Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Game Writ Large

We are going to build a world together.

To adulterate Shakespeare, all the world's a stage, and we men and women might aspire to be players.

Games are generally thought of as a waste of time, but I have been reflecting lately on how useful they have been in preapring me for real life. I am thinking especially of strategy games, of games like the card game Magic: The Gathering and the German table game Agricola.

Games like these share the common thread of putting many simple pieces together in pursuit of a simple goal, whether reducing your opponent's life total from 20 to 0 or of building the most extravagant farm. Rules take longer to understand than for, say, Yahtzee, but one gets the sense of them in half an hour.

But learning how to play these games is one thing. Learning how to excel at them is quite another. My friend Zach introduced me to the word "grok" to describe what it means to be good at them. "Grok" was coined by Robert Heinlein in his 1961 book Stranger In A Strange Land, and formally it means "to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed." Less formally, to grok one of these games means to understand how to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts in ways unique to your personality and the game's character.

To grok the game 7 Wonders is not just to choose the cards that you will hold but to choose the cards that your opponents will hold as well. To grok Agricola is to pull abundance out of scarcity and to paint with it a picture. To grok Magic might be to create an infinite loop of resources, or to stand down an entire hoard with a single angel, or to offer your opponent a version of the "heads I win, tails you lose" choice.

To play a game that one has grokked is an immensely creative enterprise. It is to pick up a plowshare and see a sword, to pick up a stone and make bread, or to think for the first time of marrying peanut butter with jam. It is to take simple, unadorned pieces and write poetry with them.

Seen this way, life is a game writ large. Days generally move one into the next without much fanfare, and most things we do are mundane. But all the while there are endless problems to be solved, and endless pieces waiting to be put together in search of solutions. We might make something entirely new in the service of something dearly needed.

Games give me hope that solutions can be found by giving me glimpses of what it looks like when everything goes right. Games give me the confidence and the courage to try something new in the face of intractable difficulty. Games are ideals that breed healthy idealism.

Despite the reputation they have for drawing people away from and supplanting real life, it need not be so. I advocate rather for a healthy dialectic between life and gaming: games for fun and practice and inspration, and life for doing.