Abstraction, Confrontation, and Materiality

When you work with ideas for PhDs, which are original research (god, that’s scary), at first you must construct a model. This is a draft of mine, from way earlier in the year, which has already been dragged around the block. It’s already under revision. But, if I want to show the process, that means showing the bits I’ve already moved past, even if I’m embarassed of them. Consider this a stepping stone.

My PhD is about making games.

I’m working on constructing a model for looking at games (in general) that focuses on board games (in specific). Existing models of classifying games out in the wild are kind of grassroots, disorganised, and unfortunately, structured primarily by nerds, some of the worst kind of humans for providing comprehensive, forgiving models of classification. There are people who will shout in your face that 4th Ed D&D is a tactical miniatures Wargame, you Chad, because it’s not about communicating relationships between types of games as much as it is about defending territory they’ve staked out, and somehow being able to transform their preferences into rules. Ameritrash and Eurogame are terms of art, not (such as it is) science.

This model of game analysis is meant not to give hard defined boundaries for the games – don’t think this is about saying this game scores a 7.4 on miniatures. This is about instead presenting games as expressions of multiple axes, and lets you think about games in terms of how their designs are similar.

What we have is a model on three axes. It started out as a spectrum – a line in a row – then two lines in a row – then lines in opposition, but where we are now, the model considers each game has having a range of Abstraction, Confrontation and Materiality. Each of these values goes from ‘not very much at all’ to ‘lots and lots’ – we’re not talking hard numeric values. It’s possible a game to have very little abstraction, almost none, and it’s very possible for a game to have very little materiality, just as it’s possible for a game to have lots and lots of materiality or abstraction. At the same time it seems very hard for a game to have literally nothing of any of these things.

soccerisfake

Abstraction, in layperson’s terms, is how much a game presents of a theme. All games are abstractions – they’re human-mind representations of importance, assigned to indicators. Soccer is an abstraction, even if the thing it’s abstracting is soccer mattering (soccer is fake, actually). Some board games are very, very heavily abstracted for what they represent – look at games like Chess or Checkers – even those that are trying to represent something like a battle are still pretending battles work on extremely arbitary, careful rules with oddly specific dynamics. Some games areĀ instead very low on abstraction and do whatever they can to present to you, the player, as much of their theme and game world every time you play them. Games like Magic: The Gathering are, again, still abstract representations of a war between wizards, but they’re still absolutely soaking with things that want to give you the feeling of existing in their world.

Low-abstraction games can look really different, though. Dungeons and Dragons runs low on abstraction because you’re trying to make absolutely sure that the world feels real, and players engaging with that world can interact with it in as many ways as they can conceive and explain to the player coordinating the game. Games like Gipf are really abstracted because they want to make the math puzzle of how you engage with them more present than caring about the fiction or the motivations of actions.

Confrontation is the degree to which the game presents players with opposition. The easiest models of confrontation are players in competition with one another, trying to ‘beat’ one another in some way. Race games like Snakes and Ladders have a lot of very obvious confrontation. You want to get to the goal before your opponents do. When they win, you do not win, and the very simple binary of ‘win or lose’ is the only thing the game is about. Confrontation and how the game presents it is a fascinating axis with so many different options. Games can be opaque about it, like Tigris and Euphrates, or they can be direct, like Formula D. They can make engaging with your confrontation indirect, like Monopoly, or they can make it direct, like Garou: Mark of the Wolves. Sometimes the game itself confronts all players, and then those players compare how they handle that opposition, and that becomes another level of confrontation, like Imperial Settlers.

Then, our third axis is materiality. Board games get to do a lot with materiality, moreso than videogames – because board games are built around what you might conventionally see as ‘actual objects.’ Some tabletop games can have almost no materiality, like word games and gambling puzzles. Some games play with huge materiality, like crowd-friendly games like Two Rooms And A Boom where just having a big space is part of the game. To bring up Dungeons and Dragons again, that’s a game that turns dungeons and palaces and dragons into (potentially) entirely conceptual entities, both as non-material entities, but also imbues those entities with the idea they should have mass and weight and force, and therefore, they have a virtual materiality.

This is a first draft of this concept space. It’s going to get prettied up for my thesis – and we’re already on the way to changing parts of it. Still, as with all things that wind up working, there are points along the way where they do not work. That’s where this is.