Thuloid Speaks: Games, Rules and Other People

Greetings again, you who come to this House for a steaming stack of Paincakes. Occasionally I hear it said, or at least implied, that ideas come from one’s head. I am no anatomist, but this surely cannot be correct. My head emits goo of several viscosities, colors and flavors, and it seems to be filled with a sort of wrinkly, grey-pink meat (is it delicious? So difficult to find out), but no exploration of this appendage uncovers ideas awaiting expression. Where do ideas come from? In my experience, from encounters with things and other people.

Here. Have an idea.

I spent a few days last week at an odd conference of mostly Episcopalians at an old church in New York. The food was extraordinary and the booze plentiful–if you happen upon a time machine, a visit to the vicinity of E 16th St and Rutherford Place, next to Stuyvesant Square this past Thursday and Friday nights might be in order. Sorry, SinSynn, there was simply no time to connect. There I heard a talk by one Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen, and had a subsequent short conversation with same that opened my eyes a bit.

Warren presented on the early 20th century Dutch historian Johan Huizinga and his famous book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture. I had heard of Huizinga and the book, but never engaged them. Homo Ludens is Latin for “Man the Player” and the title suggests something of the thesis: that play is a basic function in human society, that it underlies much of culture, and that it is something to be taken quite seriously. I will be purchasing and carefully digesting this book, soon.

But did he wear wooden shoes?

Warren’s presentation on Huizinga was highly suggestive in a number of different directions–the problems in contemporary society, the role of games, and the nature of many of our shared enterprises, including religion. At some future date, when the video of the session is up, I may link to it. He spoke about games and rules–how games, especially among children, adjust constantly. They change so that the rules fit the players–a two player game becomes a three player game as soon as a third party arrives, whether or not the rules had previously accommodated that.

If we begin to understand much of our daily interaction as play–that is, as composed of arbitrary rules, structured, but lacking any obvious point outside the field defined by those rules (what Huizinga calls the “magic circle”), then we start to see some of our problems in a different light. We are frequently embarrassed by play, so seek to mask it as something else–as “useful.” I have to apologize for my gaming–it helps me “relieve stress,” presumably so I can work harder. Parents tell themselves and each other that their children’s play is about “learning”, that it helps them “build skills.” It does, of course, but that is not and never was its point. Surely we all remember the lame sorts of instructional “games” inflicted on us in school–this will help you learn to multiply or to type, etc. Never mind that I initially learned probability on my own only because it helped me understand D&D character creation.

Useless, so I want one.

I will return to Huizinga in the future, ideally after I get a chance to read some of him (and so I am not just summarizing material I don’t have much handle on)–look out for a future post on Huizinga, Wittgenstein, and the German Enlightenment writer Johann Georg Hamann (I know that’s exactly the sort of thing you hope for when you open up HoP).

But for now, it’s helpful to focus on something Warren said about our fraught relationship to rules–he spoke of the moment when a rule “ceases to liberate and begins to govern.” That is, we obey it not because it serves us well, because the structure it provides enhances our shared experience, but because it is a rule. Rather than being for us, the rules are, in an important sense, for themselves. Our play becomes inflexible, unable to adjust to changing circumstances, and we bring expectations to it that are wildly out of whack with what the rules can actually deliver. Rather than being enchanted by a common purpose, we are doing work.

Game night.

Now let’s set that aside for a moment and look at our corner of the gaming world. There has been a little stress about another poorly balanced GW release (Shocking, I know–a new 40k book coming out practically every month, and not all of them are well-tested?), and in reaction to that news (let’s call it Codex: D-Weapons and Scatter Lasers), I texted my friend Christian to get his reaction. I’m just going to post all of his response here, because it’s too good:

Saying a current GW book or unit isn’t balanced is like someone saying: “I just read Narnia, but I don’t know what it will do to the tournament scene. Aslan’s stat line is ridiculous for his points. Beavers seem balanced, but no one will ever take them because everyone will spam lions. Also, fauns seem a bit overpriced for what they bring, and they really should release a FAQ to clarify which forces can field them.” 

I will look at you funny, wonder whether we just read the same book, and perhaps suggest a different author. That is my best analogy for people not understanding the language GW books are written in. To be fair to people who are confused, GW does make it strange by printing lists of numbers after their story. And those lists of numbers are formatted the same as when they used to release games. But at this point, it isn’t a game, and if you don’t like their story you should read a different book.

SinSynn recently posted about his love of Black Library Horus Heresy novels. Not to poke at a sore spot, but not everyone was equally enthused with that topic. I must confess that I have never picked up one of those books–no appeal. But the post suggested something to me that my friend’s response has reinforced: while, once upon a time, the novels were a fleshing out of fluff from the game, now it’s clearly the other way around. The “rules”, such as they are, are a kind of highly abstract supplement to the novels and fluff.

GW screams to the high heavens that they are not a game company. They have insisted on it in court. They have said it in their annual financial reports. They have actually written this in their published rulebooks. What else are we to make of the total abandonment of list construction rules in End Times: Archaon, the exceedingly rapid pace of releases, and the constant insistence that the driving principle is “narrative”? It is time to take GW at their word–they are not a game company. They are a company that manufactures what could be game pieces, were the fans of their stories inclined to construct a game around them. Many are. I don’t even mean that as a criticism–after all, GW are the ones who have been entirely upfront about this point in the last several years, and we are the dolts who have chosen not to believe them.

We sell fairly expensive Space Marine fantasies. You provide the games.

The problem is entirely in the realm of our expectations. I shout at my cats a lot for doing things that are entirely typical of their natures as cats. We have raged at GW (and not only GW) for doing precisely what they said they would do, and along the way we have raged at each other for not bringing the same expectations into our games as we ourselves have. More devotion to the rules is unlikely to solve this problem. I strongly suggest more attention to other players. Learn their expectations. Learn your own–this takes a certain measure of maturity. Children will sometimes throw a tantrum and flip the table because someone isn’t playing “right.” They expect everyone else to cater to their desires, without those desires having been clearly communicated and agreed upon. We are adult gamers, serious in our gaming (which is not to say un-playful!)–so we communicate with each other, and that communication opens up space for a shared vision, whether it’s a tight set of tournament rules, an afternoon mindlessly throwing handfuls of dice, or just a great diorama of some guy in power armor shooting a comically oversized gun at large bugs.

I remember a recent conversation with my friend Nick at Adepticon. He recounted one of his games in the Warhammer Fantasy Championships. Nick looked over at his opponent and saw a young man he described as having very “kind eyes.” He knew, without even examining his army, that this was not a person who comes to tournaments to crush people, but to find a friend across the table. That assessment proved entirely correct–Nick won easily, but his observation led to an entirely better outcome for both parties.

As I said, ideas (and so games) don’t come from inside your own head. You generally have to look out through whatever seeing-holes you’ve been gifted with and pay attention to something outside yourself. Shared vision isn’t possible when you don’t see anyone else, and you don’t invite anyone else to see with you. We are, above all, a community of gamers, a socius ludentorum, and by whatever mad grace animates us we have the power to play together in a world of Khorne berzerkers, X-Wing pilots, orcs, thousand foot mechs and kingdoms stretched across the stars.

Until next time.

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