and rolling my eyes often and hard at the crossroads cards and their attempts to create moral dilemmas. David's character got a card where his options were either killing his character's father (and obtaining an in-game bonus) or letting him live (and obtaining nothing). And of course he was going to choose the one that gave him a mechanical advantage, that was never in any doubt. But when he made that choice, he did it with a little ad-lib: I don't give a damn. Never liked the old man that much in the first place. And suddenly his little cardboard standee became imbued with some faint but evocative simulacrum of life. But it was David that did that. Another day at another table with other players, the thing was flat and mathematical.
Often wargames attempt to create meaning through identification. You assume the role of a historical figure or faction, and the game asks you to view the world through their eyes. Here are their goals, here are their resources, and by playing the game, by experiencing their point of view, you might achieve a deeper and more compelling understanding of it. There are pitfalls associated with this; there are moral reasons for example why I intentionally worked against this kind of identification in This Guilty Land. But no matter how much the victory conditions harmonize with real-life objectives, and the actions with real-life possibilities, I am still playing a game, I am still looking to score so many victory points or hold so many objective hexes for so many turns; outside of wargames, I am still trying to manage my emotional hit points and to accumulate happiness markers or clue tokens or whatever.
And there's nothing wrong with any of that. I don't play Pandemic to become emotionally invested in the inner life of my orange pawn, nor do I think that I'm Rommel or Monty when playing Rommel in the Desert. Most games don't and shouldn't bother trying to tell a human story. Some recent games are more ambitious, and heck, some of those games manage to realize those ambitions, to tell those stories and create those emotional experiences. That they can do this with a board game, where everything works against it, is a kind of magic trick that I'm in awe of.Maybe it's because I can't fathom how to pull that rabbit out of the hat that I cling to the idea of games as systems, and to the idea that a game that models a system - that allows you to experience it, to understand it, perhaps even to question it - works with the form rather than against it. Laws of science, principles of economics, systems of political power, cycles of oppression and resistance: all these things are ready-made for board games, should a designer be ambitious enough to pursue them.