Board Game Camp 2010 and the nature of human existence

October 21, 2010, Author: Sarbjit Bakhshi

I recently attended Board Game Camp at Paypal’s offices in Richmond upon Thames. Why would someone so closely associated with computer games attend such an event you may ask? Well, the spread of console games has been a recent phenomenon and before that, board games were and to some extent still are dominant. What can we learn from Boardgames about human civilization and what do modern computer games say about us?

I often meet people who still play board games and ask why they haven’t made the switch to computer-type games; the answer is always the same. They enjoy playing face to face with real people. Even Ian Livingstone maintains his board game group with buddies (see my previous article here for more).

Anyway, this was an “unconference”, filled with people who wanted to make, play and talk about games. People brought in their own board games and others checked them out of the game library and one immediately had enough people around who would be interested in joining in.

Even Graham Linehan was there, saying how much he hated reading rules and this was the perfect place from which one could learn from others all the games you were interested in but were afraid to ask about.

Anyone could sign up and give a talk and anyone could then have their own talk based on why that talk wasn’t any good. The talk given by Margaret Maitland on the Ancient Egyptian game of Senet was incredibly thought provoking.

Senet is a game that was played continuously over the last 3,000 years. It is a two player game and seems to be the ancestor to Backgammon (but played with sticks instead of dice) and features in hit TV show ‘Lost’. There are symbols on the board which we believe symbolise death and rebirth.

The average age of mortality was very young in Egypt (around 35) and death was a preoccupation. The ‘bad’ ways of dying concerned losing your body; drowning, burning, or being eaten by a wild animal. Other than that your rebirth was connected to what you did to prepare  for death before you died. The Egyptians wanted to do as much as they could beforehand to ensure that when they died, they would safely make the perilous journey to the afterlife, be judged favourably, and be permitted to enter paradise. The game of senet, it could be said, could have come to represent the preparation of the final journey and the stepping into the afterlife.

This got me thinking. Game playing is a way for us to deal with difficult issues, societal fixations and fantasies. Testament to this is that we have found game tokens or parts of games that predate earthenware pots for storing food. Clearly, game playing is an important part of human existence. The author of the talk, Margaret Maitland seems to agree and deals with this subject in the context of Egyptian society here.

If one accepts the premise of the argument, what do our games say about us? One can immediately discount all the sports games, for even I can’t deal with the preoccupation of a game within a game in the context of a live set of games. Pop, or at least my mind, will eat itself.

The next biggest genre has to be first and third person shooters. Overlay that with the demographic of the average gamer and perhaps we see that people aged 23+, mainly men (although certainly not exclusively) like buying games in which killing is a main focus (contrast that with the Egyptian focus on dying and that perhaps suggests that we see ourselves in an entirely different light). I would hope that this is driven by games companies churning out rehashes of older game concepts because they had previously sold well rather than what we as a society would really want if offered a fair and open choice.

Headshot in Fallout 3

Is this the preoccupation of Modern Western Civilization?

In support of this stands ‘casual’ games where the average player is older and more female. The most popular games are ones concerned with building, puzzle solving and those where you must work collaboratively with other players. Jeremy Rifkind, author of the book, The Empathic Civilization, (if short of time, check out this RSA lecture here) asserts that at heart we are (and most animals) an empathic species. If one accepts his assertion, humanity takes pleasure from and is strongly motivated to helping other people. Various scientific experiments referred to in the book show that living beings will express empathy above their desire for self preservation. Bringing it back to games, if this theory is correct, the growth of games where killing is the goal or the primary mode of interaction will be stymied by basic human nature. Games where one creates, builds, of helps should always be more popular.

For my own part, I have never really shied away from playing violent games in the 26 years I have been playing computer games. Even though I have no pretensions to be a psychologist, I will admit that I am becoming more disturbed by the level of realism and the goals of a lot of games I play. I know I am not alone in finding GTA: San Andreas sickening to play, with the nadir for me being reached when I was tasked with stealing a rapper’s rhyme book and having to kill lots of people to get it. Even if we are exorcising our demons by playing these games, what kind of demons do we have in us that seeks this kind of release?

Hopefully, not a lot. At Board Game Camp, playing board games with real people (face to face), laughing, being silly, pushing the rules and tossing the dice left me in a completely different state of mind from my normal post computer game fatigue. I felt invigorated and excited. I’d recommend you all to attend the next one which will be organised in six months time and experience the difference yourselves.