Sometimes, the stars just line up.
Today, the erstwhile Ken B. posted that image of CUBICOLA which of course pretty much sums up the arbeit macht frei ethos of the Eurogame design paradigm. Then I read this post over on Boardgamenews.com where Yehuda Berlinger offers his eloquent yet completely preposterous thoughts that games, somehow, aren't "supposed" to be fun, that the medium itself does not specifically require fun although every definition in the entire world in every language indicates that games are an amusement device. I've already ranted about this in the CUBICOLA post but it dovetails nicely into the sad events that transpired last night at my usual gaming get-together. But first, let's frame the story.
There's been this new guy coming around recently...I'll call him F. F is a middle-aged guy, probably has some kind of IT job but I don't know. He's the kind of guy who wears white Reeboks and would likely make fashion guru Tim Gunn throw up in his mouth. Probably lives alone and does well enough without a man or woman in his life. Definitely a longtime gamer, a veteran of who knows how many wars and auctions. Now, I usually have a strict policy that I'll never play games with somebody I don't know except under very specific circumstances- running a retail store with in-store gaming teaches you a lot of hard lessons that way. But a couple of weeks ago, I let F in on a game of STARCRAFT which included my best gaming buddies Duke, Billy Motion, and the elusive Robert Martin. What I didn't know at the time was that F was a Fun Murderer.
F spent the whole game, which he had played once before, informing us all of what our best moves were and how we should proceed with our turn. When I placed an order on top of a giant pile of Billy and Robert's orders, he notified me with impeccable elan that I was making a stupid and suboptimal move. I politely replied that I was simply fucking with Billy and Robert simultaneously and therefore I considered myself to be the winner of the game prior to any actual decision. We're talking a nearly constant steam of condescending rules lawyering, folks. To top it off, F happens to have one of those voices that is somehow louder than everything else at all times. Kind of like a Motorhead song.
So the next week, it was time for STARCRAFT again. I'm setting it up to play with a family that I've been gaming with for a couple of years that folks affectionately call the Rock n' Roll family for a number of reasons that don't matter here. Billy was promised seat #6 in this game. So I'm setting it up and F immediately inculcates himself into our game. So I very politely tell him that Billy is slated for the very seat he has taken command of and I even told him that if we play a second game I'd let him in on it. I lied.
So now we have a context for how F, one of the Fun Murderers out there who will stop at nothing until all fun is exterminated from gaming, and I ended our brief relationship last night over a game of WAR ON TERROR. When I arrived, the Rock n' Roll family was already there (and had brought REVOLUTION, a game that I really like but never get to play) and I pulled out my new copy of the now-domestically-available WAR ON TERROR, one of the silliest, stupidest, nastiest, and just plain fun games of recent years. I knew they'd dig it because they like big map, kill-em-all sorts of games with lots of negotiation. Me too. It really needs six, so when F came running up to once again insinuate himself at our table I didn't resist even though I knew I should have.
It actually went pretty well for the first 3/4 of the game despite F's repeat performance as a bar-approved rules lawyer. It was his first game, but he was no shrinking violet about telling everyone else how to play the game or what their best moves were. I told him at least five times that you can't make a terrorist attack with a "War" card yet he continually told everyone that they could. I refused to defer to his innate understanding of the rules which he had never read. F turned terrorist at that 3/4 point and then declared that the game was pretty much over- which is, in a game of outrageous fortune like WAR ON TERROR, very far from the truth.
Things came to a head when F decided to throw a fit directed at the youngest member of the Rock n' Roll family. He's a great kid, very smart and a pretty damn good gamer but he's very loud, outspoken, and he's well, a kid. So The Kid asks a rules question and F, in a very unfriendly and uncomfortably loud tone responds "Maybe if you'd pay attention to the game you'd know what you were doing. You're sitting there yelling the whole time it's no wonder you don't know what's going on."
Now, let me point a few things out here. One, this is a middle-aged man yelling at a child. Two, this is a middle-aged man yelling at a child while he's sitting next to the child's father, brothers, and a friend. Three, this is a middle-aged man yelling at a child while he's sitting next to the child's father, brothers, and friend while playing a board game that has no other purpose in life than to entertain us, make us laugh, and give us a fun social experience. And to top it off, this guy is louder than the voice of god and he's calling this kid out for yelling?
So the garrulous, goofy tone of the game was suddenly replaced by awkwardness, weirdness, and silent, Chuck Norris-level silent rage. The father, hoping to maintain an air of dignity, said nothing but his smile spoke volumes of wickedness and imagined cruelties. F just kept on, narrating every turn and completely oblivious to his gross social malfeasance. The kid played a card to steal something from F and we were, once again, treated to a monologue about how it was a suboptimal move and so forth and I said "You know, he probably did it because he thought pissing you off would be fun, which is the point of this game in the first place." We passed around a secret message and all agreed to turn terrorist just to end the game, which was no longer fun despite any number of nukes.
I know it's a long story, but it's leading up to something larger. I start packing the game up, and F gets up and grabs the rulebook. He thumbs through it and then says- in reference to a rules question that happened like an hour prior and that was already corrected- "Look here it, it says blah blah blah blah blah." At that, I was beyond the breaking point- which I have never, in all my years of gaming been at because I never take games that seriously and if I'm not having a good time then I know I just need to pack it up and do something else. I snapped at him, saying "I'm sick of your rules lawyering and aside from that you're not going to sit here and yell at my friends. We come here to have fun and enjoy ourselves and you've completely ruined that with your attitude so you're not ever going to play another game with me again." He was shocked. I kind of was too, because I've never had to just put the boot down like that.
He sheepishly started helping to pack up the game and I just said "No. I don't want your help, just fucking leave now."
In retrospect, it was kind of harsh and I do actually feel kind of bad about it. But the problem is that our styles of play simply didn't match up, and it took a volatile situation to get past the politeness and "hey, we're all gamers here" folderol to get to that truth.
And the truth is, that some people just murder all the fun out of gaming. It doesn't matter if you're playing the best game ever published or something like WAR ON TERROR that's specifically designed to be a fun, light affair if you've got one of these Fun Murderers on board then the game is in trouble. I've played the most dirt-dry Eurogames with fun loving people and had a great time even if the game sucked. And I've played really awesome games with fun hating people and had the worst gaming experiences of my life.
So who are these Fun Murderers? They're people like Yehuda Berlinger, who argues that games aren't meant to be fun for whatever pompous and psuedo-intellectual reason he argues (I'd love to see him follow up the article with "Fish Aren't Meant to Swim" using that same tenuous connection to a Woody Allen quote about Ingmar Bergman). They're the people who want to tell us that playing EL GRANDE is somehow a fundamentally different activity than playing CANDYLAND. They're the people that tell us games and toys are mutually exclusive. They're the rules lawyers like F who turn even the loosest, simplest rules into a nightmare of logic and overinterpretation. They're the designers who have thrown out fun in favor of "elegance" and "efficiency". They're the people who play ARKHAM HORROR but don't read the adventure cards out loud. They're the people who got into gaming to satisfy some other unfulfilled need, dream, ambition, or missing quality in their lives. They're the folks who have changed the definition of games to include things like "systems", "mathematics", "balance", and "mechanics". They're the ones who think playing games about elves and robots is below playing a game about farmers and builders. They're the gamers who think that playing TICKET TO RIDE somehow demonstrates a degree of intellectual superiority to the "Sheeples" having a great time playing MONOPOLY. They're the ones who take this hobby way too seriously and make every type of gaming look like the refuge for awkward, anal, socially inept, borderline Asperger Syndrome suffers that are into it for something other than amusement.
I guess it comes down to taking this hobby too seriously. And you know, I think that I've realized that the ultimate reason why hobby gaming will neither ever be mainstream nor grow beyond certain parameters is that there are, for whatever reasons, a high population of Fun Murderers involved in it at any given time that take everything way too seriously. The world, outside of Yehuda Berlinger and the Fun Murderers, play games to have fun. When outsiders to the hobby see people taking games of any description seriously, they automatically want to have nothing to do with it because it really demonstrates a lack of perspective as to how games fit into our larger lives and a disconnection from, well, reality. And I can't blame them. It's just like how when I see football fans taking things so seriously, I immediately don't want to be in the same room with them. I love BATTLESTAR GALACTICA but when somebody starts talking to me about minute fan crap I immediately want to put the DVDs up on Ebay.
I know what the chief counterargument here is- that people's idea of what "fun" is varies from person to person and I completely agree. If your idea of "fun" is playing a game like CAYLUS and figuring out how to squeeze the most points out, then that's fantastic and I completely stand by your enjoyment of the game even though I despise it and can't find a lick of fun in it beyond making fun of it ad infinitum. But if you're playing CAYLUS for any other reason than to entertain yourself then you are a Fun Murderer and should be subject to the death penalty where applicable. Even if by "fun" you mean digging around in the ASL rulebook or playing one of those accounting exercises packaged as 18xx games, there is simply no other justifiable or valid reason to play games.
The punchline to all this is that the next table over was playing a nice, quiet game of AGRICOLA. And having fun.
Friday, 30 November 2007
Sometimes, the stars just line up.