Aristotle 6 and Games

Portrait of Aristoteles. Pentelic marble, copy...
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This is a paper I wrote for one of my last classes in college:

In my wanderings in the library I came across a fascinating picture in a National Geographic. The image had a anthropologist sitting playing a game in the dirt with an African native. The game that they played has appeared on scraps of paper, in the dirt, and even on the spines of books to the chagrin of librarians – everywhere and anywhere there are players willing.  This game played from Toronto to Tokyo is one of linking shapes together. It is the game of tic-tac-toeThis picture is the introduction of the universal game to a remote part of the world. In was played, it can be assumed, with the excitement of a new discovery. Yet in every instance of the game there comes a time when people stop playing the game. Some say they stop because they can never win some because they can never lose, but the wise few change the game. They make the game larger, draw faces and crosses rather than the two selected shapes or even make the game come to life by enlisting their friends to be the shapes themselves. The difference lies between the children who only play to win and those who understand the greatness of the playful nature of the human mind.

Games are an universal phenomena that that brings people together in a common experience. One shared by two or more minds – a meeting of the minds in a set universe. In an interview with Brett Murrell, a local game creator in Boise Idaho, he said that “board games offer a unique perspective that other entertainment avenues do not; they give the participant a chance to control the outcome within a world of the creator’s making.” As he and I walked into a local bookstore during its family game night we talked about what he does. In his spare time from being an engineer he designs games and talks about them in his chess group, and other high school groups. He also stated that “Teaching kids about games, helps them find who they are and how they think”. In the distant past another art form had the same claims: theater. Both the theater arts and the creativity of board games have spanned the history of civilization – and both deal with the understanding of the human condition. Aristotle, the great philosophical thinker of the past, laid out the six layers of drama in the Poetics: Spectacle, Music, Diction, Thought, Character and Plot. These layers are wrapped around each other like an onion; each one is pealed off to find the one beneath.

“When walking in the mall the things that catch your eye are aesthetically pleasing.” This is what Brett said, but it took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. I glanced at the games being played at a special game night at a local Border’s bookstore. A family was huddled over a Scrabble board trying to spell unusual words with the wooden tiles. Some teenagers were playing chess with plastic pieces – and a salt shaker as a replacement. Some young children were playing tic-tac-toe with large chrome shapes. All of these games had different materials. The same thing happened to these groups of people and what they choose to play. Aristotle called this the spectacle part of drama, it is the skin on the onion. Mike Petty, a teacher who used games in his classroom said this “At the time I would have said I’d discovered an interest in gaming. Looking back, though, it was really just a desire to get as many new games as possible. I was hooked on the novelty of unique games and the reaction they’d get when I showed them to students.” This is the first thing that players of all ages look at, but once the box is opened this layer is pealed off.

William Congrave once wrote “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast”. According to Aristotle, Music deals with the rhythm of the scene piece, how fast or slow it moves. Brett, when getting up to grab a cup of coffee, described this as the ‘fun’ of a game. “A game that moves at a good pace as perceived by the players will be seen as fun, how many people tired of Monopoly because the game lasted for hours? Now it sits in their closet set aside for random playing for shorter or faster moving games.” It was true some of the players in the bookstore were getting tired of the game they were playing. The teenagers stopped playing chess and were now reading, but the family was still going strong on their word crafting. Mike Petty also saw this happen in his classroom “It was about that time that I began to understand the essential ingredients for a game. It’s not always necessary to have lots of new, costly games with tons of fancy components. Instead, we had hours of fun with scrap paper and a big ten-sided die that cost me a buck. What I loved about gaming was the mental stimulation and having a good time with other people.” The music of play is important to sooth the impatient player.

So far these attributes describe any game. As Brett and I finally decided on what game we should play: checkers. He mused “Back when I was a child I did not play this game by the rules.  That one insignificant mandate that says if I can capture a piece I must; I ignored. It made for very boring games.” He slid his red piece toward my side. The rules give boundaries that must be followed for the designer’s intent. An interesting fact about rules is that most of the time they are set in stone but every once in a while something changes. Parker Brother’s famous game monopoly had such a shift. Before the 1970’s the free parking space was just a free square – where one could land with no consequences. Somewhere the tradition of rewarding players with money who landed on the square got started. Now the money option is written into the official rules.

To first time players understanding the rules can be taxing but important. Mario Lanza, a writer for the games journal, stated “Despite the fun present at most tables where games are being played, some board gamers lack one skill essential to assuring that every game experience is as fun and enjoyable as it could be. That skill is teaching the rules. Because there will always be new games to play, there will always be new rules to teach.” This is Aristotle’s diction – to be clear in the understanding in the universe of the ‘play’. Ralph Koster, a game critic, argues that winning a game is essentially giving the other player an unbeatable puzzle. He also states that since the brain is built for solving puzzles the best puzzles are the ones that reward the innovative.

An historic example of this would be the Gordian knot. According to legend, Gordian was the king of a city state that was a gateway to the East. Gordian had no heirs so he decreed that whoever would separate a certain anchor from a certain ox-cart would become king. These two objects were landmarks of the town and were tied with an impregnable knot. Many years later Alexander the Great headed into Gordian’s city, hearing of the legend and hoping to conquer the city without any bloodshed he resolved to solve the riddle. After days considering the rules, Alexander took his sword and sliced the knot – solving the challenge in an unique way. This is the power of rules.

In the realms of philosophy the thoughts and machinations of mankind are studied and tested. The place where the inner mind reaches to the outer limits is in the thought part of Aristotle’s six elements. This is the moral lesson learned though the entirety of play. This is like Aesop’s fables where each story had an ethical proverb attached to it, but normally the lesson is hidden and not so easily exposed. What did the players learn though the journey of their game. As I was horribly losing the game of checkers I remembered that I should not have been so greedy. I had sacrificed too many men trying to ‘king’ them and now had only a few remnants on the field. Jonathon Degann wrote in the games journal online “What I call Story Arc in a game is the quality of having the situations and decisions metamorphose during the course of a single game so that the player has the experience of participating in a story with a wide sweep. When a game has a beginning, middle and an end, it is more than just a series of decisions. The entire game is an adventure in which the players and the pieces are characters.” The whole structure of my game told me that I needed to play some more, I was out of practice.

In the book The Hobbit, poor Bilbo has to give and answer riddles to escape the lair of Gollum. Each time a riddle is given or asked the stakes get higher and higher. It reaches a breaking point where the protagonist makes a dash out the door. This traveling back and forth of verbal puzzles was the same as the game I was playing – except for the escape. The game was over. The long laid plans of the game master encircled me, I fell to his long-term strategy. The consequences of my actions and Brett’s plans came to a head. Degann describes this feeling “Monopoly in its original incarnation as The Landlord’s Game, players could buy properties and collect rents equal to 1/10 the original cost. Had the evolution of the game stopped there, it would have been terminally boring and it would be irrelevant today. The ability to develop properties and collect huge rents enabled players to deliver a ‘bomb’ to opponents, the excitement we feel when we cap Boardwalk with a hotel and wait for our prey.” These invested emotions make the experience enjoyable when we win or lose as I did.

Rick in the movie Casablanca is given one of the hardest choices one has to ever face. He has to choose between the woman he loves and his country; to stay in Casablanca or leave with Isla. Rick’s decision according to legend was written and rewritten up to the the day of filming. Both the character of Rick and the writers were feeling the pressure of a hard decision. Character is the action a protagonist takes in response to a tough issue is the second to last layer on Aristotle’s onion. In a game the player is the protagonist; their opponent is their foil and antagonist. Character is defined by what choices a person makes. It is like Hamlet’s choice to avenge his father, or the princess’ decision in “The Lady and the Tiger”. It is that struggle that creates the highest tension while playing. These choices reveal the thought, and are the main struggles of a player.

Degann articulates the core of the character in a game “urgency takes on the greatest meaning when the player feels that he can control the effects, but is caught in a seemingly impossible conflict over just what choices need to be made. That’s what we call the Agonizing Decision. In gaming, it is those difficult decisions which determine whether you, the player, will come out victorious or blow your best opportunity and hand the game to your opponent. In the story of the game, you are the protagonist, and in the best games, the human heart… and mind… is in constant conflict with itself.” Degann gives this story: “My five year old daughter expressed the essence of the agonizing decision when her mom proposed an alternative one early Sunday at 3 AM: either she would be accompanied to bed until she fell asleep, or she’d get an extra glass of chocolate milk, which she wasn’t supposed to have. My daughter’s reaction went: “First I want you to come with me. But when I pick that, I change my mind and want the milk instead. So I pick the milk. But as soon as I pick the milk, I decide I’d rather have you come to bed with me. And it goes back and forth like that, faster and faster, forever!”

How can a person be truly known? This question has been thrown around by many people. As the game night was coming to a close at the bookstore; the families, teenagers, and children were all readying to leave. All the games being played were hurried to finish. The nature of the players came out more fully than before. The scrabble players pooled the letters together and made the game into a multi-player freeform crossword, the teenagers were looking for another lost chess piece, and the children playing tic-tac-toe were still going strong. According to Lewis Pulsipher there are two types of game players “Harkening back to the well-known nineteenth century distinction in music, painting, and other arts, I call the two basic styles the Classical and the Romantic. The perfect Classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move his opponent might make. Whereas the perfect Romantic looks for the decisive blow which will cripple his enemy, psychologically if not physically on the board. He wishes to convince his opponent of the inevitability of defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his Romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically. The Romantic is willing to take a risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with.” Brett, after hearing this paradigm, nodded and pointed toward the children playing in the corner. “Most people know that Tic-Tac-Toe is always a draw when played perfectly. Tic-Tac-Toe is clearly a Classical game, yet even a Romantic can try to play in his style.” In this sense even though the game is solved, will always end in a win, tie, or loss mathematically – people still play it to test new ideas.

In the ‘Shore Leave’ episode of Star Trek, Captain Kirk was noted for saying “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play”. As our society grows more and more complex the need for play also grows. The final element of Aristotle deals with the plot. This is the understanding of the human condition. While character deals with the individual, plot concerns itself with humanity in general. A week before the interview I visited the same bookstore to take some field notes and to see what kind of games they had. I noticed a married couple in the back playing a game, and they seemed to be communicating by their moves alone. They were playing for the love of playing. In contrast some middle school kids were playing games to achieve a higher intellectual social class. They were playing to prove who knew more. The couple in the back was more fascinating to watch, you could see the strategies unfold, plans adapt, and it was like watching two minds dance around a board. This was contrasted by the middle school kids who quickly tired of their exercise. Plato was right when he said “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Brett, as we walked out of the bookstore and shook hands, said “Games are an interesting experience: players start the game as equals, play the game as rivals, and leave the game as friends.” Mike Petty saw the same thing in his classroom. “Winning most of the time was something new for me and from that experience I learned an important lesson about competition. I found out quickly that if I simply beat the students and left it at that, most of them would soon get turned off. Slowly I started to see competition as something that I could use to push them to play better – not something that just made me look better. That way every game was a potential win-win situation. Speaking of winning, I remember that first time Brad finally beat me at chess – just when the Principal stepped in to visit. Brad burst into a victory dance with such enthusiasm all of us in the room were embarrassed, except for him.” The understanding of the situations and people playing the game gives a perspective into how a person thinks, and who they are. Petty concludes by saying “A couple weeks ago a woman at school introduced herself to me. She works with the truancy program in the district and she thanked me for providing the game club on Mondays. It turns out one of the students who’s been attending often has a lot of trouble getting to school. The game club meets on Mondays, which was usually his hardest day to get there. Now, the club’s a major motivating factor that gets him up and off to school on Monday mornings. Again, I felt the weight of the responsibility I have.” The art of games has breached the level of just winning but being a link to the lives of students.

The game of tic-tac-toe is a prime example of the ubiquitous nature of games,  not only that, it also shows the greater nature and creativity of the players themselves. As I went back inside the bookstore to grab my notebook I glanced over at what was left of the tic-tac-toe game. It was the only game not put away. Instead of being a mess, the children who were playing it left the pieces not just in the board but stacked up on top of each other. The chrome X’s were balanced on some O’s leaving an edifice of play. The depth games reach truly touch the soul. As we as a society grow larger in the need for play we must reflect on the simple of joys found in the dirt, a spine of a book, or in the playfulness of a child. Then and only then can we unravel the ‘onion of games’ to find the true nature of ourselves and those around us.


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