I want to talk about culture and its effect on game design. If you look at all the variants of checkers, backgammon, and mancala out there, you’ll see that they break down neatly by country, region, and/or tribe. Wherever the games are played, there’s basically as many variations of these games as there are languages or dialects. Here in the states you can see culture at work in the collective reworking of Monopoly to have money put on Free Parking and also to ignore the auction rule. Back when D&D’s rules were nearly incomprehensible, there appears to be a great deal of lore that was transmitted informally. There had to be, because no one could actually learn to play using the rule books alone. Hardly anyone would have had a copy of Chainmail or the Outdoor Survival Map, for instance… and the rules pretty well assumed you’d have that stuff.
One of the things that bugs me is that I don’t think the game conventions and the online discussion is really all that representative of most peoples’ gaming experiences. I felt so strongly about this way back when, I went and started this blog as a way to try to preserve mid-eighties microgame “culture” which is really quite different from “serious” wargamers and roleplayers… even the ones that identify as “old school.” But that’s another story. The thing I want to focus on is how culture takes the output of game designers and publishers… and it twists it all up in order to suite its own purposes. It’s a real force… and it often seems to have the last word.
I don’t want to get all Neal Postman on you here… but the increasingly wired nature of the gaming scene is working against the sort of “natural” localization and adaption that individual subcultures used to take for granted. As much as I like Board Game Geek for making it possible to track down old games that I didn’t even know existed… I have to say… I can’t abide the sort of gaming culture it seems to be producing. Maybe I’m taking things the wrong way, but it just strikes me as being a very humorless scene… colorless, empty… one so distracted by the “cult of the new” that it has lost touch with an appreciation for the sort of games that are worth a good five hundred plays.
But never mind that. The point I’m so painstakingly try to get to is that there are other cultures besides this one that we’re currently having flamewars in. There’s other ones besides the grey veterans that sit around pushing clipped counters and arguing about how realistic the rules are. There’s other ones besides the pasty white nasally guys that nitpick about “elegance”, themes that are “just pasted on”, and components that are too “fiddley” for their tastes. Anyway… the one that I’m going to talk about here is… well… it’s the Old Order Amish.
No, that’s not a mistake. I’m dead serious. If you want to talk about games that have been modified to become screaming addictive insanity… then I think it’s worth your time to observe what’s going on in this subculture. Okay… maybe that’s easier said than done. I guess you’ll have to take my word on all of this. (What little I’ve seen that’s been written on Amish society is by sociologists that have little interest in devoting even a chapter on board games and such….) Anyway, here’s what I observed:
- Dutch Blitz — Okay, this one has maybe broken out the Old Order “ghetto” to some extent. I’m surprised at the packaging because it really seems to be sort of exploitative and sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek with its faux-german sales pitch on the box. It’d be like I was using Airplane style jive to market an authentic Harlem folk game or something. You have to see the “young folks” play this one, though. It’s “multiplayer solitaire” to some extent… but the actual play is sort of threaded. Everyone plays at once and the action is fast and furious. I don’t really understand it– I don’t play it for the same reasons I don’t play video games. (I can’t handle the twitch-factor and the learning curve on joysticks with more than two buttons is more than I want to bother with.) But this game brings the “real time strategy” of tournament level Starcraft to the kitchen table. If you could see them playing, though… it’s like watching an elaborate jump-rope routine. It’s hypnotic.
- Pick One — This takes the philosophy of Dutch Blitz and applies it to Scrabble. Get rid of the board and just uses the letter pieces. Everyone plays at once. I’m not sure how it starts, but when someone can make words with all of their tiles, they call out “pick one!” Everybody gets another tile and they start rearranging again. I’m not sure how it ends, either… but the main thing is that the action is fast, furious, and simultaneous. Being good at it doesn’t hinge on your having memorized the dictionary, either.
- Uno — Okay, house rules for this one are pretty common. Some people call them “Jungle Rules” I think. Anyway, I can’t remember all of the changes that I saw, but one of them was that if anyone plays an eight… then anybody can play an eight even if it’s not their turn. So what’ll happen is… an eight will come out… and then four or five people will slam down an eight before the next person can go. Only the first person to get their eight on the pile gets to go. Play picks up from the person to the right of the one that successfully played the eight. It’s absolutely crazy. (You can spot people that play by these sorts of rules because their Uno decks are completely tattered and beaten up.)
- Playing Cards — I never quite caught on to what they do with these… but they are seen as being potentially dangerous. One person assured me that their mom had taken out the “bad” cards. (I think maybe at some point something similar to the 80’s D&D scare happened except that the cards were the culprits.) Anyway, whatever card games they have… they probably have to get along without having any face cards. Uno and Dutch Blitz are going to be more common because of whatever is going on with this.
The common denominator to the changes that the Amish make to their games tend to follow these overall themes:
- Reward dexterity over deep thought.
- Blur the concept of a “turn” or perhaps even eliminate it altogether.
- Games are seen not so much as an individualistic hobby, but as a medium for unmarried people to interact in. They almost seem to occupy the same sort of niche as what social dancing used to be for us “English.”
- Direct conflict and negotiation are almost nonexistent. The main thrust of revisions is towards contests and varying degrees of chaos.
I bring all of this up not just because the Amish have a wealth of unusual game ideas, but also because… as ironic as it is… we seem to be following their lead. The push towards simplicity, the cutting out of any sort of math or record keeping… you know, that is exactly what they would do to games.
And looking back at Steve Jackson’s Raid on Iran… you know, it’s just striking how much has changed in thirty years. When I read the rules for that game… I can almost feel what it was like back then– how important it was when Bobby Fisher became the World Chess Champion. Or that time when our hockey team beat the U.S.S.R. at the Olympics. Steve wrote those rules for that game– a game that can’t even really be mentioned in mixed company anymore, really– he wrote it from the perspective of someone that’s unabashedly American. The few digs that he made at the Ayatollah… they just would not even be thinkable today, either.
And that’s the other thing that makes the Amish so relevant. They are pacifists of a sort– well, nonresistant to be precise. They also do not see themselves as being fully American or Canadian. (Their true citizenship is somewhere else… so they consider themselves pilgrims and strangers as it were….) We’re all like that now. The discomfort we have with any hint of nationalism… and this pervasive faith that we can somehow beat our swords into plowshares if only we’d refrain from even simulating war and competition. To top it off, there’s even the quickness with which we place people under the ban when they go against our society’s ever-growing ordnung.
Our games are becoming more like those of the Amish because we are becoming more like them.