If you haven’t found this blog through sheer happenstance and random luck, you will have noticed that we like to talk about games here. This is generally helpful when you’re recording a podcast about boardgames. So as we blather and chit-chat about said games, I’ve found that before long we end up using one of people’s bugbears of English class: metaphors.
Clearly, the scourge of all casual conversation and an unequivocal sign that the time of affable, laid-back plain-talking is over. When somebody pulls out a metaphor, they’re obviously rushing up the dust-covered steps of their own ivory tower.
Or maybe not. Maybe metaphors are just a natural progression of trying to talk about boardgames in a way that goes beyond the surface impression of what the game looks like, and what the rules have you do and pushes you into the realm of actual experience. Metaphors are in some ways a necessary linguistic crutch until our vocabulary catches up with the things we’re trying to say. In the absence of terminology to define how designer’s intent and rules mechanisms shape and influence our play experience, we need to delve into the deep dark pool of metaphors to get our point across.
In a recent discussion on a boardgame forum I noticed somebody else using music as a metaphor to talk about games. Composers stood in for designers, and songs and compositions stood in for game concepts and rules design. I thought that while it was an interesting take on board games, I wasn’t particularly taken with it. Mainly because it seemed to omit some, in my opinion, fundamental parts of the gaming experience.
Instead, I thought about which metaphor I found most fitting and more importantly, why. Despite my off-brand Dickensian style of stringing words together to make them seem like coherent sentences, it didn’t take me all that long to settle on one I liked. Food turned out to be a very strong and potent metaphor for games. Or at the very least how I like to talk about them.
In my head it works like this: playing a game is basically like eating a meal. If it’s particularly well-done and nourishing, you feel full afterwards and satisfied in a way that is almost, but not quite, like being exhausted. There’s a lingering desire to soon repeat the experience, but for the moment you’re content in basking in the afterglow of what a joy it was to have that meal. Now let’s take a step back. How do you get to that meal? Clearly, there’s the recipe that comes in the box. The game’s rules and design mirror the function of a recipe. It tells you how to put some things together, but says little to nothing about the experience itself, and if you’re one of the uninitiated it doesn’t exactly narrow down how you’re supposed to do things. Recipes simply assume that you know some basic points about playing games, or at the very least are willing to experiment enough to figure things out on your own.
With games you have strategies to discover, with a meal you have to season it just right for you to enjoy it. Follow the recipe blindly and the end result might be too sterile and drab. If you take too many liberties with it (or are simply too cavalier about mistakes), you might end up with something very different from what it says on the box. And let’s not even get started on being too aggressive with the salt.
Following this line of thought, a game’s theme and components become the meal’s ingredients. Some can be lavish and extravagant, some plain or common. Maybe zombies and Cthulhu are the cheap, processed meat of gaming? (Does that make Faded tofu?) Maybe meeples and miniatures are like ketchup and barbecue sauce? Condiments with which some like to cover up the lack of a tasty recipe. I’m fairly certain that makes games set in the pseudo-historical past, the plain white bread of boardgames. And while that is all fun and amusing, it’s not the reason I decided to write this down.
What’s most interesting about this particular metaphor and the point which I feel the music metaphor fails to adequately capture, is the role of gamers and gaming groups. I strongly believe that gaming groups are not just passive consumers of media, but instead one of the most essential elements of creating a great gaming experince. Gamers are chefs.
Gamers. Are. Chefs.
That’s not to say that gamers are, through the sheer act of being gamers, some kind of highly trained and practiced connoisseur of the fine arts of gaming. But they (as in the actual people you sit down to play the game with) are at centre of the whole endeavour. They decide how to add to the experience through their behaviour. They are the biggest influence on how challenging the game will end up being. They are the ones that will change and adjust their play styles to make the game intense or light-hearted, confrontational or irreverent, etc. etc. Much in the way that actual chefs twist, turn and reshape a good recipe into something memorable by adding their personal touches and flourishes, you and your gaming buddies will steer the game into one direction or another. It all depends on whether you put some effort into it or not.
I’m really quite enamored with this metaphor, because it perfectly encapsulates everything I consider gamers and gaming groups to add to the experience of play, without ignoring the game itself. While we all blithely acknowledge that a great group can elevate a mediocre or even bad game to a fun time, we still tend to zone in on the intricacies of the recipe and the ingredients when we try to talk about a game. Occasionally you get a mention that you need to right group of cooks to make a particularly specific recipe work (most often seen with social and narrative games). But we rarely talk about the skills necessary to be a good cook, or even the kind of small gestures that turn a decent game into a great experience. As such I think it is tremendously helpful to think of games as food. We, the cooks (players), use the ingredients (components and theme) according to the recipe (rules) in order to have a satisfying meal (play).
My use of this metaphor effectivly achieves two things. Firstly, it says a lot about how much value I put in a game’s theme or its designer. They are obviously indispensable for play, but they don’t necessarily define the kind of experience I am going to have, when I sit down to play. Arguably this metaphor might even hint at the fact, that gaming is as essential an activity to me as a good meal.
Secondly, it made me hungry. But I’m willing to concede that this might not be entirely useful to know.
Regardless, I find this kind of careful examination as to which metaphor we rely on to talk about games, very enlightening. It not only gives us a glimpse into how people think about our favourite pastime, it might also nudge us towards looking at games from a different angle.
So what’s your go-to metaphor when it comes to games?