The Purpose of a Game

In the Disney movie Strange World, our main character, Searcher, is playing a game called Primal Outpost with his father, Jaeger, and his son, Ethan. Ethan is deeply frustrated because his father and grandfather keep trying to individually “win” a game that is designed to be played cooperatively. The older players just can’t wrap their brains around a game where all parties work together to solve a problem instead of one person taking advantage and coming out on top. Primal Outpost has an important thematic place in the movie because, like the game, the crisis of the story can only be solved through collective action. But I find the game, and the generational divide over how to win a game interesting all by itself.

Cooperative games were rare for a long time in the US. Card games with cooperative elements (Bridge and Euker for example) are played by one team against another, so still competitive. Even a game for children too young to count, like Candy Land, is competitive, where one person wins instead of cooperative where everyone works to solve a problem. Snakes and Ladders, another rather old children’s game that is also, strictly speaking, random, has a winner at the end of the game. I don’t know what lesson we were trying to teach our children, but intended or not, the lesson is life isn’t worth trying because victory is completely a matter of chance.

Playing the game Apples to Apples it’s common for players to not keep score or for the game to not end at the winning condition outlined in the rules. Folks play until something happens to pull them away from the game or everyone just agrees it’s time to end. Sometimes people play the game with an invisible player, Rando Calrissian (also known as Mr. Nobody), where the judge adds a random red card to the played cards. It’s interesting how often Rando can win the hand, often giving the real players, who know each other, a run for their money. That is, I think, the key to why Apples to Apples most often isn’t played to win. Apples to Apples is a very random game. You often don’t have a red card that matches the green one in play. The better strategy is to play to the funnies answer. As gratifying as it is to take the trick, the real fun is in seeing the funny combinations that are put together and the surprise of what your friends will select. In short, no matter how well you play the game, Apples to Apples is as random as Candyland (a game where your ability to “win” is entirely dictated by a little spinner selecting colors for you to match). Rando Calrissian exists as a variation because Apples to Apples isn’t a game played to win tricks. Winning is when you make your friends laugh.

In 1904, Elizabeth Magie patented The Landlord’s Game (the progenitor of Monopoly) with variation rules called “Prosperity“, where everyone plays until the poorest player is twice as rich. Some people cite this as one of the oldest cooperative board games. My only quibble in calling “Prosperity” a cooperative game, despite all players working towards everyone winning, is that there is no way for one player to assist another. The “Prosperity” rules are driven entirely by systemic changes to the rules–which was the point of the game. The game most associated with unbridled capitalist greed, Monopoly, was birthed from a game designed to advocate for the abolishment of land ownership.

A pictures of Elizabeth Magie holding up a Monolpoly board next to her Landloard's board

There was a cooperative game movement in schools for physical education in the 1960s, motivated by a desire to teach children how to work better in teams and be kinder to each other. I do wish my gym teachers had gotten that memo. I still have PTSD from dodgeball. Then again, having done several ropes courses over my lifetime, maybe it is best not to do trust exercises with tween girls. And, despite what you might have heard, apparently, participation trophies have been a thing since the 1920s. In general, though, despite movements to change it, physical sports have remained competitive.

Then in 1974 Dungeons and Dragons was released. Prior to that, miniature games were about reenacting historic wars or creating new war scenarios to play through with players moving their armies against each other until only one army is left. Tabletop roleplaying games changed that. In more dysfunctional groups, the players are playing against the Game Master (GM), but by design, the game is intended to be the players against the story, solving complex problems through cooperative action.

I asked my husband what was the source of the boom in cooperative European-style board games. He pulled out The Lord of the Rings, created by Reiner Knizia. And he might be right. There was a smattering of cooperative board games from the 1970s onward, but in the wake of The Lord of the Rings, we get Pandemic and a slowly growing boom of other cooperative games building to our current crescendo where if feels like more cooperative European-style board games are being published than competitive.

Like most things created by humans, games reflect the values of the people who designed them. They highlight our assumptions about how the world works and are used as tools to teach our children. You can see the evolution of games in the US. The Landlord’s Game was coopted by capitalists to shore up the idea that the only way to win in life was to drain the other players dry. The Game of Life was about getting a car, getting, married, and having kids (and getting rich). However, in the last decade or so, there has been an uptick in the articles and books about the true origins of Monopoly and the intention of the original game designer. This follows the increase in cooperative board games in general. When the current divide in our nation over politics depresses me, I look at what games this generation of students might be playing and I feel a little hope that they are learning that success isn’t a matter of chance or of draining everyone else dry of resources, but rather true victory comes from working together to save the world.

Kids playing board game“/ CC0 1.0