Horrible Freedom

ants and homer

There’s a Simpsons quote for every occasion.

In my never-ending quest to write articles that only a couple hundred people will ever read, I recently asked the advice of a fellow gamer for inspiration. He pointed me to a video from TED, that fount of ideas that makes everyone think they are an expert. In it, author Dan Gilbert poses the question of what makes us happy. You can watch his very interesting presentation here, but let me give you the condensed version. Humans seek happiness, but many of us don’t realize that we are actually capable of synthesizing it. We know that we are happy when we get something that we want. That’s what we call “natural” happiness. But suppose we don’t get what we want, or something bad happens. According to Gilbert, the human mind is capable of “synthesizing” happiness, accepting the circumstance and embracing its result. Have you ever looked back ten years later at a job you didn’t get, and realized that you are much happier for not getting it? That’s sythesized happiness.

The problem is, we don’t consider synthesized and natural happiness to be equal. Almost everyone would rather have the sense of control and freedom and get what they want, rather than have to accept something bad and grow happy in the midst of it. Gilbert contends that this conviction that synthesized happiness is inferior drives us to put ourselves in situations that actively make us unhappy. We choose situations where we perceive we have freedom and choice, but when those situations result in some kind of failure, it is far more devastating to our happiness than if we had never allowed ourselves that freedom in the first place.

Whether you agree with that or not, what does any of this have to do with board games? It seems to me that it’s actually awfully important, because many gamers measure the quality of a game based on how much choice they are offered. They will often use the phrase “meaningful decisions,” though many will not agree on what exactly that means. The consensus often revolves around the player being in control of what they do. If you make good decisions in a game, a game ought to reward you in measure for how good your decisions were. Any game that deprives you of that reward is considered to be “random” or “chaotic.” Those words are used in some circles like swears, the most damning label you can apply to a game. If you can play an entire game to the best of your abilities, and your success or failure still depends at least partially on the roll of a die or the flip of a card, that can’t be a very good game.

In some ways, I understand this sentiment. It’s not always much fun to spend that game of Catan trading as efficiently as possible, only to lose because everyone else keeps placing the robber on you. But I think there is something to be said for taking decisions out of the hand of the player. Obviously, there are games whose openness and freedom leads to satisfying gameplay. Mage Knight and Imperial come to mind, although there are many others. But the games I keep coming back to, the ones that bring the most “fun,” are the ones that force me to adapt to circumstances that are beyond my control. They are the ones that make me “sythesize” enjoyment.

I recently played my first game of Tom Wham’s Kings & Things. The turn structure reminded me heavily of modern fantasy games, particularly Runewars or Warrior Knights. There were several phases to each turn, where the player recruits units, or explores a hex, or fights an enemy, and so on. The difference between those games and Kings & Things was the presence of wildly random elements. The newer games by Fantasy Flight afford the player a fair bit of control when accomplishing all of the phases, but Kings & Things basically just had you roll a die to accomplish most of it. I have no doubt that this would infuriate a lot of gamers I know, but for me it was kind of liberating. There were still choices to make, and I’m sure that they had an impact. But when the responsibility for failure was removed from my hands, it allowed me to accept those circumstances and move on to the next phase of the game. I played only once, and then very poorly. But I actually had a wonderful time, and I would daresay that it was a more enjoyable experience than many more modern games.

And of course, the king of changing circumstances is Cosmic Encounter. One of the key aspects of the game is that you don’t know what you’ll have to overcome to succeed. Your opponent might have a Cosmic Zap. You may be stuck with a bad hand of cards. You don’t even know who you’ll have to attack on your turn. And yet, more than any other game, Cosmic Encounter allows the player to flourish in that adversity. It rewards creative thought, and the biggest fans of the game love the bizarre situations that arise to challenge the player. You may not always succeed, but the pleasure of simply trying is what has elevated the game to become my favorite.

Now that I think about it, it may not even be the presence of random elements that makes a game fun. Rather, a lot of that fun depends on the player being able to accept a bad situation, even one of their own making. Have you played a game of Power Grid with someone who is losing badly? Some people will sit there and complain about it, and talk about how they wish they had been given more warnings on how volatile the fuel market can be, or how important it is to get an efficient plant. Still other people will just merrily sit in the rear of the pack, taking their turns and playing out their losing situation, cracking jokes and still having a grand old time. So once again we are left with the old chestnut that people make games fun, not the games themselves. While I do believe that there are games that do more to promote that enjoyment, I’m comfortable with saying that perhaps we don’t need more fun games. We might just need more fun gamers.

But at the same time, I find myself drawn to games that force me to deal with bad luck. It’s not merely the tension and excitement that comes from random elements. It’s a bracing feeling when I’m actually able to overcome a bad hand of cards. There’s a greater reward knowing that I conquered fate, than in merely learning how to think a little more efficiently. And even if I fail, who cares? It’s just bad luck, and that’s nobody’s fault.

A special thanks to Adam Barney, the friend who challenged me to write on this topic and pointed me to his video. He’ll be posting an article on the same topic soon enough, and I have no doubt it will render mine meaningless.

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5 thoughts on “Horrible Freedom

  1. Great article! My biggest disconnects in gaming, when they happen, have largely been around the players and how they play. The times I have enjoyed games the least, with only a few exceptions, have been the times that somebody incessantly complained, used whining or complaining as a strategy, verbally attacked other players, or begrudged their involvement/push to quit simply because they don’t like the mechanics or weren’t winning. Maybe it’s because I’m not very good at most of the games I play but I kinda figure that the joy is in the interaction. I also like games that take some of the responsibility for “failure” off of me, too, then. It frees me up to engage but also just to see what will happen. (This may also be why I suck at games, though, too.) But it’s not just about other players’ attitudes, I recognize that I have more fun when I am not constantly evaluating my own performance, too.

    Anyhoo – thanks for this! It’s a pleasure to hear your thoughts!

  2. “It’s a bracing feeling when I’m actually able to overcome a bad hand of cards. There’s a greater reward knowing that I conquered fate, than in merely learning how to think a little more efficiently.”

    Isn’t this an explanation of why most gamers prefer a reasonable measure of control in a game? That bracing sense of satisfaction most often comes when overcoming that bad hand by (shock!) playing it well. If you go on to win after bad luck with nothing more than another turn of good luck that’s not really “conquering fate” at all now is it? 🙂

    Everyone experiences a thrill when lady luck smiles upon them and there is something at stake. “Bingo” always has an exclamation point attached even if it’s down to 100% luck. The sourness and bad reviews come when people believe they’ve played a superior game but are “robbed” of victory due to pure chance.

    Despite this, the vast majority of gamers embrace random elements in their games which is why only a tiny fraction of the top 100 are of the pure skill zero luck variety.

    When you look closer, “random” and “chaotic” are only used as curses in conjunction with modifiers such as “entirely” or “too”.

    • I suppose it could be. I might have placed too much emphasis on randomness in circumstances and not randomness in outcomes. The first I think most people are okay with. The second one is what many people decry, but I’m not sure I see a functional difference. One reason Kings & Things played well for me is that I don’t really mind a roll of the die determining my outcome, because I don’t usually trust myself to make a good enough decision to really make a “better” decision than the die did.

  3. I’d say the functional difference comes down to a single word “partially” here:

    “If you can play an entire game to the best of your abilities, and your success or failure still depends at least partially on the roll of a die or the flip of a card, that can’t be a very good game.”

    The vast majority of gamers are more than willing to embrace games where success and failure depends partially on chance (as reflected in the top ranked games). What they decry are the games where they feel that the final outcome depends mostly or entirely on chance.

    I inject the word “feel” there intentionally though. There are plenty of popular games where people feel as though they are in control while recorded win/loss ratios suggest otherwise. Likewise there are loads of games where there are higher than average complaints of randomness and chaos which in practice are won much more often than not by the more skilled player.

    How much control a player really has based on game mechanics is an objective thing that doesn’t always match up with how players experience a given game.

  4. Pingback: The Good, the Bad, and the Wonderful In-Between « The Climbing Tree

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