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Suspension of Disbelief... and themes that might break it

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IngredientX
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Some of you know that I'm interested in how the experience of boardgames really translates into an "artistic event," and whether a board game can really be considered art (other than an objet d'art, where the game itself is the work of art; I'm talking about the game experience being artistic, like the watching of a movie or the reading of a book).

There's a fascinating discussion on BGG that touches on this.

When we play games, some of us get lost in the mechanics of the game. We enjoy yanking on the metaphorical levers and pulleys that various rules represent, to see how far we can go.

Others get lost in the theme of the game, enjoying the idea that they are really living in the game-world. I suppose the best games have a bit of both elements appealing to its players.

Coleridge wrote about the need to suspend disbelief when reading a story. This is true for us too. In order to be lost in a game, be it through theme or mechanics, we need to suspend our disbelief that the game pieces do not represent us.

Tom Vasel actually touched on this subject in his Dino Hunt review. He writes...

Quote:
...the game is “educational” (I’m a Christian, thus I don’t agree with the evolution aspects of the game)...

Tom seemed to have more of a problem with Dino Hunt's luck factor than its evolutionary angle, but it seems that it still pulled him out of the game a bit.

I had a similar (but thematicaly opposite) issue when I sat down to play Ark of the Covenant, a Carcassonne variant, for the first time. I'm not religious at all, so placing Prophets and moving the Ark felt a little weird. After awhile, I was okay with it, because I was more concerned with the mechanics of the game than the theme. But I wonder sometimes where my limits really are.

ShadeJon's issue with Amun-Re is much more direct. His religion forbids him to participate in worshipping, or performing sacrifices, to other gods. Since one of Amun-Re's phases is the Sacrifice phase, he's not sure his religion permits him to play the game, and is not sure he should buy it, or if blacking out the sacrificial elements to the game with a marker will fix the problem. Others point out later in the post that even if he were to black sacrifices out, wouldn't he still be implicitly engaging in the sacrifice?

Of course, I'm not bringing Tom and ShadeJon up to belittle or make light of their beliefs. Instead, I think they bring up important considerations about game theming. Is there a thematic element to your game that might be too distracting?

In my post about games as art, I suggested that "Schindler's List: The Board Game" wouldn't make for a good game simply because the mechanics wouldn't do justice to the theme; the dissonance between the two would be distracting. There have been two games released in the past year - "Spank the Monkey" and "F*** This" - that feature innocent gameplay, but have driven gamers away because of their titles. Some people won't play "Lunch Money" because they find the theme despicable. Others have no problem with the game's theme, and point out that World War II sims feature events that are far more disturbing.

I think that everybody has their buttons. There are some subjects that we'd never be able to touch. For example, I don't think I could play a board game version of "Schindler's List." I hope the reasons are obvious enough! ShadeJon is very articulate and forward in discussing the Jewish laws that may forbid him from playing Amun-Re. If you go to the BGG forums for Spank the Monkey, F*** This, or Lunch Money, you'll see all sorts of buttons being pushed.

The thing about games in general is that there's much less allowance for controversial material than in a movie or a book. You can make a violent, depressing film; but if you get everything just right, it becomes a cathartic and rewarding experience in the end. I don't know if you can do that with a game (hence my position that games don't have the same artistic merit as literature or cinema). On the other hand, if a game is too violent and/or depressing, no one will want to play it again.

Have you ever had your suspension of disbelief in a game broken?

Fos
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Suspension of Disbelief... and themes that might break it

Yes I have, especially when matters of luck lead to my loss. Interestingly, this doesn't matter as much if I win. However, lucky games, like Zombies!!!, etc. can also gloss over this "flaw" with an engaging theme, making you forget that a lot of it's luck, or if you do recognize it's luck (as in the case of Zombies!!!) you know the penalties for death aren't that bad, so the system encourages you to throw yourself bodily into a building packed with zombies... which is thoroughly supportive of the game's suspension of disbelief.

Games as art. . . there was once a judge in Kansas (or was it MO?) who found videogames weren't protected by freedom of speech because they had nothing to say and were, in fact, little more than board games. Now, that's a lot to unpack and the judge quite clearly was comparing Doom to Candyland, but it certainly pissed me off! I wrote a program in response to his belief videogames couldn't be art. However, he's plainly wrong about his assumption board games can't have a message either. (And by the way, I don't believe Hasboro's products are protected by the first amendment as expressions of speech (beyond simple copyright laws), but I could be wrong). Games certainly can have a message, in much the same way as a book can. True, board games require "players" to create that message, and one could argue they are more a sophisticated pen with which humans create expressions of speech and therefore the game (as a tool) shouldn't be protected itself. However, one could just as easily argue that a book itself is a tool, and if no one read the book, and no one went through the emotions a well designed book takes you through, it wouldn't be worth protecting either. But books are certainly protected.

I think the problem with protection of all sorts of games is that they're a primarily entertainment based enterprise and only recently have the hallowed halls of academics begun to catch on, roleplaying historical sociological roles to gain a first-person historical perspective to playing modified Diplomacy to understand aspects of war and negotiation, to even LARPing Pac-Man in the streets of New York to see what happens to game mechanics when they're removed from the computer or desktop.

Perhaps it comes down to a fear of protecting a collection of rules... but that's nonsense. Collections of rules create all sorts of very real emotions and events, from the Crusades to the common criminal... and if art is an imitation of an aspect of life with all the unnecessary thrown out (if you like Picasso), then a basic set of rules that make "players" do all sorts of interesting things modeled after real life things, than that's certainly art to me.

...woah, sorry to ramble there. But to steer this whole thing back on topic, if you're worried about trying to get published and make a buck off the entertainment value of your game, then yes, there are certainly subjects that you should never, ever broach.

However, if you're looking to create artwork in your board game designs (a noble and very, very pretentious goal :P ), then forget about the forbidden topics. In fact, the forbidden topics are probably the easiest to do. A Schindler's List game, if you could get enough players, would shock to the point of removing quite a lot of disbelief in actions within the game. Sure, some people might actually enjoy it, but not everyone can be sane, and for those that are sane, it would be a very disturbing experience, and they might learn something of the horrors involved. Or maybe they'd then just consider all Nazis to be monsters (a "how could they do that?" feeling) which would be completely counter-productive. But still, your game forced them to feel something, so kudos, you just made art.

IngredientX
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Suspension of Disbelief... and themes that might break it

Thanks for the reply, Fos!

Quote:
However, if you're looking to create artwork in your board game designs (a noble and very, very pretentious goal :P ), then forget about the forbidden topics. In fact, the forbidden topics are probably the easiest to do. A Schindler's List game, if you could get enough players, would shock to the point of removing quite a lot of disbelief in actions within the game. Sure, some people might actually enjoy it, but not everyone can be sane, and for those that are sane, it would be a very disturbing experience, and they might learn something of the horrors involved. Or maybe they'd then just consider all Nazis to be monsters (a "how could they do that?" feeling) which would be completely counter-productive. But still, your game forced them to feel something, so kudos, you just made art.

Art's a huge topic, so let me narrow it down a bit.

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp unveiled a work called Fountain. It was a public urinal turned upside-down. Its artistic value is unquestioned, as it opened the world of sculpture to contemporary, everyday, mass-produced objects.

However, that's not the kind of art I'm talking about. I'm talking specifically about something that works as it is intended. Fountain does not work as a urinal; in its transformation into a piece of art, its functionality was completely lost.

Another counter-example: In 1964, Andy Warhol shot the film "Empire." It is a static eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building. It begins at daytime, and ends at night, with the lights going on at the end.

It's art, yes, and it's a film, yes. But its replayability is limited. This is not a movie most people would see on a date.

Anything can be "art," in the form of a curio, or an objet d'art. But what I want to know is if a game can carry significant artistic meaning AND still be a game. Yes, you can make a Schindler's List game, and yes, it would probably be weighty and difficult, handling challenging issues. But would it work as a game? Personally, I don't think it would; I simply don't think a board game can handle it.

There's a couple of reasons why I think this. First off, a game thrives on replayability. A movie or a book can be experienced once, but a game craves to be played over and over again. The experiences the game provides must be varied enough to keep interest; but predictable enough that strategy and/or tactics can be employed.

In that respect, you don't want your game to deliver a consistent and dominant message, because that will make each playing too repetitive. On the other hand, you need some element of control over the expression the game spits out, otherwise it becomes chaotic and meaningless.

Since a movie or a book will always end the same way, its much easier to balance the aesthetics of the work with its perceived meaning. Also, it's realistic to handle a difficult subject. The work will feel like a "bitter pill," but in the right hands, audience will find the experience cathartic.

However, if you take a difficult situation into a board game, the game's repetitious nature will desensitize the subject. Horrible scenarios will become mild, and then unmoving. Because of this, a game's ability to shock isn't very potent. Maybe the first playing of a game can be shocking; but if the game is to be a game as well as a vehicle for artistic expression, it needs to keep its shock value for multiple replays. Frankly, I don't believe that's possible.

Also, repeating a situation lends itself to analysis, which is the realm of the left brain, not the right. Therefore, it will always be difficult (if not outrightly impossible) to imbue a game with an emotion, such that the players will always feel the same "vibe" every time they play the game.

I have to leave work now, so I'll have to continue my thoughts in another post. Coming up: the play that no one sees, and two games that prove me wrong.

Fos
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Suspension of Disbelief... and themes that might break it

IngredientX wrote:
First off, a game thrives on replayability. A movie or a book can be experienced once, but a game craves to be played over and over again. The experiences the game provides must be varied enough to keep interest; but predictable enough that strategy and/or tactics can be employed.

Right. For instance, you don't want your Gettysburg tabletop wargame to "prove itself," making it impossible for the Confederates to win, in the same way that the artistic "point" of a game might become so cumbersome that the end game always looks the same.

I think this might be related, but nothing is more static than a painting, yet people visit art museums again and again to look at the same painting, and it somehow remains enjoyable/enlightening/what-have-you. Has the painting changed? I don't think so... but the observer has, and an interactive game (board, card, or video) makes that dialogue, the expression of the observer's own rose-tinted glasses, so much easier. Perhaps an applicable field of study is the small community of interactive, text-based fiction still alive and well on the net. Design rules and aesthetics might be limitedly transferable to board game design.

Anyway, I shouldn't probably keep talking until you reveal those two games that prove you wrong.

IngredientX
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Suspension of Disbelief... and themes that might break it

Fos wrote:

I think this might be related, but nothing is more static than a painting, yet people visit art museums again and again to look at the same painting, and it somehow remains enjoyable/enlightening/what-have-you. Has the painting changed? I don't think so... but the observer has, and an interactive game (board, card, or video) makes that dialogue, the expression of the observer's own rose-tinted glasses, so much easier.

Well... I hate to be such a contrarian, but I don't think a game will be as effective in this regard. In your example, the painting doesn't change, but the observer does. Someone can see a painting at age 20, and feel that it expresses a certain sensation. That same person can see the painting at age 40, and feel that it expresses a certain sensation.

A game is different, because the game itself will change, and the observer may not be able to tell whether the change is because he has changed, or because the game is playing differently.

OK, and now, as promised...

Let's say a production company puts on a play. They hire a good director, and assemble a solid cast. They hire a reputable crew, and rehearse religiously.

But let's say, for hypothetical reasons, they decide to not sell any tickets to the performance. They make no advertisements. No one knows about the play - not even in a camp "these guys don't want anyone to know about the play so it must be good" way.

So each production plays to an empty house. No ushers. Empty ticket booths. Empty concession stands. The doors are locked, and no one outside the theater even knows there's a performance going on.

Of course, a production like this has some sort of artistic merit. People who find out about it later can talk about "the play no one saw or heard of... it must have been great." It can have the same curio merit as Empire or Fountain.

But let's disregard the conceptualist angle. After all, perhaps one play like this can be put on, maybe two. But there could never be a whole subgenre of these kinds of "non-productions." It is simply a play that only the participants - trained, professional experts, not laymen - will ever know about.

Discounting that conceptual angle, does the play have any artistic merit?

I don't think it does. I don't think it has any point unless someone other than the cast and crew experiences it. Maybe it has a limited value to the actors, but certainly not on the scale of a regular production. And as I said before, while a single occurence of this can have artistic merit, there could never be a whole subgenre of audience-less plays, because once you get past the conceptual novelty of the idea, there really isn't anything else to it.

If you haven't already guessed, this is a board game. In a board game, all the participants are the cast, moreso than they are the audience. They are actively involved in the game's outcome. They must interpret the rules, move the pieces, and make their decisions. Maybe there is an actual "audience" for the game, in the form of a kibitzer or two; but most people don't have the patience to watch a board game for more than a turn or two. A game is designed for the enjoyment of its participants, not for an outside audience.

This distinction, along with a game's need for replayability, is one of the boldest examples of the difference between a board game and more "passive" forms of media. When someone goes from the audience to the production and becomes an active participant, that person will not experience the work the same way his friend back in the seats would.

And now, for two games that prove me wrong.

First is Terra, a new game by Bruno Faudutti (Citadels, Mystery of the Abbey). In the game, the players lead different nations across the globe. Crises come up from cards, and players must spend valuable points in cards from their hands to fix these crises. If not enough points are played, the problem becomes a mega-problem. If too many mega-problems come up, then all the players lose.

So the game is a delicate balance. Players must choose between helping other players solve crises, and possibly weakening their chances in the game... or refusing to help in a crisis, which might help them win the game, or might cause everyone to lose.

This game expresses the scenario of a shrinking world very well. As more countries become more powerful, one nation's problem becomes everyone's problem. A country must do what it can to keep everyone alive - and yet, cannot always be altruistic, or it will be eclipsed by its neighbors!

Tom Vasel interestingly notes...

Quote:
With kids, I had great, great fun! They enjoyed the game, the theme, and all cheered for the victor. One group of adults I played the game with also found it interesting. The other games were disasters, with some people really hating the game (usually being the players who caused the loss themselves). Some people just can’t have fun unless they are the winner, and therefore determine if they lose - everybody will lose.

Terra convincingly models the need to balance the needs of one and many. People can come away from it knowing a little more about themselves, and the process of diplomacy. The message it carries is not terribly deep, but it is a message that's certainly deeper than "get more VP than your opponent."

And yet, it's a game. It has replay value. It will play differently from session to session. It's not a one-shot novelty, nor is it designed to simply shock on the first play.

Funny I should mention Diplomacy... that's my other game. What happens in the game is really up to the players. Some players will honor their deals. Others will stab backs. Unlike other games, Diplomacy features emotion. You can capitalize it on another player's emotion, you can be overwhelmed by emotion yourself. The game has been famously known to make people cry. There isn't a "message" in this game, per se... but it takes its participants to a place that no movie or book can go. And when it ends, it's very different than other games in that people can remember what happened that day for a long time.

Well, I've gone pretty far off my original topic. Back to Amun-Re and its sacrifices, anyone?

Anonymous
Suspension of Disbelief... and themes that might break it

Okay, now we're in my area of interest.

Regarding suspension of disbelief - I'm not sure how to interpret "suspension of disbelief in a game" - what is it I'm intended to believe? Or suspend?

Regarding the art, however - well, I'm not sure what the question is there, either :) but if it's whether a game can be "art", well, simply, of course.

This hinges, obviously, on how we define art.

So what are the questions, exactly?

Andrew

Anonymous
Suspension of Disbelief... and themes that might break it

Board games are primarily for play, play is no small thing nor is it trivial. That said board games most certainly can carry agendas and messages, I personally define art as something, anything that has a message, even if the message is really short (when condensed in to words) like in the case of paintings the Mona Lisa’s message could be "this girl is smiling" it's short but it's till one of the most highly regarded paintings of all time.
one of the interesting aspects of games is that unlike most media, games do much more than just tell about things, but they allow for the audience to do things, in fact players much prefer to do things than to hear about them.
It's the doing aspect about games that limits the subject matter that can easily be approached by the designer. No one wants to play a game about the physiological challenges molested children will go though during their life (sorry about that I just needed something that I knew NO ONE would ever want to do). But people will watch a move about it. Moves, books, and the like can be privet experiences where as games, board game epically are public and things that a group of players needs to be able to agree on.
Also about the holocaust game, I have always wanted to take on that challenge.

jwarrend
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Suspension of Disbelief... and themes that might break it

I don't want to wade too much into the "games as art" discussion, except to state, as I've said before, that to me, games are pretty clearly a "craft" rather than an "art", where I define a craft as having a primary concern with functionality, whereas art is concerned primarily with aesthetic qualities. I don't believe "the experience of playing games" qualifies as art any more than "the experience of watching a baseball game" or "the experience of eating dinner" does. Simply provoking a reaction is insufficient to merit the appelation "art", lest we open the gate so wide that the term has no practical use whatsoever.

I find the subject of "themes that one wouldn't want to play" very interesting. As a Christian, I had a very similar reaction to Amun Re when I first heard about it, and I haven't really sought an opportunity to play it. But ironically, as many of you know, I'm designing a game about the 12 Disciples in which one player is secretly a traitor and can end the game by betraying Judas. This has provoked a mixed reaction from Christians; some think the game is great, others (who have read the rules but haven't played, for whatever difference that makes) don't like the traitor element.

Now, of course I could just say "if they don't like it, too bad", but I think that would be somewhat callous for two reasons. The first is that I'm aware that I myself draw the line somewhere, and it would be arrogant in the extreme to question where someone else draws the line. The second is that in this case, those are the very people I'm trying to reach with the game! So I definitely have to take those comments into consideration.

What I think the discussion in the BGG thread shows is that there isn't really a rational reason why some themes seem ok and some seem verboten; we're not necessarily internally consistent -- clearly, I'm not! But there's no doubt that everyone has a line that they'll be uncomfortable crossing. (And someone who says, "well, I don't have such a line" isn't necessarily a paragon of nobility simply for being beyond the ability to be offended...)

How, as designers, do we deal with this? I think that dismissal is not a good posture, but at the same time, one should keep in mind who the game is intended for and not try to placate everyone. I fully recognize that my Disciples game will probably not be enjoyed by someone who actively resents Christianity or Jesus. And I can live with that; I'm not going to retheme the game just so "everyone can play". At the same time, if there are mechanical elements that seem to make people uncomfortable, (such as "one of us is Judas"), I'll explore ways to accomodate those objections (in this game, it was in there from the beginning -- Judas doesn't actually have to betray...) Treating a difficult subject (like "Schindler's list") can be done, but I think such matters need to be handled respectfully and in good taste, and that's not always going to be easy or even possible...

So, that, to me, is how you strike the right balance. Know who your intended audience is, and design the game for them, but don't exclude ways to change non-essentials if it gets more people interested in the game.

As a recent example, I will never play "Spank the Monkey", despite the fact that it sounds like an enjoyable enough game. It's not even so much that I am offended by the title, so much as I'm offended that someone would try to market a game simply by shock value. I feel like they're not taking me, the game buyer, seriously, and I don't want to support such a sophomoric marketing attempt, however good the game may be. I have no clue how many people view this the same as I do, but suffice to say, from my perspective giving the game that name was a death-blow; it alienated part of their audience unnecessarily. On the other hand, maybe the name was an essential to them, and anyone who didn't share their sense of humor wouldn't be someone they'd want as a customer anyway.

That's my take, anyway...

-Jeff

(Incidentally, as a totally separate subject regarding "Dino Hunt", I think that some games that feature an evolutionary mechanic are touted as "educational", which I think is problematic since the games almost never actual model the way the evolution is purported to work (bidding for genes?). This may not be the case for Dino Hunt, but I think the point is there are probably few game themes that would provoke an intellectual objection in the way that evolutionary games would, and that would come exclusively from people who don't believe evolution accurately describes the way that things came to be the way they are (which is a pretty common view but probably not a majority view). I'm not sure if there are any other such subjects; presumably the other "taboos" would be "emotional" in nature...)

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