Thursday, April 9, 2015

Gaming Lessons

There’s been dozens of discussions, articles and forum posts on what skills one can acquire or develop while playing board games. From making informed decisions based on calculations, assumptions and experience, to teamwork, negotiation, and the ability to cope with defeat, both kids and adults stand to gain (or expand) some abilities that might come in handy in everyday, non-gaming situations. And how about life lessons? 

Image source: BoardGameGeek
One could argue that losing is always a life lesson, as defeat is something that everyone will come to experience sooner or later, and sometimes the reasons for that defeat (especially when they are more than a simple miscalculation) can steer us in the right direction for the future, teaching us to either minimize the negative impact on ourselves, or at least accept it more graciously. Still, is there more board games can teach us?  Are there more complex messages they can convey?

Well, if we take a look at games like Diplomacy or A Game of Thrones, we’ll end up with a few pretty horrible lessons, as victory usually belongs to the person best at lying and most adept at obfuscation. Although, I can also remember a very interesting game of Spartacus, which ended up with the player who would always tell the truth becoming the most successful lanista in Capua, beating everyone else by at least three points. 

Then there are the simplest of ideas, like “Never let your family go hungry!”, which is probably the only life lesson anyone can ever learn from Agricola. Uwe Rosenberg’s classic worker placement teaches us this very effectively, by making it extremely difficult to win, if you ever forget about feeding your kids - and do not have that one special helper that will allow you to literally discard some of the proof of your shame. 

More complex ideas (and on a more serious note) are more difficult or simply more risky to include in a board game. After all, we sit down to have fun, and although some of the more complicated and involved games are able to almost physically wear us out, people are less likely to play a game which might take them out of their comfort zone by touching upon subjects they find difficult, than simply playing one that does not come close to having an important or controversial message. 
Image source: BoardGameGeek

There is also one more problem with board games that may try to make any kind of a statement or make us think about something else than just our final score, and it is a simple, but meaningful obstacle. A game like Tales of the Arabian Nights (as noticed some time ago by Quintin Smith of the Shut Up & Sit Down fame) allows players choices, but seems to reward being a good person (which translates to picking certain options more often) than being a skillful gamer. And although that makes its message (stemming from the message of its source material) clear, it still creates a certain problem. By making some of the choices obviously better than others, it makes for a good story and for a clear message, but it does not necessarily make for a good game. Or does it? 

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