The video game drums with its own rhythm. The rip-roar explodes, escalates – fiery words firing at the screen. The screen fires back; ammunition pounding and the resounding hulking of fingers on buttons pounds – a small symphony in the living room. Growing up with three older brothers I found myself in the swamp of the video game emotion-swarm nearly every day. Masculine machismo is found in more places than just the locker room or the football field or the boxing ring. Here, amid the din of gaming culture – war is erupting and masculinity is stretching its wild wings.
Gamer culture and competitive activities have the tendency to evoke hyper-masculine forces. At the same time, board game culture can direct these forces into a different dynamic; settle them and focus them into a world of thought. The rattle and rage of the video game haze becomes a calm intrigue—a silent, pondering breathiness. The invective and spluttering emotionalism of “screen shouting” during video games becomes intellectualized jaunts and witty jabs. There is a headiness—a contemplative nature – a cooperative understanding that pervades the visually clear interconnectedness of players and game.
I’ve been playing a lot of board games recently. Big, sprawling, complex board games. My boyfriend and his friends know lots of games and I grew up with three older brothers, so I’ve had my fair share of gaming culture. And what I’ve been noticing lately—particularly with board gaming culture as opposed to video gaming culture—is how healthy this process and pastime seems to me. Not only because it engenders community and real, live involvement with other people physically taking up space next to you and with you…but because of the gameplay itself. This cannot be said of all games, but perhaps many.
When exploring a new game, (or any game,) the premise is that the rules almost always involve a give and take. Good things can happen to you, but there are these setbacks intrinsically involved in how the path unfolds, and therefore we have a game with intrigue. The setbacks are a given. Not only are they a given but they create conditions for which the game has meaning. Otherwise, there isn’t really much of a game, is there? There are just players endlessly accruing things and moving endlessly. There’s a sense of meaninglessness there (sounds like unregulated, toxic capitalism to me, but that’s a story for another time). The most profound thing I take from consistently playing board games is: the setbacks are a given.
How much more free and fearless would we be if we simply internalized this concept? Really and truly. The setbacks are a given.
We do not need to label them, call them names, denigrate them, victimize ourselves or lose hope in the structure of the universe when setbacks arrive. The setbacks are a given. Not only are they a given, but they are crucial for gameplay. They create intrigue, mystery, they allow for stepping back and re-evaluating. In life, these setbacks, they allow for growth, transition, and transformation. You never know how missing a turn might place you in exactly the right place you need to be next turn. The interconnectedness is larger than just plowing ahead – perhaps you are right where you need to be.
And this sense of placement and interconnectedness relies on the fact that there are other people around you. The communal aspect is crucial to understanding that you are not the only one on the board. You’re all going somewhere. Other people may reach setbacks at different times from you with different consequences—perhaps their setbacks don’t set them back nearly as much as yours do. But perhaps next round they will, or the next game. And perhaps there is no way to measure these things at all. We are all in this. We are all being buffeted up and pulled back down in the waves and crashes. There is a give and take. There is an interconnectedness. We are all playing together. And the setbacks are a given.
Surely, community can be involved in video games as well. But so often with something like first-person shooters…while they can be played with others, it is tandem and therefore essentially we run into the same experience we encounter in real life – each of us mindlessly running past the others and seeing the world through only our viewpoint. Manifested in separate sections of the screen – we feel the real-life visualization of embodying one viewpoint. Competing, searching for our individualistic goals…and if we run into a setback or obstacle, it merely seems frustrating or glaringly unfair…because, say, your friend didn’t happen to walk into that land mind but I did. It’s easier to get caught up in personalized self-projection and internalize consequences as ‘against you’ when the visual cues are so rivetingly realistic and stimulating.
The board game, and the zoomed-out, fish-eye, gods eye viewpoint from above serves this wonderful purpose of getting us out of our own heads. We are faced with a literal viewpoint of reality that we hardly ever receive in real life—above the clatter of it all. Above, looking down at the whole. Not the microcosm of first person experience, but able to grasp the whole. We experience turn-taking, sharing, waiting, patience, and planning. We have to slow down. And release control. We can plan our moves looking at the whole board. No, we don’t know everything that’s going to happen (that part is crucial to the game having weight and meaning—like life), but we can see with a zoomed out lens. We can see clearly that we are not the only player. That our actions stem not from simply my first person experience of the stimulus flying at me and me responding to it…but from a deeply interconnected web. All players, all actions, all interacting and all affecting one another. In some games even, you can see clearly that while you have planned your turn to go one way…another’s actions have forced you to scrap that entirely and try something different. Certainly, people can team up in first-person shooter video games and people can be awful to each other in board games. But I think what is important and what is healthy is the wide-angle lens of the board game to look at the whole. To see the whole. To visualize the interconnectedness. To allow us into a field of vision we rarely receive.
There is a fairness and an evenness to this play. Not in a way that separates people from individuality or the raw chaos of life—it is not sterilized and stagnant, but it evokes a sense of fairness we otherwise are able to tune out of. We live in an age of “why me”, “FML”, and the sense that my life is always going wrong. Mine, mine, mine, this is just my curse. Certainly, we can’t compare pain. We can’t equate human lives. But we it seems our post-modern, Western society has a great deal of difficulty finding peace in the natural give and take of the world. In the way that turns act upon one another, in the way that all cards are played. All cards act on each other. An interconnectedness flows through these actions. All actions. It is not just set against you. It is not out to get you. And we should cultivate healthy expectations of life.
Assume there are setbacks. Assume they are a given. The microcosm of a board game is such a wonderful mirror to life. Cliche or not. The board game Life for example, would be tacitly boring if not for the setbacks. They create the ever-so-slight sense of danger, tension, and intrigue that makes rolling the dice exciting. You do not simply plow through the board like Candyland just adding assets to your life. There are setbacks. These are assumed, They are not something separate from the path. They are not something only happening to you. They are part of the path.
There is a natural give and take. A natural flow. There is a sense of destruction and creation inherent in the earth. In nature. In cycles. That we ignore. That we remain terrified of. We fear and we blame and we get frustrated and angry. We let the negatives outweigh the positives.
Assume there are setbacks. Make friends with them. Do not fear them. Do not let them make you throw your hands up at quit. You have a turn coming up. You keep going. Forward. Backwards. Whatever direction you go, you are still going. You still have turns to take. You still have cards to play. Breathe. Wait. Readjust. And see the new path. And follow, unafraid.
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