When I was just a kid, I fell in love with chess, even before I learned how to play. It was literally love at first sight. There’s something beautiful and captivating about the way a chess set looks on display—an aesthetic that is unparalleled in any other game I think. This is a quality appreciated by people who don’t even play chess, but who nonetheless display all variety of chess sets in their home, amidst their other furnishings. This is because chess is not simply a game, but a work of art.
These days, though chess remains among the stalwart and highly respected of board game elders, gaming as a pastime has evolved in ways that often make chess seem rigid and stale. Certainly, modern gaming seeks to be inclusive and fun more than it does to be lofty or intellectual. I don’t mean for this to be critical of either chess or modern games (I love both!). Just that what we look for in modern games is not what we would have once looked for in traditional or ancient games. Nevertheless, one thing that has remained—has even been reinvigorated in the gaming community, following a period of gross commercial output—is the desire for our games to be more than just games. Like chess before it, modern gaming is a form of modern art, and it finds its appreciation among three overlapping groups of connoisseurs: whom I’ll poetically identify as collectors, sculptors, and performers. Let’s examine each of these.
The “collectors” of the gaming art are, well… collectors. Hobbyists regularly refer to the proverbial “creaking shelves” in our closets, so named for the tremendous burden we place upon them in the form of new game after new game after new game. Worse still: many of us can point to what we call the “shelf of shame”—that increasing number of games we own but have not played because our purchasing rate rapidly outstrips our playing rate. When we actually do want to decrease our collection, and/or if we’re looking for something rare and out-of-print, there’s a whole secondary market for buying, selling, and trading old games. Meanwhile, we take great pride in just how our shelves are arranged and how they look, even when we’re not playing anything at all, and we care about the box artwork on the outside as much as the component artwork on the inside. Even behind a closed closet door, our gaming shelves get as much reverence as library bookshelves or paintings over the fireplace mantle. This is our art collection and display.
The “sculptors” of the gaming art, whom we might equally equate to painters, writers, or composers, are the designers. These are the creators of new art, who learn from and try to emulate the masters who’ve come before. Speaking simultaneously as a visual artist, a writer, and a game designer, I can attest to the stark similarities in these three endeavors. We artists sacrifice hours of our personal time working on a project with which we will never be fully satisfied, even if others find it fantastic. Sometimes we do this in an attempt to add something new and meaningful to the genre; sometimes it’s just because we want to experiment with something privately, with no intention of ever “marketing” our creation. It was while playing Mario Maker last week that the thesis of this article occurred to me, in fact. I wondered why I was bothering with the time and mental energy I was devoting to the creation of some complex, puzzling obstacle course that no one might ever play, and why it didn’t bother me that no one might ever play it. Then I realized that, years before, I’d have done the same thing with Dungeons & Dragons: spending hours of free time designing dungeon maps and role-playing scenarios that might never be realized, and it didn’t bother me then, either. This was because the joy was in the creation far more than the realization. I feel the same about the tabletop games I design. The thought of successfully marketing them is wonderful, and I take the steps necessary to make that happen. But I don’t design games because I want to sell games. I design games because I love to design games. That is the essence of art.
Finally, a game is little more than a museum artifact without the players who actually set the game to its purpose. These are our “performers.” I call them such because merely “playing” a game hardly describes the full behavior and mindset of these connoisseurs, especially as we consider the wide spectrum of behaviors that different genres of games summon in us. Role-playing games demonstrate this most obviously—after all, the players are quite literally playing their roles. It’s right there in the title. Storytelling games are straightforward examples as well. But performance isn’t limited to these plain cases. Those who enjoy games of negotiation and diplomacy are playing out a fantasy in their mind of being an actual business negotiator or foreign diplomat. Wargamers are proxy military commanders. Social deduction gamers are savvy little detectives. We take personal pride in our performances, because even though the job titles are simulated, the mindset—the skills—are in fact very real. In our hearts and minds, gamers are not “playing a game.” We are “playing a role.”
IT’S NOT “JUST A GAME”
In the manner of some sort of conclusion, I’d like to address poor sportsmanship, or what we sometimes refer to as “flipping the table.” While poor sportsmanship is never something we advocate or want to see, it’s worth noting that this sense of artistry is where the behavior comes from. When we get pissed at losing, it’s because the performance has become very personal to us—as personal as any relationship between an artist and their art. You can probably think of a number of notorious, rage-filled, eccentric geniuses whom you’d never befriend, but boy if you don’t just love their work. That’s how it is for the worst among us: the cursed, perfectionist gamers, and that’s why it never works (why in fact it makes it worse) to say, “Hey man, it’s just a game.” It isn’t just a game. It’s a form of art.
Are you a rage-filled, eccentric, self-proclaimed genius like me? Under what circumstances do you “flip the table”? What games are in your “art collection”? Which are your most precious pieces? Do you have any other collections or hobbies that are comparable to art and/or performance?