On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only


When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On cooperation in gaming.

On cooperation in gaming.

vowminiatureAt a buddy’s house recently, I played a cooperative board game.  In Vanguard of War, each player controls a character defending a church from an army of demons.  Many games of this ilk have been produced recently – Pandemic and Ghost Stories are among the most popular.

But my impression is that these games are best with a single player.  You’re attempting to solve a (typically randomized) puzzle created by the designer.  Maybe you’re the sort of person who enjoyed doing math homework with friends – if so, this type of game would probably be fun to play with a team.

Perhaps it’s a failure of my own education that I rarely worked through chemistry or physics problems in groups.  After all, few really big puzzles are solved alone.  To the best of my knowledge, no tech company of one is going to stop climate change or start a colony on Mars.

But something I look for in games – in any group project, really – is for the identity of the participants to matter.  There’s an increasing awareness that people from different backgrounds will often come up with different approaches to even highly technical problems.  A world in which only white males hold management positions at tech companies doesn’t just produce economic and social inequality – it also makes crappier technologies.

themindSome cooperative games have an element of this.  I played The Mind recently, in which players are dealt random cards from a numbered deck of a hundred, and without communicating (other than wait times) are supposed to dole out their cards in ascending order.  Any set of players should converge toward the game’s simple solution (waiting a constant duration per card number before tossing down your next), but it was still fun to play.  I imagine that a kid could enjoy ten or more games, especially with different teammates.  Will you reach a rhythm soon enough?

But in many of other cooperative games, the identities of the actual humans sitting around the table don’t matter.  If you’re talking through decisions with your teammates, each player’s personality is subsumed by the game.  In something like Vanguard of War, where each player is the primary controller of a single character, that game character’s personality matters more than your own.

And let’s say you play a game several times: with many cooperative board games, the way to maintain an interesting challenge as you improve is for your teammates to play worse.  Otherwise the game becomes easier precisely when you need it to be more difficult.  When a game is a pre-set puzzle, you and your friends can’t keep having fun by growing in experience together.

This is unfortunate, because I’d wanted to introduce cooperative games to my kids.  Isn’t that what all parents want?  For their kids to get along, to be the sort of friendly, helpful ally that people are happy to work with later on in life?

hiveBut then I realized that the best thing for me to do is simply change how I think about playing games.  A two-player “competitive” game like Go or chess (or Hive, a recent household favorite) doesn’t need to seem adversarial.

In chess, each person is given an objective, and, yes, those objectives are mutually exclusive.  But completing the objective isn’t really the point.  The purpose of the game is to have fun solving puzzles, and the person you’re playing with creates the puzzles for you.  The players in chess actually are cooperating, because they’re both setting aside reality in favor of an arbitrary set of rules that both follow for the duration of the game – and the game is only interesting if both players work together to create it.  If anyone doesn’t follow the expected rules, it wrecks the puzzle.

Go_boardPart of what makes “competitive” games interesting is that both players are striving to win – to capture the king, control the most territory, what have you.  A human consciousness is manipulating the puzzle that you’re trying to solve in real time.  Of course, this works best when both players have a fair chance of completing their objectives, which is a reason why I like Go better than chess.  There’s a built-in mechanism to accommodate less-experienced players.  And until the players have “solved” the game (like knowing the exact best strategy in tic-tac-toe or checkers), they’ll continue to have a fun challenge as they grow in experience together.

So I shouldn’t have been worried about introducing competitive games to my children.  I just needed to change the way I think about them.  If only I’d paid more attention to ecologist Mark Bekoff!

Bekoff has studied play for years.  In The Emotional Lives of Animals, he writes:

bekoffI was surprised to learn that [dogs’] bows are used not only right at the beginning of play to tell another dog “I want to play with you,” but also right before biting, accompanied by rapid side-to-side head shaking, as if to say, “I’m going to bite you hard but it’s still in play.”  Bows are also used right after vigorous biting, as if to say, “I’m sorry I just bit you so hard, but it was play.”  Bows serve as punctuation, an exclamation point, to call attention to what the dog wants. 

Infant dogs and their wild relatives learn how to play fairly using play markers such as the bow, and their response to play bows seems to be innate.  Pigs use play markers such as bouncy running and head twisting to communicate their intentions to play.  Jessica Flack and her colleagues discovered that juvenile chimpanzees will increase the use of signals to prevent the termination of play by the mothers of their younger play partners.  Researchers who study the activity always note that play is highly cooperative.  I can’t stress enough how important it is that play is carefully negotiated, that it is fine-tuned on the run so that the play mood is maintained.  There are social rules that must be followed.

Just the other day, my kid asked if we could play a game of “chest.”  I momentarily demurred.  But now that I’ve had time to reflect, I know – I don’t want to play against her, but I will happily play many games of chess with her.

And probably with this guy, too.

On games, tinkering, and gratitude.

On games, tinkering, and gratitude.

I play board games with a local reviewer.  We often try two or three each week – and I’ve noticed that I’m happiest after playing really flawed games.

Consider, for example, the card game Boss Monster.  You portray a villain building a dungeon full of traps.  Each turn you expand your dungeon, making it more enticing and more dangerous.  Then adventurers appear and venture into one of the players’ dungeons; you win by causing their demise.


My gaming buddy really dislikes this game: while playing, you make very few meaningful choices.  Sometimes no choices at all, honestly.

That’s not fun.

But I loved it!  Not just because I have a soft spot for games that portray humans as the enemy (in Ferretcraft, which my family designed, you play as a forest creature and the “orcs” are just green-tinted humans).  And not just because I’m a sucker for cute art (which makes me feel lucky that my favorite artist makes games with me).

warlock sticker.jpg
A warlock character from Ferretcraft.  See what I mean about her art?

Even in his negative review, my buddy stressed again and again how great Boss Monster looks.

I should admit, it wasn’t very fun to play.  Shuffling a deck of cards and sitting down to “play” doesn’t mean much if the game has only marginally more strategy than War.  But there are several really clever ideas behind the game – they’re just poorly executed.

For instance, players are competing to lure adventurers.  If your dungeon has less treasure than an opponent’s, no heroes will visit, and so you can’t get points for dooming them.  Unfortunately, the cards that are best at luring heroes are also the best at dispatching them.  There’s no strategy here – on each turn, you should play the most powerful card.  The design would’ve been much improved if there was a tension between attracting adventurers and harming them.

And the adventurers are each lured by a different type of treasure.  Wizards seek spellbooks, warriors seek weaponry, thieves seek gold.  If you happened to build a dungeon full of gold, and a thief happens to appear, you’ll get to slay that hero.  But the adventurers are drawn from a deck at random, which means there’s no strategy here either.  Most likely, each player in the game will be best at luring a certain type, and the random order that adventurers appear determines who wins.

With a few changes, though, this could be really fun.  A card that’s good at luring heroes shouldn’t hurt them much – then players would have to balance what their dungeons need.  The adventurers should be more difficult to dispatch if several voyage into a single dungeon at the same time, which would impose a cost on being too good at luring them.  And the adventurers should wait in town for a bit before entering the dungeons, which would allow players to plan ahead.  Perhaps the adventurers would spend time drinking ale and boasting in a tavern – each might need a different number of beers before feeling ready to tromp off to his or her doom.

(It’s not clear whether an extremely strong hero would need more beers – a higher alcohol tolerance – or fewer – more confidence.  I think either design has interesting gameplay implications.  If each hero in town drinks one beer per turn, and the powerful heroes can handle more liquor, then you have a long warning period in which to make your dungeon deadly enough to handle hardy adventurers.  Or if weaker heroes require more liquid courage, then players can vie to lure easy points away from their opponents.  We’d probably test both designs and then write lore justifying whichever was more fun.)

With those changes, you’d get to make meaningful choices every game instead of simply doling out cards and seeing who wins.

But even though Boss Monster wasn’t fun to play, it was a blast to think about.  Which made me feel grateful to the designers … and to my parents.

Growing up, there was always an expectation that we’d modify games.  Pieces from the board games we owned were used to make dozens of others.  My brother and I played Risk daily for several summers in a row … but I don’t think we ever played an entire game according to the rules printed on the box.

My siblings, with a game they’d made.

And it’s not just while playing board games that I feel grateful.  Once we’d learned that we might have to modify games to have more fun, it was easy to view the rest of the world with an eye toward improvement.  More than just games are flawed, after all.  I might feel overwhelmingly depressed by everything that’s wrong with the world if I didn’t feel at least a little joy in tinkering, trying to make things better.

Because it is daunting.  Or at least it feels daunting when I look at the Pages to Prisoners mail queue, knowing that each envelop might be somebody else stuck in solitary with no one to talk to, nothing to read.  Or it might be somebody who’s getting out soon and wants to turn his life around (recently I sent books to somebody who wanted career guides and self help because he’s about to finish a seventeen year sentence).  Or it might be somebody who’d like to play games – our criminal justice system hoovers up all kinds.  But if we abandon people to our current dehumanizing, demoralizing system, we’ll mostly get one type back.

Contents of a package we recently sent to someone in prison.

Header image for post: Tinkering studio at the Exploratorium.