The Life of Games

The stories we tell with and about our games are invariably stories of communication and intimacy.

            A childhood memory I can always recall with clarity is the first time I beat my father at Chess. My parents had taught me the game at a young age, but I was never especially skilled at it. I lacked both the patience and foresight required to play the game effectively. The strategy my six year old self developed to counter this was to upon losing, scatter all the piece from the board and declare victory over the invocation of “poof magic”. I hadn’t needed to resort to it this time, however. I’m still not a chess player at heart, so I can’t recall the position with any clarity, but I do remember having my father’s king surrounded on all sides. Each move he tried to inch his way to an escape, but the sensation of slowly closing in on him with each of my moves still feels fresh in my mind. The satisfaction I felt upon hearing him admit defeat, and realizing I had actually beaten my father legitimately, is the moment I fell in love with board games as a hobby.

            The appeal humanity feels towards tabletop gaming is both timeless and universal. The ancestor of Chess, India’s Chaturanga, was first mentioned around 600 AD. The earliest board game with recorded rules, Egypt’s Senet, dates to 3000 BC. The global phenomenon of Jacks is descended from the divination practice of Astragalos, founded over 6,000 years ago. In the words of a well-liked board game and history enthusiast: “The instant that humans became advanced enough, that we were able to strip just a tiny bit of free time from each punishing day, we started making games of chance and skill and… games that tell stories.” (Smith, 3:29) A notable example of the stories our cultures use games to tell comes from the West African Yoruba people. It is believed that their games of Mancala are so enticing that the spirts of the dead will be drawn to them if they are played at night. The attachment to games runs so deep that if a person dies, it is believed their favorite Mancala board is a place their spirit may gravitate to if it is ever played again. The stories we tell with and about our games are invariably stories of communication and intimacy.

            Though it exceeds my childhood by a good few years, the other strong memory I can recall of my father from my younger years is when he taught me Backgammon. Backgammon is a game with deep tradition, older then Chess even. It’s roots trace 5,000 years back to Mesopotamia and Persia, though the modern implementation wouldn’t surface until 17th century England. This origin puts the game in the general sphere of my cultural roots, a game my own ancestors likely enjoyed in their spare time. My teenage self-had no concept of this when learning it, it was simply a game my father enjoyed that I desired to enjoy with him. Like with Chess before it, I primarily conceived the game as a means of connecting with my father. I still remember the nights we spent playing at the house he grew up in. Sitting out on the deck, stars peppered across the surface of the lake, only the moonlight to illuminate the board as we played. It’s the happiest memory I have of him.

             One notable facet of the era in which we currently exist is the renaissance of modern designer board games. Most people conceive board games as either centuries old cultural institutions, or tacky and poorly though out childhood-defining time-wasters such as Monopoly or Candyland. That was the image impressed upon me even through my fondest memories. Beyond that shallow modern conception however, the cultural desire to play and create narratives from that play has never died and continued to grow and evolve over the centuries. No where is that more visible then the incredible verity that now exists in the modern board gaming space. From family-oriented games that manage to be simultaneously simple, well-designed, and actually fun to play, to sprawling and complex mechanical systems that run the gamut from immersive and thematic to dense and cerebral. And yet even through this sprawling evolution and variety, the fundamental desire for cultural expression still exists. Many modern board game designs have their origins in Europe, and their theming tends to reflect the grand industrial and expansionist histories of its nations, for better and for worse. Even a modern family game of bidding and bluffing will claim in its rulebook that its heritage is owed to the designer’s great grandfather and his experiences playing games with foreign cultures. Though the claim may be fictional, the fact that the claim, and the universal narrative it represents, exists at all is a testament to how much that narrative still matters to us as the makers and players of games.

            When it came to modern board games, this time it was me doing the introducing. I discovered them through the internet and was deeply enamored. It was the natural progression of the medium that my childhood self had sought for years. I quickly found myself grabbing every design that suited my fancy on sheer impulse. Practical considerations like expense and weather or not I’d even have people available to play with were furthest from my mind. The latter point in particular I figured I’d be able to substitute using my family. At first, it worked, as I was encouraged by more experienced voices in the hobby to use simpler and family-oriented designs to introduce them to the hobby. The games that ensued and continue to ensue to this day constitute my fondest family memories. But once I sought to try and bring my family into the deeper waters of this new hobby I discovered was when I was forced to reckon with limits. My family’s limits, my limits, and the limits of the hobby itself.

            I remember feeling the sting most clearly when attempting to teach a game to my parents. It was a card-based game, one of the first modern board games I become infatuated with. It was set in a frozen post-apocalyptic future and used innovate deck constriction mechanics, the kind of shelf-facing bullet points that hooked my young soul. I was so excited to try and teach it to my parents. Their struggle became palpable very early on. My father was especially belligerent about his frustration. I didn’t understand, the systems and rules took some studying sure, but they flowed together in a way that felt natural to me. Dad finally got fed up and quit. I felt so humiliated. I couldn’t understand why there was so much distance between us when it should’ve been bringing us closer. It’s only now that I understand the nature and history of games that I know why it fell apart. Games are handed down primarily through culture and tradition, and it’s through that shared culture that connection comes easiest. The reason the older games came so naturally to me and my father was because he was already part of their tradition, learning them at the same age he taught them to me. It was here most acutely I felt the break in the chain between our generations.

            Modern board games are in the curious state of a simultaneously emerging and continuing tradition in the greater space of games. They remain part of the chain of history that dates all the way back to rolling bones in 6,000 BC. Yet they are also a burgeoning microcosm within the greater whole of modern culture, an explosion of innovation and creativity not seen before in the medium’s history. This state of seeming contradiction, at its heart, is simply the transition between generations. Something that has always been a part of the medium, from Chaturanga to Chess, from The Game of Goose to The Game of Life, from The Landlord’s Game to Monopoly. Though losing the connections of the past generation is always painful, the transition is ultimately necessary for progress and growth.

            My most recent memory of playing games with my father is not a happy one. We were once again at his family home, on the deck facing the lake, only at mid-afternoon rather then night. Me and my mother were encouraging him to try a new game we believed would suit his tastes and skills (an art auctioning game with a focus on estimation and mathematics). Unfortunately, he was even more belligerent then the last time, as a result of being drunk. He bitterly exclaimed that if we were going to keep forcing him to play games like this, he wouldn’t play any games with us for three months. Me and my mother decided to honor his promise on his behalf. Though the loss of this connection pains me, it’s ultimately an inevitability. Culture changes and tradition must evolve. When I walk into the halls of my fellow modern board gamers, I feel myself as part of that newer tradition, and I couldn’t be happier.


            Overall, I had much clearer conception of this piece, and I’d like to think that makes it much stronger. It felt good being able to draw directly from my own experiences and passions for the core of this essay. It comes a lot more naturally then when trying to force it into the framework of pre-set materials. That said, I did choose to experiment with continued use of an external source. I rewatched the video in question before starting work, and it ended up being such a huge inspiration that I let it become a key foundation. Though it’s mentioned directly only in the second paragraph, it’s the core a whole half of my thesis. Being able to choose this source and using it loosely as I did, letting my passion for the subject naturally grow it into it a central part of the piece, felt liberating. In terms of the overall structure, I went with a very deliberate pattern to sequence it. Alternating between personal anecdotes and discussion of the history of games as the focus of each paragraph. I tried to string each side into one another as the essay progressed, showing the interconnectedness of both elements, and having them build on one another. Part of me worries that going for such a strict back and forth was too artificial. On the whole however, forcing myself to that restriction was creatively stimulating.

            As a writer, I think my main strength is still in anecdotal pieces about myself and the people I know. A piece of non-fiction I wrote about my falling out with my first friend helped me win a scholarship for my senior year, so my belief isn’t unsubstantiated. I’m really jealous of how well many of the other essayists we’ve read, especially the ones from articles, are able to take a rhetorical subject matter and breathe life into it with their vivid writing. I don’t think I went out of my way to emulate any of them though. I tried writing in a way that felt most natural to me, and I’d like to think that gives the sections the same kind of natural tone. But since that kind of writing is outside my wheelhouse, it’s possible that it’s just ended up stilted as a result of my only real experience with that kind of writing being in education mandated work. Still, the only way I can improve is to practice. The authors I look up to often weave their rhetorical sections into their anecdotal narratives in a way similar to what I’ve tried to do, so I think that’s the key for me to succeed with this style of writing. In any case, I’m glad I’ve gotten such a strong opportunity to practice it.

Excerpt Credit

Quinton Smith, 8000 Years of Board Game History in 43 minutes

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