Taking Turns

27 January 2009

Steven Johnson thinks that Candyland is a terrible game.

There’s a consistent theme to all these old-school game introductions: almost without exception, I have been mortified by the pathetic game that I’ve excitedly brought to the kids.

I don’t really agree with him.

For a more considered take on Candyland’s many failings (as well as successes), it’s worth reading this Play This Thing post (and, if you’re not aware of Candyland – it’s very much an American game – the Wikipedia page might prove useful).

I think Greg Costikyan’s Play This Thing post is a better judgment on the game. Namely: judged on its game mechanics, Candyland is a terrible game. But: games are about more than mechanics, and the things we learn from games are about more than games.

Candyland is a great first game; literally, the very first. It teaches turn-taking. It teaches the mores, the manners, the culture of playing boardgames. Later, when a child comes to a game where the rules are more complex, the turn process more intricate, the customs of gameplay are already learned; rather than focusing on learning the social interactions, they can focus on the complexity of the game itself.

And I’m totally fine with the idea of a game to teach you how to play games. After all, there are loads of games that teach you all manner of things; what’s wrong with the ideal of the first one teaching you about the medium itself?

Johnson also has a problem with games of chance – specifically, of total chance. And, he’s right, Candyland is such a game. But few games of total chance really are.

Consider Battleships, which he’s also not a fan of. Battleships begins with randomness: working out where to place your first shot. But the second the result of that hit is revealed, the game stops being random. As the locations of enemy ships are uncovered (or not), state emerges from the board, and you start exercising logic, and knowledge of the game rules, rather than firing totally into the dark. That, right there, is the game; the only truly random shot is the first one. .

In that sense, it’s not that far away from Go, a game where I dread the opening moves. There are 361 places to place a piece, and I know that I’m likely to be punished much later on for a bad opening. And yet: because my skill at the game is so low, the opening feels random to me. A skilled player will likely tell you it’s anything but.

In addition to “most games of chance aren’t“, let’s add “if it appears to be random, you might not understand the system as well as you think you do“.

The big difference between even the simplest videogame and the boardgames he describes is that the videogame keeps its mechanics to itself. The first thing that falls out of the box of a boardgame is the rulebook – the entire system of the game.

When you open a videogame, the first thing that falls out is the manual. It tells you the goals of the game, explains how to interact, sets you up with the world, but it hides the rules themselves.

And so the first move in any game is starting to infer the rules, and deduce the logic behind the system. In Super Mario Bros., you know that you have to rescue the princess – the goal is made clear upfront, in the game and in the manual. But the rules of the system aren’t. And so, using only “run” and “jump” (to begin with), you start to work out what you should and shouldn’t do, what the shortcuts to success are, what enemies are dangerous and when, and by doing all this you slowly build up a picture of the rules.

I enjoy Johnson’s writing a great deal, but in this case, I think his argument is flawed. Much as he does in Everything Bad Is Good For You, he takes a few shortcuts in his judgments upon the sophistication of (a) culture. I think the problem here is that he’s mistaking a kind of sophistication that videogames specialise in for a failing of boardgames (and particularly boardgames aimed at the very young). I don’t think Johnson puts forward a very fair argument, and I think that the holes in his argument are as significant as the points he makes.

Links & notes for this month