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.

5 comments on this entry.

  • russell | 27 Jan 2009

    And of course the first move in Battleships isn’t random at all. Because you can make some good decisions based on psychology and knowledge of your opponent. As Derren Brown demonstrates by consistently winning at Rock Paper Scissors, people tend to behave in certain ways – and the way they place their ships in Battleships is one example. Some people hug the edges, some the middle. Some try and double-bluff you. There are Battleship placements that look ‘unnatural’ when revealed – those tend to be the successful ones.

  • JMO | 28 Jan 2009

    I think what Steve was getting at about Candyland is that it is a decision-free game. It is the equivalent of rolling a dice ten times to see who can get the greatest total. It is 100% luck, 0% skill.

    With most other games comes a decision-making process. In Battleship, you make your own picks, and you learn more information that could influence your next decision. This teaches kids far more, even at a basic level. You are forced to make a choice instead of letting the dice or deck make your decisions. A decision-making game is far more valuable (and fun over time) than one of pure chance.

  • a logical fallacy | 28 Jan 2009

    Johnson is notorious for his leaps of logic and shortcuts – “Look I made a strawman and now I can tear it down.” I always wonder about authors so desperate to convey a point in their writing that they fail to adequately present an argument.

    I’m glad to see Costik’s far better take referenced here as well as on kottke today (as you were as well).
    It’s nice to know that not everyone buys hook line and sinker into the NOUN. VERB. STEAMPUNK. ramblings of BB and it’s cult of the amateur adoring bloggers.

  • a logical fallacy | 28 Jan 2009

    Well that was suitably nonsensical. I shouldn’t read before coffee.
    I wanted to say: “Nice website, enjoy the read, Johnson annoys me in general.” :)

  • michael | 29 Jan 2009

    my daughter learned how to think strategically and sequencely from playing candyland. She also really got away from “I have to be the winner”… She would take all the cards and secretly order them and then bring the game in to play at first with one of us and then both. She took great pleasure in learning how to orchestrate our game experience, and of course, she would always win. The games got more and more outrageous as she learned how to stack the deck deeper and deeper. She ended up experiencing the game as a series of oh boy and oh nos- soon, winning mattered less than the ride. Interesting seeing all this in a 3 to 4 year old. Also she learned alot about deception and bluffing. The sense of mastery she got through controlling all the parameters makes her fun to play games with as an adult, although that isn’t one we play anymore.