The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Bat, The Block, The Brush

Dave Shapiro

August, 2004

The longer I am professionally involved with games the more I am convinced they could, they should have the stature of sports, because they are mental sports.

This is a statement made by Richard Garfield (Magic: The Gathering) during an interview in 1997. A fairly valid argument can be made for this position. With few exceptions (Knizia's Lord of the Rings for example), board games are competitive engagements on an established playing field, governed by a set of rules. Personal attributes enhance a player's opportunity and possibilities within the established structure. As the weekend warriors take the field for camaraderie and competition, so too do gamers. In some athletic contests, better equipment can improve the player's accomplishments (just try a 130 mph serve with a wooden racket); Magic, HeroClix and many of the Collectible Card Games follow this same pattern. More often now, gaming tournaments are awarding monetary prizes, though not of the value found in sporting events. The regimen for training Chess Grand Masters is similar to that for professional athletes and the treatment allotted Grand Masters rivals that of athletes in some countries. Amateur athletes train in local batting cages and gyms; gamers solve problems and puzzles. Though it is not a one-to-one correspondence there are enough valid similarities between sports and gaming as to be beyond coincidence.

If we accept Garfield's premise, that games are a sport, then why doesn't the average person respond to them as sport? Where are the heroes, the jerseys, the TV coverage or product endorsement offers? Why doesn't Reebok offer Puerto Rico Pumps or Nike the Air Knizias? Even at the weekend warrior level gaming is considered an oddity. Announce at work that you blasted a home run over the weekend and it's "high-fives" all around; announce that you "took the wood" in Taj Mahal at the World Boardgaming Championships and they blankly stare at you. If gaming is a sport why is there such a discrepancy in acceptance? Twitch gamers (PC, Xbox, PS2) enjoy a relatively high level of acceptance when compared to board gamers. Admit that you play Poker weekly and you get a knowing nod; admit you play Wizard, Thor, Magic or Gang of Four and you get "that look"; the look that implies a suspicion that you are participating in something quite sinister.

It cannot be the complexity of the rules as even simple to teach games (such as Thor) are viewed with derision; they are "kids stuff". For some reason many adults appear to have developed an actual aversion to board games. It appears to progress as people mature; as if they are out growing games yet so many will continue to play Poker, Bridge and Scrabble. (Note: Scrabble has a huge following around the world.) Why then are board games shunned? Where does this originate? Why is the stigma of geekiness attached to board gamers?

The difference between gaming and sports originates with the personal demands made on the player. Consider the following scenarios: 5 average people attending a picnic decide to run a 100-meter race (we smokers offer to be judges for the event). The race is run; Mr. X wins; game over, let's eat. The same five then sit down to a game of Poker. Mr. X raises the stakes until everyone folds. Questions begin surfacing during the play of hands: can I afford to stay in, what will my wife say if I lose too much, is he bluffing, and so on. Why do questions arise during a game but seldom in a sport? No one would ponder the "decision" to hit a home run after a baseball game. Good games require a significant number of decisions. Gaming elevates the level of the individual's participation, it is much more demanding; it is personal. Intensive play in a good game draws on the essence of the person; the soul. Personality affects the style of play; aggressive individuals can drive a game in a certain direction with the other players simply reacting. Two of these individuals in a game can generate confrontational play even to the point of vendetta style play. A game of El Grande with five Risk enthusiasts plays differently than one with five Carcassonne fanatics. Consider a game of Diplomacy with one aggressive player and six shy, timid players. Couple the personality factor with stamina, as the ability to "go the distance" can be the difference between playing well or being lost in a mist of exhaustion and confusion. Gaming is a personal experience and many people are not comfortable exposing themselves to others; better to forego play than chance revealing real or perceived inadequacies. Children are free from these image problems and they therefore are able to game openly exposing their strengths and weaknesses without concern. Adults begin to lose this freedom during puberty; as they say in the commercial: "Image is everything".

If the first component of gaming is personal competition then the second is art. And art, in all of its manifestations, is evolving. Board games, like other forms of artistic endeavor, are continuously changing, reflecting society, challenging the players to greater and different ideas; this alone elevates gaming above sport. We look forward to new movies, novels, music and works of art not because we are looking for the perfect novel or sculpture; we demand these for the variety, the new challenge they afford us. It is the same with gamers; we try new games because of the challenge, not because we look for the perfect game; it does not exist just as the perfect painting will never exist. Knizia, Kramer, Faidutti, Moon and the others are the artists of the gaming world. We await their next releases as we do the next Spielberg film, the next Clancy novel or discovering a previously lost Degas.

Gaming is not an art form but games are. To experience Beethoven's Ninth one must do more than just hear it; you must listen and allow it to envelop you. The same is true of a great painting, novel or film; you become lost in the experience, you enter The Zone. Good games demand the personal commitment required of art. Playing a game becomes, as Martin Buber would espouse, an I/Thou experience, not me and you. The core of gaming then is the I/Thou experience not winning or losing. Art reaches into the humanity of a person; attaching the soul and exposing it. Great games perform the same function and so many adults fear the exposure; the display of perceived inadequacies. They fear art in any form.

When art is coupled with personal competition a reflexive defense mechanism commences resulting in a negative response. "Modern art is crap", not because they understand Dali, it is simply the reverse; they have no clue as to his intent so they abuse his ideas. Atlas Shrugged is too long, Bach is too old—people don't want to hear that. The pre-emptive strike is made as soon as the perceived threat is introduced. Most people will not engage in the I/Thou relationship required to appreciate a great game and it therefore becomes a threat to their image and unacceptable behavior for adults to play board games.

The earliest recognized and accepted art are the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. These have been dated from 15,000 to 10,000 BCE. Simple games probably date to about the same period, as a society sufficiently sophisticated to produce the drawings should be capable of developing rudimentary games. If in 15,000 years art has failed to become mainstream how can we expect more of board games? When the cave drawings were made the average concerns were food, sleep, shelter and sex. There was little if any competition for the limited "leisure time" available. Today, the diversity of leisure time activity is ever increasing and there is significantly more competition for that time. It is a tribute to the quality of these games that they survive in this environment and continue to grow.

Returning to Garfield's premise that games are sport; I must disagree. I suggest that sports are actually a subset of gaming, one that is limited to physical games. Sports in general, lack the artistic and personal demands of board games. The sporting experience is very insular; you may know of your opponent's abilities and strategies but nothing of him; winning the game is the sole purpose (there are exceptions of course, some of us are happy to participate just to prove that our sweat glands continue to function). In many tournaments your opponent has no name, just a number and when the match ends you shake hands and depart. Now consider a tournament of Taj Mahal, Euphrat & Tigris, El Grande or Risk. It is not possible to play without discovering something about the other players' personalities. A timid dweeb, once freed by entering the game, becomes sly, aggressive and ruthless; the nose-to-the-grindstone tyrant workaholic shows compassion for another player. No conversation is required; the play reveals everything. Art does this, it exposes the soul. And games are art.

Note: It was not my intent to berate sports; I enjoy them and have played in organized sports since high school. In the past five years I have won four ribbons at the Badger State Games (old farts division), continue to play volleyball year round and coach grade school basketball and volleyball.

- Dave Shapiro

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