Welcome back folks! This is the fifth entry in our series about the importance of play. If you're just joining us, this series starts here. It also refers from time to time to our series about games last year which you can find here.
I've already covered this topic to some degree in the post on games, sharing culture, and connecting people: games, by providing a framework for interaction, enable a connection between people that requires no other common experience - there's no need to share an age, class, culture, occupation, or anything else; even a common language can be optional.
What I didn't do in that post was call out the fact that this means games and play can not only strengthen bonds that are already there, but work to break down the barriers that artificially divide us - or, if you prefer, to regrow the bonds of our common humanity that have been artificially severed.
They can do this in two ways, which we might label the "active" and "passive" modes.
The active mode is by using the stakes-free experimentation of play and the many tools at games' disposal to explore and undermine the false rationales that justify the mistreatment and exclusion of individuals for things other than the actual consequences of their behaviour.
For instance, games can abstract the systems and dynamics that foster bigotry and division from the specifics of their circumstances. Done well, this can not only give us a certain critical distance and a chance to see them from outside, just as well-written fiction can do, but even to inhabit other positions in those pecking orders. Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyed" sessions can be taken as a relatively extreme, intentionally highly emotional, and not entirely unproblematic example of this.
(Two notes: First, to the extent that calling Elliot's necessarily unfun sessions of behaviour-according-to-arbitrary-rules "games" is a fair description - and before accusing me of trivialising them, bear in mind that I do not consider games any more inherently trivial, or slaves to entertainment, than books are - I would point out that they constitute another example of games tackling vital subjects in ways other media simply cannot.
Second, just as with fiction and other poetic ways to instil empathy or vicarious experience, there are limits on how much insight can be offered. After all, even if for the duration of the work the experience of persecution is simulated perfectly, the simple fact of knowing that it will end - and that you probably have control of when it will end - utterly transforms the experience. It's similar with any draining experience. Being a carer for an abusive invalid, having water drip on your forehead at irregular intervals, even the mild tedium of involuntary social isolation can drive you insane if you don't know when it will end. One of the strengths of Elliot's approach is that just as her blue-eyed audience are starting to refuse to take it any more, she takes that point - that they want to opt out of this arbitrary BS, but you don't get to do that with real-world oppression - and drills it home, by inviting people who have experienced ongoing racism to tell those stories at a time when their audience are primed to be receptive.)
Other games exist that seek to consciously explore these issues: Steal Away Jordan, dys4ia, Dog Eat Dog, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, This War of Mine, and many more. While all these work in different and fascinating ways, and are worth your time and attention, I'd actually argue that besides the value of addressing these divisions consciously and intellectually, play and games do a great job of overcoming them experientially.
This is what I mean by the "passive" mode. Whether or not a game sets out to make us think about these issues, simply by giving us a chance to spend time in the company of those different from us on a somewhat more equal footing - because a game doesn't care who's playing it - we start to break down those barriers. Having to rely on ideas and stereotypes for our understanding of whole groups of people inevitably results in us thinking of them, and relating to them, in those terms. Having experience of a range of specific individuals from those groups means we can relate to them as people, and start to see what they have in common with other people in our life, lessening the power of the group identifier in our reflexive, emotional thinking, and bringing individual humans back into focus.
Again, I'm not asserting that just having a good time together (assuming we can see past our prejudices enough to do so in the first place) is a substitute for actually reflecting on and consciously attempting to dismantle the systems, symbols and generalisations that shape our lives in destructive ways. The bigot who sincerely thinks that <almost all X are terrible people, just not the X he happens to know, who are actually really lovely (for X), which proves he's not a bigot> is a genuine phenomenon, as well as a joke.
But that experience of the humanity of others is an indispensible complement to that more analytic approach: we are emotional, instinctive creatures as well as intellectual ones, and moment-to-moment most of us live in (and react from) our emotions at least as much as we do our intellects. Just as much of a joke (and just as tragic a joke) as the bigot-despite-his-own-experience is the idealist who understands intellectually that we're all equal and decries discrimination in principle, but who somehow still can't quite get comfortable with Those People - or help them feel comfortable around her.
It's possible to change ourselves at those primitive levels by sheer force of reason, but it's extraordinarily hard and almost never produces any kind of social ease. The best and fastest way to shift those basic, primal levels of our thought is by direct experience: by simply spending time enjoying ourselves in the company of people who are, in some way that matters more than it should, unlike us. And games and play give us a framework for doing exactly that: somewhere to bond together over shared effort and experience, where nothing is really at stake to prime our fear and anxiety responses.
You can imagine how these sorts of positive shared experiences could be provided ancillary to other media (book clubs, art appreciation societies, or what have you), all of which are very much to be encouraged. But only in games and similar playful experiences are they innate - and indeed beneficial, because arbitrary social barriers restrict the pool of possible fellow-players - to the form. Games and play give us an inherent incentive to make room in our lives for others as they really are, not as we think of them or as they are represented by someone else. That's pretty amazing stuff.
This month's game genre is not defined by mechanics so much as it is by the way it frames the relationships between players: instead of competing to avoid defeat and attain victory, players are all working together against the rules of the game to beat the system, and either win or lose as a team.
The value of this framing as an expressive device should be immediately obvious, and the writeup recently posted for the new historically-based co-op board game, Freedom - The Underground Railroad, makes it explicit. Sometimes the challenge of the game is themed around a common threat, like disease, or just something you don't want people to be playing, like slavery. Co-op games allow you to explore those themes without putting any players in the position of playing something that nobody wants to support, or that may even have strongly personal negative associations for one or more players at the table.
In the last two Talking Points articles, we've discussed how one of the greatest strengths of competitive games is that they drive you into other people's shoes - you have to anticipate your opponent and therefore have to try to think like them. But that oppositional interaction with others is not the only, or even the primary, mode of engaging with our fellow human beings. We overlook and outright forget it often, but most of the things we collectively work to overcome are not each other. Rather, these general threats are natural phenomena that are not the product of human actions (though we can certainly contribute to their occurrence, and exacerbate their effects), which we have yet to overcome entirely, and which constantly threaten to overwhelm the defenses we have against them. That humanity has survived and prospered to the degree it has is a remarkable achievement, nothing to take for granted... and the product of intense collaboration among millions of people.
(Consider the number of people who have contributed to the device on which you are reading this text, and all the devices through which it has arrived there from the device on which I am typing: extraction, refining, processing, design, prototyping, shaping, assembling, testing, coding, and the research that enabled all these things, and the planning that co-ordinated them... and this is merely one artifact among many. We are surrounded and supported by a web of shared effort that envelops us so completely that it is almost invisible to us, the air we breathe and the water in which we swim.)
So it is hardly surprising that games have evolved to explore this territory too. The process started with team-based games, which saw groups workling against other groups, combining both approaches. These eventually shifted to few-vs-many or one-vs-many games - both of which have existed in the physical-game space for centuries (most team sports, Fox & Hounds/paper chase games, Hide & Seek, tag/chasey, etc). Fully co-operative games are a relatively recent innovation, but have nonetheless proliferated rapidly: witness the collaborative storytelling of the games highlighted last month, co-op computer games, or the-group-vs-the-system tabletop games, like Freedom.
It's worth briefly exploring the different strengths of co-op vs. competitive games. Co-op is definitely weaker in terms of fostering theory of mind, since you're not having to anticipate other people's actions to the same degree in order to succeed. (Though that raises some interesting design possibilities around co-op games where you can't communicate with your fellow players.) It's great for fostering analysis and discussion of systems, though, for precisely the same reason: that's where the challenge now lies. It's also terrific for strengthening the skills involved in collaboration, notably communication, especially in games where time pressure is a factor.
If you're interested in giving co-op games a go, here are a few random recommendations to get you started:
Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, New Super Mario Bros. U - as part of its outreach to "casual" gamers, Nintendo has been doing a lot of work in the co-op space, in particular in developing asymmetrical co-op, where one player controls the main character and the second player operates a slightly simpler set of controls to try and help the first achieve their goals. Nintendoland also has some fun co-operative minigames.
Opposites is an indie title for X-Box and now Ouya, a sort of sideways co-operative (or competitive) Tetris - I personally find the attempt to collaborate and last as long as possible much more interesting than playing to spoil each other's options. This is definitely one where you practice skills in communication under time pressure though!
MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) also feature a good deal of co-operation - some quests are only achievable with co-ordinated efforts from 40 or more players.
Pandemic is a board game about working together to find a cure for four diseases which have broken out around the world before they go critical and kill or infect too many people. This is not only a great game for collaborative strategizing, it's a terrific example of "poetry of system". While the actual gameplay has almost nothing to do with any activity that would contribute to defeating an epidemic, the tension between short-term dealing with the symptoms of the problem and working towards a long-term solution is beautifully captured. Highly recommended, especially with the On The Brink expansion.
Escape - The Curse of the Temple is a co-op realtime game that is played by rolling dice as fast as you can, trying to find the combinations you need to achieve tasks related to exploring and escaping a trapped ancient temple that is collapsing around you. You only have 10 minutes (there is a soundtrack you can use as a timer, highly recommended for the extra atmosphere, or you can use more prosaic timers) and there are some mini-deadlines along the way. Players in the same room of the temple can share dice pools, and players can get "trapped" and need rescuing, meaning working together is mandatory and the game is an exceptional way to exercise the ability to think and communicate tactically under time pressure.
Forbidden Island is a great introductory co-op game. It has some similar mechanics to Pandemic; but its different flavour (rescuing treasures from a sinking island), shorter play time, slightly simplified rules, and the fact that the board is randomised each time gives it a sufficiently different feel that it's not redundant to have both in the collection.
Other recommended board games include Flashpoint: Fire Rescue, where you play as firemen trying to rescue people from a burning building, and Defenders of the Realm, where you play as fantasy heroes defending the realm from four invading armies. For more advanced gamers, Arkham Horror and Shadows Over Camelot were two pioneers in the field that still exist today and are worth a play, though you need to set aside a decent amount of time to do so, and Shadows ventures into social detection territory with a mechanic dictating that in some games a player will turn traitor.
Hi folks! This write-up of a new historical game (designed by a fellow library worker and successfully Kickstarted last month) was submitted for this month's game genre write-up, but it sounds so interesting that I've decided to post it separately so it doesn't get lost.
Name: Freedom - The Underground Railroad
Publisher: Academy Games
Number of Players: 1 to 4
Play Time: 90 Minutes
Age Range: 12 and up (suitable for middle and high school classroom use)
Return on Investment: High
Format: Tabletop Game
Freedom - The Underground Railroad is a cooperative game in which players are working together as abolitionists to help bring an end to the institution of slavery. Players have two goals they are working towards during the game. First, they need to help slaves escape from plantations in the southern United States, carefully helping them move northward along the Underground Railroad while trying to avoid the slave catchers that are roaming the board. The second goal is to raise and contribute funds, helping the Abolitionist cause grow for political change. The players win if they are able to achieve both goals before the end of the game.
Each player starts the game with a role that gives them a certain amount of abilities each turn. The roles reflects a key type of personality that positively contributed to the Abolitionist movement. The abilities these roles receive reflect the resources and influences they would have had available. As an example, The Conductor and Shepherd are more adept at helping slaves as they move northward, the Stockholder raises funds more efficiently for the cause, while the Preacher wields political influence to help make change.
Each round, players work together, using their roles along with a combination of tokens and cards to try and win the game. The tokens allow players to help move slaves, to raise funds or draw more support for the Abolitionist movement. The cards on the other hand are a mixed blessing that have a broader impact on gameplay. Each card features an event or individual that played a part in the history of the Abolitionist movement. While all the cards have an impact, not all of them are a positive one. Mixed into the Abolitionist Deck are a number of cards that work against the players’ efforts. Part of the challenge for players is dealing with these obstacles while still working towards the goals of the game.
Freedom - The Underground Railroad brings a very high Return on Investment. Not only does it immerse players in an important time in American History, it also presents a tense and challenging game that requires cooperative play and teamwork. While the topic of abolition carries some sensitivity, the game handles the subject matter well. Slavery is not something that any one player controls. Instead, it is what they struggling together against in an effort to bring about change to a grim, bitter period in our past. In addition to participating in civic change, Freedom also introduces players to key historical figures and events of the period, including primary source photographs and images for each. In the end, Freedom - The Underground Railroad is a historically rich game that is sure to leave a lasting impression on players.