Recently I’ve noticed a number of game-related items demonstrating how powerfully games can affect real life when they move beyond the comfortable confines where we safely enjoy them: the kitchen table, family game night, the game club shed, teen gaming day at the library, the Friendly Local Game Store, game conventions. Certainly games occur in reality – read Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and one learns games and game-like activities occupy particular spaces in which specific rules of play operate – but when games move beyond their usual boundaries they can exert a positive influence in the real world, sometimes just for fun, sometimes for serious issues.
Anneliese Griffin’s recent article at Quake, “Playing board games can make you a nicer person with better relationships,” saw widespread circulation on my Google+ feeds among gaming geeks, and justly so. While it might seem like a superficial exploration of the topic, it offers a few juicy quotes summarizing some benefits we gain when we gather around the table for a friendly game “Board games, along with role playing and table games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, allow players to enter into a controlled state of conflict.” Every day we face difficult situations, whether simply unpleasant to dire. Games allow us to face conflicts in a safe space, the gaming table, where we can take risks, spar with opponents, and not worry about the real-world implications. While games can offer a respite from real life issues, it can also help prepare us to deal better with them and with each other. “As film and media studies professor Mary Flanagan The Atlantic, board games prompt us to reflect on ‘turn-taking and rules and fairness.’” When we step back from the gaming table, and even as we play, we get a chance to look at ourselves and each other. How do we handle winning and losing? Do we celebrate the well-played game or do we wallow in defeat and gloat in victory? If we can learn to be more gracious and understanding during the ups and downs of a game, can we translate that to how we manage the difficulties of everyday real life? The article reflects on some introductory issues we might explore more deeply in experimenting with positive ways games can affect rela life.
This past Saturday our family spent the day in Staunton, VA, for Queen City Mischief & Magic, a weekend-long celebration of all things Harry Potter. The city closed downtown streets, retailers offered special Potter-themed goodies for sale and fun giveaways, other groups provided crafts and events, and costumed volunteers posed for photos, performed magic tricks, sorted people into Hogwarts’ houses, and otherwise enabled fans to geek out over the Harry Potter universe. Not everything here was a game of the more rigid kind adventure gamers like, but it certainly involved lots of play with some game-related elements. We didn’t make the Quidditch game Friday night, but our son, the Little Guy, signed up for a Wizard Dueling Class; after learning spells and their effects he engaged in a friendly (and rather energetic) mock duel against a fellow student. We spent some time tossing the golden snitches he made into the air to see how well they’d spin on their feather wings. People in amazing Potter-inspired costumes crowded downtown Staunton along with regularly dressed Muggles/mundanes, everyone complimenting folks on costumes, interacting in and out of character, and having a wonderful time with a playful spirit. We even stopped by an actual game store, the venerable Dragon’s Hoard, a pillar of the Virginia gaming community, where my wife bought me a King of Tokyo monster pack featuring Great Cthulhu. The event brought together Potter fans, community volunteers, and local merchants for a unique experience, encouraging positive play and engagement in a public space.
Panzer Kids Not Just for Kids
On a more serious and still personal note, members of the HAWKS (Harford Area Weekly Kriegspielers), a wargaming club based in Maryland, recently used my Panzer Kids miniatures game to help engage Alzheimer’s patients at a facility in nearby Pennsylvania. While this was certainly a controlled environment, it wasn’t one we normally associate with game playing. Frequent readers know I’m a huge advocate of introducing gaming to kids and newcomers; it was my primary motivation designing Panzer Kids. But I never thought the basic game, combined with the visual spectacle of a miniature wargame and tabletop interaction among players could move beyond the goal of promoting the adventure gaming hobby and serve as a tool to reach out and engage an often neglected community in our society. Ed Duffy and Sam Fuson prepared a game specifically to involve the participants in problem solving and decision making, promote motor functions moving tanks and rolling dice, offer an interesting visual display, and give them a chance to try something new. (You can read the entire “after action report” at the HAWKS website.) We don’t usually think of introducing adventure gaming to the older demographic, but the same strategy of distilling games to basic elements for kids also works when using games to engage the elderly...though still with some adjustments for the specific audience’s needs. In bringing games beyond the club setting and their usual audience, the HAWKS helped engage Alzheimer’s patients at various levels to enrich their experiences in this stage of their lives. It’s also a great demonstration of taking the initiative to serve this community through play.
Simulating the Real World
Connections UK is an amazing annual conference with the stated aims of bringing “professional wargame practitioners together to share and spread best practice” and “to advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming”...including military professionals, scholars and students, and hobby gamers. It crossed my radar thanks to British wargamer veteran Robert (Bob) Cordery’s fine Wargaming Miscellany blog, where he featured daily reports on the sessions. The highlight this year was a “megagame” called Dire Straits simulating a near-future military and political tensions centered on the Korean peninsula. The game was so topical the BBC News featured a story about it, “Can war games help us avoid real-world conflict?” The game included more than 100 participants representing nations involved in the region, numerous maps and pieces, and occasional developments in the forms of “live inserts,” including actual Tweets from a sitting United States president, to add elements of uncertainty to the situation. Thankfully all teams managed to avoid open conflict and nuclear war, though upon evaluating the game afterward it seemed “An unpredictable US policy led North Korea’s neighbours to seek regional solutions. None relied on US leadership in the game,” with other regional powers working toward their own agendas.
Exploring the Connections UK website allows access to presentation materials not only from the 2017 conference but also from previous years. For those interested how the military and academia are integrating games as training/learning tools the site’s a veritable rabbit hole into which one can easily disappear. Of particular note are the Wargaming 101 presentation with a pack of online reading materials; a talk about the British Defence Wargaming Handbook, also available online; a session on wargaming in education; a piece on the Western Approaches Tactical Unit, which demonstrates how wargaming simulations helped convoy operations during World War II. As I explored the conference sites I stumbled upon Professor Philip Sabin’s excellent game, Take That Hill!, an engaging solitaire exercise showing how wargames can serve to train soldiers in some tactical basics like “fire and movement” (find it on the conference’s Introduction to Wargaming page not far from the top). Oddly enough, when I checked the corresponding site for the American version of Connections I could find no such treasure trove of information shared with the public....
These all represent small steps in moving gaming from the hobby sphere into more mainstream pursuits in all fun or seriousness. I sometimes worry we don’t play as much as we should, certainly not face-to-face with others in this overly connected electronic age of the internet, cell phones, apps, and other distractions. Maybe our lives and those of others around us might improve through games, whether as safe-space diversions from reality where we can interact without risk or as means for education and scholarship to broaden our horizons.