Role Games Matter

One of the phrases that irks me every time I hear it is the admonition that: “This is just a game.”

Games matter. They give meaning to play. It is never “merely” or “just” a game. As Huizinga puts it:

[Play] is a significant function – that is to say, there is some sense to it. In play there is something “at play” which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something.

Johann Huizinga, Home Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p.446

To me, the idea that games are a triviality has been a figment which plagued my life: those peers who bullied me at school, my parents who admonished me for wasting my time, and others around me who simply didn’t seem to grasp what I felt was intrinsically important.

Games matter. They have profoundly shaped my life and they are very probably older than human culture itself. Few things have shaped our civilisation as profoundly as games.

School Yard Play

Growing up, my friends and I would play simple games. “Tag” was one such example, that game in which one person is “It” and the others must flee lest they are touched – however briefly – and become “It” instead. Only the refuge of “Home”, that designated tree or piece of wall or somesuch other physical position within the field of play, only that place was safe. At “Home” you could catch your breath.

Kids still play “Tag”, you know.

As we aged, we would play “War”. This game was a little more sophisticated in that you could “Tag” your opponents at range by pointing your “gun” (actually a length of dried wood, also known as a “stick”) in the their direction and making an appropriate machinegun like noise that is impossible to recreate onomatopeocally (I tried to little avail). If your opponent wished, they could either accept that they were now “dead” or they could invoke “cover” and claim they were somehow protected by a physical object between you and they. Thus, “Home” had become mobile – it was any physical object you could hide behind – and the “Tag” was now a ranged effect wrapped within the imaginary construct of a “bullet”.

UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 01: Two Young English Boys Practice Sword-Fighting On Play Street In London Around 1947. Two Years After The End Of The War, They Enjoy A Newfound Insouciance. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

To me, the evolution of these games was made richer when we discovered role games – what are generally referred to these days as “roleplaying games”. I think my first experience of playing a roleplaying game was the original “Traveller”. Given that my boxed copy of that game is the 1977 edition, I can only presume that this arrived in my life sometime prior to my 10th birthday. That is unsurprising to me because, as I have noted elsewhere, I was playing wargames with my father from around the age of six.

In “Traveller”, we evolved the role of a soldier running around the wasteland between my home and the school (yes, there really was a barren space of mounds and long grass bounded by light woodlands near the new housing estate upon which I grew up) from being a physical adventure into an intellectual and imaginative one. The new science-fiction game allowed us as players to, “interact with each other and with the universe using characters” which we were to “generate using the… rules.” (Traveller Book 1, page 4)

Still one of my most valued and meaningful possessions

All the way through this evolution of our play together there were some basic themes that ran through to explain why these games mattered. First, and perhaps not so obvious, was that these experiences of play provided a refuge from the harder realities of life around us: the 1970s were not an easy time for many families, sitting as ours did on the liminal space between my parent’s working class roots and their aspirations through my father’s profession as an Electronics Engineer. In the main, however, these were social games that bonded us as a group. Throughout all the years in primary, middle, and secondary school the games were the means by which we stuck together.

These games mattered.

Finding Deeper Meaning

In their groundbreaking book, “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals”, authors Salen and Zimmerman begin their examination of game design by introducing the concept of Meaningful Play. This is defined in “two separate but related ways.”

  1. Meaning that arises from the way in which game actions result in game outcomes.
  2. Meaning that is derived when those actions and outcomes are “both discernable and integrated” into the context of the game.

The first type of meaning in the game of “Tag” arises from how the players reach out and touch one another, the squirming attempts to escape such a touch, and the significance of running back to a single location and resting a hand in contact with that place. The touch is significant because it results in a change of the person to be avoided. The single location is important because it represents “Home” – the place of safety.

The second type of meaning in “Tag” comes from both the fact that everyone can clearly perceive and understand what is significant about being touched by “It”. When you run “Home”, the game gives meaning to that action and we can see its role within the wider context of the whole game.

Thus, games are meaningful to those who play them. They are also comprehensible to anyone who takes the time to observe and decode the meaning of the actions, outcomes, and context of play. The problem, of course, is that many non-players either refuse to decode the game or arbitrarily declare the game meaningless.

What about our game of “Traveller”? This is a far more complex game than “Tag” but it is built upon a recognisable framework. That recognition is obscured, of course, by the game’s evolution through into the new game of “War”. In our soldiering antics, each player was designated as part of a team – called a “side” – in direct opposition to the other “side”. This was very much a player-versus-player game. Interestingly, however, one player emerged as an arbiter within our play of “War” – invoking the opinion of this player was to be avoided (so as to not interrupt play) but was a legitimate action when someone felt another participant wasn’t “playing fair”.

When we arrived at my friend’s house to play Traveller, it was this player-arbiter who was now designated the Referee. Instead of “sides”, the players were organised as a single group who were expected to cooperate. This separation of roles was important, as later explained in the 1981 edition of “Deluxe Traveller“:

In Traveller (indeed, in any role-playing game) the referee often misunderstands his or her purpose. The purpose of a referee is to present obstacles for players to overcome as they go about seeking their goals, not to constantly make trouble for them. This is a very subtle distinction, and many beginners have trouble with it.

Traveller, Book 0: Introduction to Traveller (Bloomington: Game Designer’s Workshop, 1981), p.17

The great joy of this new game was that, through the magical invocation of imaginary worlds, we could expand the field of play to any point in the Known Universe. Our play allowed us to take on the roles not just of soldiers but also of naval officers, savvy merchants, and intrepid scouts (to name but a few). Each description from the situation imagined was filled with significance, every action we took had consequences, and the outcomes were rich and exciting. Within the context of the game, Traveller provided us with a deeply meaningful play experience. I was mesmerised by it. I remain deeply moved by my play experiences to this very day.

In Conclusion

This was a very personal expression of my belief that games are far from trivial. Play is meaningful to the participants. People who are external to the field and action of play should, in my view, respect this. It would be of great benefit to society as a whole if the players were accorded the generous gift of being left alone to play uninterrupted and unjudged by those who don’t choose to join in.

Games matter. They give meaning to play. It is never “merely” or “just” a game. And here is the amazingly simple truth: you are invited to play too.

Game on!

3 thoughts on “Role Games Matter

  1. We played hide and seek, with a twist, in my neighborhood. We called it Guns. Carried our toy guns and when we found each other we “shot”.

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