On Mediating the Gap Between Tabletop and Screen


It start­ed with a sim­ple enough premise: you can­not under­stand video games if you don’t under­stand Dungeons & Dragons. It is, of course, a slight­ly gim­micky for­mu­la­tion, but the feel­ing I have is that the influ­ence of non-video games on video games is often under­stat­ed or under-examined. D&D espe­cial­ly has had a mas­sive impact on the worlds that we play in and the rules that we play with, yet it is easy to over­look if you have never played the game your­self. Another pithy phrase I came up with was along the lines of ‘even if you’ve never played D&D, the per­son who designed your favourite game has’, which, while true to a sur­pris­ing­ly large extent, is also a bit gim­micky and pat and fails to tell the whole story. What I thought would be inter­est­ing, there­fore, would be to write a series of irreg­u­lar arti­cles for The Ontological Geek look­ing at spe­cif­ic aspects of tabletop-and-beyond gam­ing and how those have influ­enced and shaped those ele­ments of video gam­ing that are often con­sid­ered by video game play­ers to either be self-evident, the base prin­ci­ples of the form, or entire­ly gen­er­at­ed with­in the sphere of video games.

It got more com­pli­cat­ed than that, how­ev­er, and I now find that in order to posi­tion myself sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly I have to look at the spheres of games-criticism and games-writing first and the way that they too have focussed often entire­ly on the idea of video games as a dis­crete cat­e­go­ry rather than take in the lessons of other types of play. All this has been said before, of course, and repeat­ed­ly so, but I am reit­er­at­ing it here in my own words and adding my own take to it to pro­vide a bedrock for any future work I do and to pro­vide a sin­gle place that I can point peo­ple to if they want to ques­tion my motives.

Video game excep­tion­al­ism is found in the idea that video games are not just unique, but are unique in a way that is itself unique. That they are dif­fer­ent than their peers and pre­de­ces­sors in a way that requires a new under­stand­ing of how things can be dif­fer­ent. This is a trap that many other media types fall into as well; often although not nec­es­sar­i­ly pred­i­cat­ed on the belief that because a form exists as a syn­the­sis of other forms it is by def­i­n­i­tion greater than and eclips­ing of those other forms. You can see it in the way opera is talked about by a par­tic­u­lar afi­ciona­do as the end­point of both the­atre and music, as the syn­the­sis that allows both to be what they truly are sup­posed to be. But this is a tele­o­log­i­cal fal­la­cy and, as with most tele­olo­gies, is always a dan­ger­ous way of view­ing any kind of progress.

A tele­ol­o­gy is a way of look­ing at the world which focus­es on end-points as fun­da­men­tal. They say that we are not mov­ing away from a series of start­ing con­di­tions, but are mov­ing towards a set goal. A great many video games, with a sin­gle win con­di­tion at a fixed end point, are inher­ent­ly tele­o­log­i­cal in that the play­er is aim­ing to align the world to that point through their actions and they have lit­tle choice but to fol­low the path ahead of them. History itself is prob­a­bly not tele­o­log­i­cal, and although there are often claims made that it is, these man­i­fest des­tinies usu­al­ly lead direct­ly to blood­shed.

If one looks at the stag­nat­ing cul­tur­al posi­tion of opera nowa­days, only 100-odd years after it achieved its sup­posed apoth­e­o­sis, one can see a pos­si­ble future for the video games of today if the ‘final form of enter­tain­ment’ mythol­o­gy that sur­rounds them is left unchal­lenged. Similarly, the relat­ed ten­den­cy towards a cat­e­gor­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion from other forms is a ter­ri­ble posi­tion from which to per­form any kind of seri­ous project of inves­ti­ga­tion or crit­i­cism. In syn­the­sis­ing the­atre with music, opera was able to cre­ate an art­form which fused the strengths of both, but cru­cial­ly sac­ri­ficed ele­ments of both as well, and which also requires at least a basic under­stand­ing of both to fully under­stand. It has also since fed into and informed a num­ber of dis­tinct tra­di­tions, from musi­cals to film scores, which them­selves would resist a crit­i­cal project pred­i­cat­ed only on opera stud­ies.

Exceptionalism should be guard­ed against in all areas both because it is triv­ial (any given form can do things which are out of the scope of other forms) but also because it ghet­tois­es and com­part­men­talis­es peo­ples’ expe­ri­ences. I was mocked at school for play­ing D&D by peo­ple who played video games based on D&D. It’s a triv­ial exam­ple, but it’s impor­tant. It’s sim­i­lar to the rea­son­ing behind peo­ple say­ing hip-hop isn’t music, or that mod­ern art is rub­bish, because they have cat­e­gorised a tech­nique as out­side of the lim­its they have imposed on a form. I under­stand the need to delin­eate areas for aca­d­e­m­ic study from both a bureau­crat­ic and tech­ni­cal posi­tion but dif­fi­cul­ties arise when we start to take those delin­eations as some­how essen­tial, rather than use­ful tech­niques for appor­tion­ing intel­lec­tu­al labour. The uni­ver­si­ty is a fac­to­ry and we mus­n’t for­get that the same tech­niques of spe­cial­i­sa­tion and stream­lin­ing that have been put in place since the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion to accel­er­ate mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion have also been imple­ment­ed to do the same for the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge.

Video games need to be sit­u­at­ed with­in a gen­er­al con­ver­sa­tion about games and more specif­i­cal­ly about play. They are (audio + visu­al + play + more — any num­ber of those ele­ments), and, as with opera, to under­stand them fully you need to at least have a basic under­stand­ing of the ele­ments that make them up. This is in resis­tance, in some ways, to the way that videogames has swal­lowed up the con­ver­sa­tion around other game forms, becom­ing a cat­e­go­ry unto itself. There is, it often seems, con­sid­ered to be a par­i­ty, to be a defen­si­ble posi­tion, in using the same tech­niques to dis­cuss a mobile app and a next gen con­sole game, but that that par­i­ty stops dead the moment you move from screen to table­top.

What do we do about the numer­ous board games that have had straight ports onto com­put­er? If a videogame is the sum total of all of its parts, what hap­pens if I play it with the sound turned off? When the game being played is the same but the expe­ri­ence, whether through medi­um or sit­u­a­tion, is dif­fer­ent it is clear that the treat­ment will depend on the mode of inter­ro­ga­tion. This in turn makes clear that any cat­e­gor­i­cal dif­fer­ence can only be con­struct­ed in the moment of and by the form of the study.

This leads into Brendan Keogh’s propo­si­tion, delin­eat­ed in his arti­cle Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games ((Journal of Games Criticism, Volume 1 Issue 1)). Keogh’s pro­pos­al is in part an ethnog­ra­phy of games crit­i­cism and in part a plea to sub­jec­tive and instanced engage­ment in crit­i­cal projects. Ethnography, which con­sists of the study of in-groups from a posi­tion with­in that in-group, is a vital soci­o­log­i­cal tech­nique, devel­oped in part to counter the pater­nal­ism of tra­di­tion­al anthro­pol­o­gy. But there is the caveat, as with all ethno­graph­ic tech­niques, that it is impor­tant to always stress the sub­jec­tive nature of any find­ings. Those engaged in sub­jec­tive analy­sis must active­ly engage with and break the read­er away away from a cul­tur­al default of logical-positivism; that still com­mon con­cept of knowl­edge as a uni­ver­si­fi­able and ver­i­fi­able under­stand­ing of the world.

While ethno­gra­phies and sub­jec­tive engage­ments pro­vide tech­niques to allow mar­gin­alised voic­es to be heard, when they oper­ate with­in a machin­ery that sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly sti­fles those voic­es they can, con­trar­i­ly to their stat­ed aim, fur­ther work to nor­malise hege­mon­ic expe­ri­ences. There is a nat­ur­al pres­sure to feel like you have failed if you have not expe­ri­enced a thing in the way that an author­i­ta­tive fig­ure is out­lin­ing as their expe­ri­ence. And whilst only cer­tain cat­e­gories of voice or sub­ject have access to that author­i­ta­tive posi­tion, the way that they expe­ri­ence the world will still be priv­i­leged.

One of the pos­si­ble pit­falls of giv­ing pri­ma­cy to the per­son­al moment of dis­cov­ery of con­cepts and ideas and ways of being can be seen in anoth­er piece of Keogh’s pieces. In the arti­cle Bodythinking1 he talks about the way in which a play­er is play­ing a game even when they aren’t phys­i­cal­ly press­ing but­tons. Keogh’s use of the lan­guage of per­son­al dis­cov­ery (‘I’m play­ing’), pit against an entrenched and uni­ver­sal mode of think­ing (‘we con­cep­tu­alise’), inter­plays with cul­tur­al sig­ni­fiers of author­i­ty (the PhD stu­dent writ­ing long­form in an edit­ed pub­li­ca­tion) to allow the read­er to believe that this is new knowl­edge rather than a new per­son­al expe­ri­ence.

I don’t think Keogh does view this as essen­tial­ly new work given the ref­er­ences to sim­i­lar ideas in other fields of study, but how we say things can be as impor­tant as what we say. No mat­ter the intent of the writer the text becomes an object in its own right. It may make for a good story and as a piece it is nice­ly writ­ten, but for those of us who play tac­ti­cal and strat­e­gy games with this under­stand­ing at the front of our minds it is a bit galling to read of it as though it is a new thought. To take a fur­ther exam­ple, team sports are pred­i­cat­ed entire­ly on the idea that peo­ple are still play­ing even when they haven’t got the ball at their feet. This has been a fea­ture of games for a very long time, and one that the focus on videogames as a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry alto­geth­er can only work to elide.

Keogh’s con­cept of the cyber­net­ic play­er — the idea of the player-state and the game-state at a given time as the basic unit of study — is a pow­er­ful idea and, cru­cial­ly some­thing that can use­ful­ly be expand­ed into all play. To focus on the medi­um, the com­put­er or con­sole which medi­ates between game and play­er, is both mys­ti­cal and reduc­tive at once; a techno-fetishism that lim­its rather than expands one’s hori­zons. It is, in fact, the same think­ing that asserts that read­ing a book only counts if it is made of paper — we for­get that paper is mere­ly a form of tech­nol­o­gy and not the thing itself. The computer-as-computer is noth­ing spe­cial, it is mere­ly a repos­i­to­ry and enac­tor of a set of infor­ma­tion, an actor arbi­trat­ing between the actors play­ing the game and the actors who cre­at­ed the game. It does the same job that the board and the pieces and the rule­books of a table­top game do, and while all these dif­fer­ent types of game act dif­fer­ent­ly, their com­mon­al­i­ties should not be ignored.

It is a duty of those who can write, who have the voice and the vocab­u­lary and the reach, to do more than just write about them­selves. I am fully on board with the polit­i­cal and social aim of iden­ti­ty recla­ma­tion in Mattie Brice’s con­cept of Games Criticism as a Selfie (and nat­u­ral­ly appre­ci­ate her inti­ma­tion towards mov­ing away from a sole focus on videogam­ing as a site of crit­i­cal engage­ment), but that can­not be all. To make a point as soundbite‑y as that talks’ title, a self­ie can only be taken if you have a cam­era. The cam­era here is both a sym­bol of tech­no­log­i­cal engage­ment and inclu­siv­i­ty (the assump­tion being that we all have at least a basic cam­er­a­phone avail­able) as well as a mark­er of intel­lec­tu­al or aca­d­e­m­ic engage­ment and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal will­ing. What do we do for those with­out a cam­era? Just as not hav­ing access to the machin­ery of record­ing does not stop images from occur­ring or hav­ing mean­ing, the rich­ness of a person’s inter­nal life is not pro­por­tion­al to their abil­i­ty and desire to artic­u­late or elu­ci­date that life to an exter­nal audi­ence.

As impor­tant as recog­nis­ing the lim­its of objec­tiv­i­ty and explor­ing the depths of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty are as an intel­lec­tu­al exer­cise they can­not become exclu­sive­ly priv­i­leged as method­olo­gies in exact­ly the same way that no method­ol­o­gy should be priv­i­leged as such. Pure sub­jec­tiv­i­ty is as much a dan­ger­ous fal­la­cy as pure objec­tiv­i­ty. The rise of ultra-objective game reviews make a sound and seri­ous satir­i­cal point, but viewed uncrit­i­cal­ly they can hide the creep­ing neo-liberalism of an anti-consensual, anti-societal mer­i­to­crat­ic project to hand con­trol of real­i­ty to those best able to describe what they want it to be — which is of course the exact thing they are try­ing to resist. While truly objec­tive knowl­edge may be unat­tain­able it should not there­fore be erased from the toolset because the pur­suit of it can help us to express and under­stand some of the com­mon­al­i­ty of our goals and expe­ri­ences.

Writing well and engag­ing­ly is a skill, whilst read­ing time is a scarce resource, and good writ­ing is incred­i­bly effi­cient at exploit­ing and monop­o­lis­ing that resource. If we only ever write about our own engage­ment then we will mere­ly see the rise of new hege­monies of expe­ri­ence as read­ers align them­selves with read­ings that appear the most right because they are the most read­able and the most widely-read. The solip­sism of the cyber­net­ic play­er, of the tech­no­log­i­cal excep­tion­al­ism at the heart of the tran­scen­dence of the one-player expe­ri­ence, and of the lan­guage of self­ies has the power to become a lim­it­ing and exclu­sion­ary rhetoric. Social play, be it struc­tured by rules, pitch­es and table­tops or just freeform and spon­ta­neous, teach­es the play­ers about bound­aries and nego­ti­a­tion and the thought process­es of oth­ers. We need a real­i­sa­tion that we are cyber­net­ic actors in and with our cul­tur­al expe­ri­ences too, that we come togeth­er when we realise that the bound­ary between self and soci­ety is as porous as that between self and machine. We lose voic­es not only by silenc­ing those who would speak, but also by not speak­ing on behalf of and with those who pre­fer to use their time oth­er­wise.

This is all quite a long way around of get­ting to my cen­tral aim as stat­ed at the start, which is to begin, in a series of occa­sion­al posts, to look at the links between video games and table­top and board games and to see how they have influ­enced each other. While video games are clear­ly not table­top games, as I have men­tioned above, I don’t think that you can explore the for­mer with­out explor­ing the lat­ter. I also don’t think you can under­stand them with­out a ground­ing in the audio or visu­al medi­ums either, but I’m not the per­son to be expound­ing on those.

You may not have played Dungeons & Dragons, but if you play video games then you most cer­tain­ly play with­in the con­fines of con­cepts cre­at­ed by peo­ple who did. I have picked up on state­ments and pieces by oth­ers here not to nit­pick or score points but because this is an essay with the express aim of exam­in­ing, and set­ting up the neces­si­ty of exam­in­ing, the often unspo­ken and unex­am­ined assump­tions that under­lie the work of progress and analy­sis, my own includ­ed. This is not to say that any pre­vi­ous man­i­festo or move­ment is even wrong, mere­ly that the impo­si­tion of bina­ry and oppo­si­tion­al des­ig­na­tions, like subject/object, whilst use­ful can also be mis­lead­ing and the work of under­stand­ing should be a game that we all play togeth­er.

  1. Five out of Ten Magazine, Issue 5 []