Wednesday, 22 August 2012

"Western" boardgaming and egalitarianism

Sagrilarius put some interesting questions in his blog " The Culture of Gaming, and Vice Versa". I was struck especially by one point he made, in that "western" society doesn't accept hierarchical games.

Sagrilarius wrote: "Games with binding contracts or hierarchical player roles are simply unheard of in the genre, not because they aren't fundamentally sound, but because they simply don't occur to the usual suspects that drive boardgaming's technological progress. Not just a eurogame thing, this a western game thing." Not to leave my thoughts in the comments section, I put them up here.

The comment may strike true for boardgames (although the Great Dalmuti springs to mind as the obvious exception) but is patently untrue if you look at other forms of gaming. In games with many players there is the opportunity for both hierarchical and 'contractual' relationships.

If you look at the mass player games occuring online, the hierarchical (and diplomatic) aspects are very clear, with structures like guilds, corporations, alliances and clans. In these structures some players take leading roles, whether formally or informally. Another aspect is specialisation of character types and team balance.

Another form of gaming which is inherently hierarchical is megagaming , games which involved 25 players and more. Player are grouped in hierarchies of teams, which in turn are hierarchical. In "The Last War ", a two day game about the latter half of WWII, about 150 players were grouped into 35 political or military teams , ranging for example from Roosevelt's cabinet through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to theater headquarters.

In both types of games players seem to happily accept the different roles, some relishing in the opportunity to exert leadership, others preferring to stay out of the limelight. Some people take pride in the team effort.

Of course, problems do occur when arguments start. Because this is only a game, and not real life, the extent to which players accept formal authority is limited. And even though there are limits to formal authority in real life (think of Guderian pushing on to the Channel Coast in May 1940, despite orders to halt), the options to punish players for disloyalty and insubordination in games are much less. On the other hand there is greater opportunity for players to excel on merrit, charisma, setting the example or by taking the lead.

I think the lack of hierarchy in boardgames has more to do with the format of a small group of players that need about an even chance of winning, than with cultural traits. Interestingly, informal hierarchy also works with semi-cooperative boardgames, especially if connected to special powers connected to certain offices, like in Republic of Rome and Battlestar Galactica.

So while there is a cultural propensity in the west for egalitarianism, it is not absolute, and it would be very interesting to see comparative studies of gaming culture, just like is being done for business culture (where for example the German business culture is more hierarchical than the Dutch). Do Chinese MMRPG player groups have different forms of organisations than Americans, or British?

There is an academic literature building up that looks at these kinds of dynamic in computer games, but I'm not sure it's as easy to do the same for boardgames.

An earlier version of this post was published on Fortress Ameritrash

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