One consequence of the focus on the ‘game’ part of videogames has been an identification of game with game that allows the player to exhibit strategy. This extends to board games: even though roll-and-move games have a very long history, they’re often looked down on by strategy gameplayers1.
Every game means something to someone. This is doubly true for popular games. It makes it very hard for me to dismiss something as an unalloyed bad game, because the people who are playing it and enjoying it are getting something from it. Sometimes the gap between your experience of the game and those who enjoy it is a demographic appeal; in a sense the game isn’t for you because you don’t have the need that it is fulfilling (or don’t have the grounding to feel the appeal of that fantasy). Mismatches in fantasies are common, because fantasies often require some groundwork. One function of the current commercial consumption system is to introduce new fantasies to sell products to fulfill; many fantasies that survive from the past are similar amalgamations of folk fantasies, commercial appeals, and social propaganda, often with their origins forgotten2.
But for the moment I want to focus on the other half of the equation: what pleasures and means does the game use to fulfill that fantasy? One approach is to simulate the thing in question in obsessive detail—that’s a pretty common design approach. But there are other ways.
Theresa Tanenbaum has long observed that one thing that games offer is participation.
It is common within the interactive narrative research community to conflate interaction with changing the outcome of a story. In this paper we argue that reimagining interaction as participation in a story opens up an important new design space for digital narratives. “Being in the Story: Readerly Pleasure, Acting Theory, and Performing a Role”, Tess Tenenbaum, 2009.
A game’s fulfilment of its fantasy is often presented as if you, the player, are transported into the game world and are thereafter living your second person life, a la the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series. You are both the player character and providing the story’s prime mover.3 But, as we can see through many other narrative media, people can enjoy themselves perfectly well by merely enacting (or observing others enact!) the experience of the story. (Or, contrariwise, by being the author but not the protagonist.)
In Playing at the World, one of Jon Peterson’s arguments is that Dungeons & Dragons was ripe for rapid popularity precisely because there were already existing communities of fantasy fans enacting their participatory fantasies through collective writing projects and world building zines. Dungeons & Dragons offered a more intense participation through enactment.
There’s been a recent popular Twitter thread about the history of Candyland. The connection between the game and polio makes sense when you consider that it was designed for three-to-five-year-olds who couldn’t read (but could recognize cards with colors) but were confined to a polio ward by disability, or confined to the house out of fear of the disease. In contrast, the fantasy that the game enacts is the ability to walk.
There is a common misconception that agency requires branching or choices. Agency is about being able to enact the promised fantasy. While games often require a fairly complex computational model to do this for many fantasies, complexity and branching are not strict requirements.
Agency is not simply “free will” or “being able to do anything.” It is interacting with a system that suggests possibilities through the representation of a fictional world and the presentation of a set of materials for action. “Agency Reconsidered”, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Michael Mateas, Steven Dow, Serdar Sali
Candyland, then does exhibit agency: the fantasy that it fulfils is a straightforward walk through a more appealing world, and the affordances it offers allow the players to enact the fantasy. Tanenbaum refers to this as bounded agency and stresses that it is dependent on communicative competence: the player and the game both need to be able to communicate their intent to each other.
Which brings us back to the beginning: why do people enjoy playing roll-and-move games? They defy a ludic-centered notion of strategic play.4 But countless people have played and enjoyed them.
One way to think about this is through the lens of games descended from e-sugoroku, which Nathan Altice and Jared Pettitt have been investigating, particularly by examining how Bandai’s hundreds of Sugoroku games build on this basic model in a variety of ways. One interesting aspect of this is the inclusion of rules that go outside the strict game and pull in the social relationships and player involvement in ways that the mechanics can’t immediately “read”5.
A roll-and move game is another way to experience the fantasy the game presents. While strategy games let the player experience the fantasy of a protagonist making decisions, we can equally make games where the player experiences the fantasy as an outside author, an audience member, a performer, and so on. While a roll-and-move game doesn’t have as much detail as a novel, it can be more engaging in some ways (because the interactivity engages more of the senses).6
To tie this into the D&D thread, tabletop roleplaying games have been rediscovering the power of going outside the strict rules, on the theoretical level with concepts like Vincent Baker’s fruitful void and on a practical level with what I’ve been calling “open circuit” rules, such as The Quiet Year’s Contempt tokens. I’ve seen reviewers be confused by what the Contempt tokens are supposed to do, since they don’t seem to have a firm connection to the rest of the rules, but the point is that the players complete the circuit, running the game through the entire social context that players bring to the game. The players themselves are a part of the mechanics.
Kawash, Samira. “Polio Comes Home: Pleasure and Paralysis in Candy Land.” American Journal of Play 3, no. 2 (2010): 186-220.
Peterson, Jon. Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-playing Games. Unreason Press. 2012.
Tanenbaum, Theresa. 2011. Being in the story: readerly pleasure, acting theory, and performing a role. In Proceedings of the 4th international conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS’11). Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 55-66. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-25289-1_7
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Michael Mateas, Steven Dow, and Serdar Sali. “Agency Reconsidered.” In DiGRA Conference. 2009.
There is, admittedly, something understandable about being annoyed when you are repeatedly asked to play something that doesn’t match the pleasures that you are actually interested in, somewhat akin to the feeling of being continually gifted tchotchkes with cats on them because you liked a cat that one time. ↩
Which is a whole other topic, and overlaps with a long-running discussion we’ve been having about historical city builders, ontologies, and the problems with doing research in the children’s section of the library. ↩
I tend to connect this player/character identification to my (possibly naïve) understanding of the development of the novel, with early writers having to justify how these characters are able to communicate to the reader (through e.g. letters in an epistolary novel) and later writers feeling comfortable dispensing with the framing device as an outmoded metaphor, no longer required for audiences to sustain their disbelief. We begin from assuming the protagonist is a player avatar and continue from there, but there are many games that demonstrate that the player/character identification is not required, just as there are novels that demonstrate that the narrator/author identification is not required. (And in both cases admittedly introduce a timeline that complicates the simple just-so linear story I’ve just summarized.) ↩
I suppose to be completionist I should gesture to Roger Caillois’s mimicry, but Caillois casts different kinds of cultures and play on a kind of great chain of gamers, with civilized European people engaging in ludus that exhibits agon, in contrast to primitive societies wallowing in paidea with mimicry and ilinx, so he’s arguably one of the major causes of the blind spot we’re discussing. ↩
Which also complicates Caillois’s supposed distinctions between paidea and ludus. ↩
I wonder if the different ways that people engage with media is partially governed by factors like aphantasia, and that some people have their imaginations more strongly inspired by interactively performing a fantasy while other people are more strongly moved by reading about it or watching a film. ↩