Anyone who’s been around games for a long enough time inevitably starts to take some things for granted. We develop assumptions, like:
- Games should be fun
- You will get better at a game the more you play
- The most fun games are the ones you’re good at
These postulates help us establish a framework for understanding the concept of play and define the boundaries of what’s possible. For players, creators and (especially) critics of games, viewing games through the lens of our own assumptions allows us to develop associations and pass judgment much more quickly. And when there are thousands of games coming out every year, it’s not just an efficiency gain for an enthusiast -- it’s a means for survival.
I encourage you to throw all of that away.
Think of a cartographer exploring an undiscovered island. As they draw and revise their map on subsequent surveys, their blurry outlines are traced and rerouted into rigid, precise outcroppings and topographical strata.
With each revision, the way the cartographer perceives that land is subtly altered. They grow more confident in the diligence and consistency in their map, and so they begin to take more things for granted on their eighth or ninth survey of the coastline. They move with purpose and confidence. They become so familiar with the terrain that they live out the rest of their days on that island, never once noticing the massive webbed feet extending from the tortoise’s body that their map so diligently rendered.
Last weekend, while I was at XOXO, I played a few tabletop games for the first time. One of them is called The Resistance, which hinges on deducing and interpreting social cues to identify who the traitors are -- or, as a traitor, to successfully sabotage the plans of the resistance team. I had a lot of fun playing a few rounds with a rotating crew of players.
I also learned something: I’m absolutely terrible at social deduction games.
When I was younger, this would have been infuriating. I was the kid you’d invite over to help you get through Dr. Wily’s castle or set up the best materia configuration for taking down Emerald Weapon. When it came to video games, I always found a way to win.
Last weekend, I realized I’m starting from square one with a different style of game. I don’t have decades of experience to draw upon; I don’t have a framework for categorizing types of games or labeling mechanics. I’m learning everything as I go, and each round is a chance to try something completely different and see what happens. What happens if I tell the truth to the whole table about my role? If I lie? What if I loudly pronounce someone to be a traitor, even when I have no inkling of their true allegiance? Each game is a litmus test -- a fresh canvas for Pollock-esque input and surprising output. It’s a powerful reminder of the joy that comes with learning.
My map is crude and incomplete. I can see with clear eyes.