Games of intellect

I have an ambivalent passion for games of intellect, games that involve pure strategy such as chess, strategy and bluffing such as Stratego and Age of Empires, which in addition offers also some layers of history and dreaminess as it takes you back to the past, to different ways of living. I could also be captivated by other more economic games such as Monopoly and Anno, which added the possibility to manage a city, exploit the resources the land has to offer at its best. And I tried to combine all what I liked in board games into one I created and designed together with my siblings, which we called the War of Princes, but which would have probably bore another name at the end, combining elements you find in games such as Risk, such as territoriality, with other elements that are usually present in video games, such as building villages and towns, towers and walls, and developing various kinds of economic and military forces, and exploiting a diversity of resources, with a freedom rarely enjoyed in board games, but more common in video games. We never finished crafting our board game as we kept on changing the rules and inventing new functions and units each time we played it. We also tried to make it as strategic as possible, while keeping a little bit of uncertainty, as is the case in real life.

And yet, in recent years, I always have a bitter aftertaste after playing those games. I have the impression of having wasted my time, and of not having been entirely myself during the game, of having forgotten who I truly am. It is a disagreeable sensation that makes me question the thought of playing, because what is worth an hour of excitement and fun, for an aftermath of regret and lower energy level. As a kid video games allowed me to dream, and made time move faster during the long wintry afternoons when I was alone. While playing Age of Empires, I travelled in my mind to other centuries, I could invent my own scenarios where I was at the head of a small nation having to resist against much stronger foes. Over and over I played this kind of games, sometimes starting in the middle of a forest with a couple of villagers, when other players already had large towns and full armies, and my pleasure was to downthrow their empires, or at least resist for as long as I could. I did not make it a priority to win, and I enjoyed difficult and nearly impossible games. And yet, I was a hard bone and never surrendered easily, and often designed strange strategies that either surprised my adversaries, or threw me off the game. And it was the same in board games. At the time I played all sorts of board games, strategic and luck based, but whenever I could I would always try to stretch the way the game is thought and do something that would seem counterintuitive for others. It bored me to win in a normal, logical way. I preferred to use distorted strategies, preferred to hide and struggle for my life, and perhaps win at the end of a long, well-fought game. My reflexes have not changed much over the year. I still enjoy the fantasy part of the game, the landscape, the history, the civilization, and I still enjoy to try to surprise my adversaries with something new. It doesn’t always work though, and I am at disadvantage against well-trained players who play in the same way each time, because they are much faster than I am, and if their way of playing already accounts for my tricks, and their parry is ready when I try to strike a blow, then they take the ground under my feet and my strategy literally collapses. It is rare I meet such players, but when I do the outcome is always the same. Utter failure.

I do not like these games where I lose without having been able to develop my strategy. I do not like much the games where I easily win against my enemies. And I do not like the games that are drawn for too long. The games I like the best are the ones where I play against a stronger player, and I can somehow surprise them early on, and win. That is probably the reason why I still play.

However more and more I realize I do not like myself when I try to win, to beat others, or not even to beat a computer when I play on my own. Why do we want to win? To prove we are stronger, cleverer, faster, more intuitive? Simply for the fun of playing a game and spending a good time together? A bit of each perhaps.

And here I lay a bridge between games of intellect and novels. In both, we usually enjoy the ones where there are great battles, where there is a very dangerous enemy to slay, and where the good ones win at the end. But more and more I realize there is something flawed in this vision, something I do not like and which does not make me happy when I read a novel. I end up reading the novel because I’m hooked up to the story, to its characters, with the fear the characters I identify with are going to die, the fear the bad ones are going to win, but I stop enjoying the prose and the poetry at that moment, I stop taking my time to read and imagine each sentence. I start rushing in my reading to know what happens, which is probably a good economical attribute for a novel, but I end the book almost frustrated, because for days I have lived in its tension, with the fear in my body, and finally everything ends more or less well. These books can bear a lot of beauty within, their worlds can be highly imaginative, but their storyline triggers our fear more than our love somehow. And it is the same with games of intellect. Games do not allow us to show mercy, or more than mercy compassion. Yes, of course, there are ways to play in a team, against a team of computers for instance, but still you need to kill those virtual enemies. There are also some board games that are more economical, of construction, where all players play together… against the time. So there is still a battle, a struggle.

That is the way we conceive life. A fight, a struggle, to find ourselves a place in the professional world, a struggle to find a house where to live, to find a life partner, a struggle against time as we all supposedly are destined to die. A struggle or competition between nations, between classmates at school, in sports. And the board games we craft and the novels we write are at our image, made of struggles. Sometimes a few novels bear this complexity of characters who may be evil at the beginning and transform themselves, to become compassionate at the end, and perhaps those are the most touching stories, as it is not a fight of something dark against something white, but someone who slowly understands that happiness lies within compassion and love. Board games do not have this option, yet. Or at least those which I played and still crave to play sometimes do not. The functionalities, the actions, that are allowed, are limited. This is even more visible in video games. You cannot hug an enemy. You cannot invent your own building of production. You use kind of lego pieces that are already built up, perhaps offering you some margin of creativity, but not true creative power. And well, that’s probably what people needed, need, what I needed too. Imagine a game where everything is empty and you walk on your own in a forest, and you don’t know where you are going. There are no rules, no instructions, no objectives, nothing and no one to guide you, and so you try to find signs around you, but trees are silent except for the breeze that blows in them, the sky does not speak, except for the sun that lowers over the horizon and the clouds that stroll and gather in one of its corner. And then, you start making rules for yourself. You decide you need to walk in that direction and perhaps get out of the forest, if the forest has an end, and you will follow that bright star at night, and perhaps eat some berries that make your mouth water. When the sun disappears you miss its presence dearly as you grow very cold and everything is dark and you decide to make the sun your divinity and pray for its return, a wish that is fulfilled and then you start swearing by the sun only. That is the realest video game we can ever play, the game of life. A game where we have access to all sorts of functionalities. We, together with our forefathers, have been playing it for thousands of years and still we cannot agree on all its rules, we cannot agree on how exactly the game works. Somehow we feel the aim of the game is to be happy, but how can one be happy when at the end of the game you die, you lose your physical body that falls on the floor motionless. That is our great dilemma. Another ingredient that is of the utter importance, but very hard to define or describe, is love. And love is somehow absent from these games of intellect, which trigger a part of our mind that quite far from the place where compassion and tenderness stem, and more a place of cold, cynical logic. Of course, you can play gently, friendly, and yet your heart is not so much called upon, except in fear, the fear to lose, the game and your face, a primal fear sometimes that is akin to the fear of losing life, especially in real life games that involve hiding in places at night and scaring others perhaps, as a game of villagers and werewolves.

And so the whole aim of this essay is to try understanding why board games do not fulfil me anymore, and how could they be rethought. Storytelling and real life games are somehow potentially more interesting than virtual games because they offer a much wider scope of things you can do in a non perfunctory way. The best games are the ones without rules. Games where you create your own beauty, as you wish, entirely freely. In words, in earthenware, in colours and wrought notes. There is no competition as each person is different, and enjoys doing different things, is gifted for another medium, or the same medium in a different way. Games where you share of yourself, of your vulnerability, of your life story, of your dreams, of your love, of your gift and of your creativity. Games that are not truly games with winners and losers, or with rules. Games that are just a moment spent together, or alone, or alone in togetherness. Real life still has much more to offer you than virtual reality, as long as you give yourself the possibility to explore and discover new things, to rub the leaves of the shrubs and smell their scent, and discover you can make a tea out of them. Or taste a wild berry that is succulent and watch for the passage of seasons and the variety of mushrooms. The most interesting is not to have a book telling you which plants are edible or not, but to let yourself go to your intuition, a very sharpened and refined intuition, and discover the multiple use of each plant, of each mineral, of each matter, by yourself. This is somehow the first step toward creation. Understanding the media with which you can later create. I for instance am incapable of surviving in the forest, or at least I think I am. But I can use and weave words and colours, and that gives me a medium to express myself, to create, and perhaps touch the same place where the roots of trees and shrubs and mushrooms gather. By understanding one medium of creation, perhaps we can arrive to a stage where we understand all of them, and we are able to truly create, not only stories, but real worlds that have not the taste of the video games we today play.

What makes a great book, a great novel? One where you can step into a word and dwell there, forever. If it is such a beautiful novel, you want it to be endless. You want to be able to open it every day and continue your reading, forget all your worries and your tiredness and immerge yourself entirely in the skin of other characters you love. Smelling the scent of flowers, feeling the touch of the wind and that of the sun and that of cold water on your skin, in your mouth. Seeing, imagining, the cities, the places where characters dwell, and their transformation as seasons pass. Feeling that the world the story takes place in is so real that it has become more real than the reality you dwell into, its colours are brighter, deeper. And you follow one storyline after another, the story of each person that dwells inside the novel. You follow it in great depth where slowly you discover everything of that person, because we do not want characters whom are gross approximations of how a real person is. The most engrossing book is the one where characters are as alive, or more alive, than real persons. The one where the story is not composed of good and bad persons, friends and foes, but where we get to see the inner working of each individual, and even the ones we consider foes at the beginning are not frozen in this state and evolve, as the ones we see as friends do, and we live their evolution from within, and so we can feel it on our own skin, and that brings us to a depth of emotions we ignored. Thus the perfect novels and games are somehow similar. They are here to make you travel, within the skin of characters that feel real, in worlds that feel real. Playing a game represents the process of creation, while reading is the witnessing of unravelling creation. In both somehow we are actors and spectators, as when you play the game of writing a novel, you are also reading and discovering your own story, and letting it carry you in the world of dreams. When you read a novel, you are also creating an imaginary world and imaginary characters from the words the writer wrote, as you have freedom to see them as you wish.

And what unites all realities is love. The love of one another, with your twin soul, this person that was created from the start to complement you. This person that is your second half. Without this love for her, everything is meaningless. And once you understand and embrace this love, everything takes new meanings, a new depth, new colours and flavours. For her, you will create the brightest worlds and it will be a never ending creation because you always wish to cherish her, to look into the depth of her gaze, to smile at her and see her smile, to see her face of marvels. She is the most marvellous and beautiful thing in the world for you. Nothing can dim the light of this sun, the warmth she instils in your heart. That is the mystery and the beauty of love, that together we want to create and create and create and help other souls find life and consciousness as we weave our stories.