The Art of Games

Posted on Feb 28 2012 by pomomojo in Board Games

A work of artEvery new art form is dismissed by the status quo before it gains traction.  Novels were once considered mere entertainment, unlike poetry.  Films were once considered mere entertainment, unlike novels.  Television programs were once considered mere entertainment, unlike films.  Do you notice a pattern?  What may start out as a simple distraction for children can someday be elevated to art by those same children who grow up and refuse to let go of their previous loves.  I’d like to think the same thing is happening with board games.

The comparison to novels or films is a bit tricky, however, since board games have already been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and certain games, such as Chess, have been widely accepted as adult activities before the 20th century, let alone the 21st.  Yet, I think a case can be made for board games as a form of art.

First, they have an aesthetic quality.  You could play chess with a hand-drawn board and some rocks, but it’s not the same experience as a hand-carved set of Staunton pieces on a fine wood board.  Beauty, as always, is in the eye of the beholder, but a stylishly designed set of game pieces can be as exquisite as a finely bound book or beautifully shot close-up.

Second, they are collected.  Now human beings can, and do, collect almost anything so simply being part of a collection does not grant an object the status of art.  Games can be collected based on the manufacturer – Dal Negro games share certain qualities, as do games by Deuce or Geoffrey Parker – but modern strategy games can also be collected based on the designer.  Just as you might love the common elements in a certain author or director’s work, the board games of a certain designer might all explore a certain mechanism or have a certain thematic interest.  Games can also be collected like fine wines, stocking your collection with the perfect game for every occasion, or like modern paintings, chosen for their color, material, size, and mood to complement a particular room in your home.

Third, they say something about our culture.  This is the point where the “just entertainment” accusation often gets thrown in.  Movies were described as just entertainment until film scholars pointed out how much we could learn about our society by analyzing our popular films.  It’s already common for anthropologists to examine ancient societies by the games they chose to play, so why couldn’t the same be done with our society?  The game that inspired what we now call Monopoly was created to criticize the power landlords had over their tenants.  Likewise it is significant that the modern version of Monopoly gained popularity in the midst of the Great Depression.  If nothing else, the distribution of letters and points in a Scrabble set says something about the English language.  And Trivial Pursuit reveals a great deal about our culture in the 1980s – a time prior to the internet and the easy access to information we all now enjoy, but after the establishment of popular culture as a topic worthy of study and discussion.  When you start to also include war simulations or strategy games based in historical eras then it is even more difficult to ignore that games, just like novels or painting or films, can both represent and criticize the cultures in which they are born.

Finally, I’d like to add what I think makes games unique as an art form, though also a characteristic that often will get used against them.  Games are interactive.  Books sometimes address the reader and filmmakers use various techniques to make the audience identify with the main character, but none of these other art forms allows the “audience” to participate in quite the way games do.  Each time you play a game you are not only admiring the fine pieces and the carefully designed rules, you are telling your own story about you and your opponent.  Famous chess matches are recorded move by move for future generations to admire, but even we amateurs can sometimes remember our most intense battles on the board for years and years.  Because the “author” of the game does not have complete control over our experience, board games often get excluded from consideration as art, but, on the contrary, it is precisely this interaction between the players, the designer, and the manufacturer that I believe makes board games such an interesting object to study.

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