Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Worth Playing

Ian Bogost is a game designer of the sort to which I can relate.   If the reader has some time, I would suggest listening to some of his speeches regarding the elements of game design and the creation of fun, what fun is, how fun is obtained through taking game design seriously and so on.  Just the sort of thing that I've been preaching on this blog for years.

I admit, I ran into Bogost yesterday.  I find it encouraging that when I agree with someone's take on what makes play or what makes a game, it ends up coming from someone in academia, who has to defend their position in order to have a position, rather than from a business relationship with a company that sponsors the same event at which they speak.

In this video, Bogost reminded me of an old aphorism about golf that calls it "a good walk spoiled." Bogost doesn't go into it, he knows his audience is familiar with the concept and he's using it as shorthand to build towards another idea.  But I'd like to talk about the saying a little, since I think it can be applied to the role-playing campaign concept.

The "spoiled" aspect is that a game of golf, 99% of the time, leads to disappointment.  As one arrives at the golf course in the morning, the sun being out, the sweet smell of freshly cut grass in the air, upon the idyllic setting that is a modern, tailored golf course, a golfer has an certain expectation ~ this might be a great game, where par is more closely approached than perhaps ever before, that swing after swing will only make the day better and better.

What inevitably happens, almost always from the first tee, is that this expectation is dashed.  The first drive is a disappointment, the sand pit isn't missed and the first putt misses the hole by an inch.  And things only get worse from there.  Those who play golf understand this ~ and they understand what keeps them playing even as things go bad.  There's still the next 17 holes.  There's still a chance to turn this around. There's still hope.

At the end of the day, when all that hope is gone, the clubs are being loaded into the car and all there is left to do is to dissect every attempted swing, take note of every momentary success, contemplate woefully the overall failure of the effort and remind ourselves that golf is, after all, an impossible game.

No one wins at golf.  It is a game where one person's score is compared to another person, but where the course is always the winner and the players are ultimately always the loser.  If the reader has not played golf very much, this point will be lost; but golfers know exactly what I mean.

Golf is life.  This is part of why it is so popular with spectacularly successful people who have the money to play anything they want.  Golf is humbling.  Golf is unbeatable.  For those who are able to beat, either personally or financially, any obstacle they encounter, golf is obsessive.  Because when we find most things to be too easy for us, when we lack challenge, when we want something that will push us beyond our capacity to succeed, we seek the impossible.

If the DM of a campaign plays according to the original precepts of D&D, players will die.  If the players are of the sort that find the business of living to be obvious and dull, if they're not challenged by the process of going to work or being part of a group, they will want this.  They will see the risk of dying as a good thing.  Not because it doesn't matter if they die, for they will feel the pain and the sadness of losing their characters as keenly as anyone; but because if that chance of dying isn't there, the game just isn't hard enough.

If it isn't hard enough, it's not worth playing.


  1. Gosh...some fantastic analogies here.

    Do you think that the move towards rule systems where it is more difficult to die might be based on players who find their normal lives are too difficult, too much of a struggle, and who thus long for something easier? That due to recessions or down job markets, etc. players want escapism where they can always come out "winners?"

    Perhaps that's taking the analogy too far. But it would seem a different mindset exists with the players of the most recent editions of D&D.

  2. It might be over analyzing but I think there's something to it. I often hear something to the effect from friends and family: "It's a game, all I want is to sit back and kill some orcs." Mind you, I don't think that's a bad approach, but it certainly is a sub-optimal one. It's also an attitude that the DM can't afford to take, not if she wants to present a good game.


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