Episode two of Games Britannia aired on BBC Four tonight and I’m even more impressed, both with the documentary’s content and the way board games really do have a massive influence on we players. This programme, which featured games developed (and, more importantly, marketed) from the 19th century onwards, placed a lot of topics on this gamer’s personal debate stand. It’s Monopoly‘s story which struck the deepest chord for me, leaving a very relevant legacy both in the way it was developed, and the way its players respond to it.
Key to this era in gaming and games design appears to be the game mechanic. The games of this era borrowed, stole and outright mirrored whole devices into their play, with inescapable comparisons to modern video games design. The most famous of these games is Monopoly, which I had assumed was unique until the programme explored Elizabeth Magie-Phillips’ The Landlord’s Game. Later released in the UK by the amusingly named Newbie Game Company as Brer Fox an’ Brer Rabbit, Magie’s game featured all the familiar trappings of prospecting, rent, utilities and even the Chance cards, but in a manner she hoped would support an socialist argument; instead Monopoly achieved the reverse.
Due perhaps to a changing world climate, associated less with Quaker roots than the American Dream, players were more willing to play out a rags to riches tale – something I believe has become gaming’s folk tale. Prospecting in order to bankrupt your fellow players is less an exercise in socialism and more a capitalist one, and that strikes me as a key device in most of the games I play now. I can build a broad enough portfolio to cripple my competitors with rent just as easily as I can found a stable SimCity or dominate others using my undead warlock – potentially resplendent in expensive, auction-bought gear.
One other topic which crept up was that of emotional gaming. Naturally, with the programme’s focus laying elsewhere, this was not dealt with in especially great detail. Still, the way Monopoly‘s competitive gameplay would spark arguments around the board was a pretty radical departure for a typical family board game. Until then, board games did encourage competition of course, but many still took aspiration and endeavour as their themes, over conquest and ruin. This competitive anger is the one emotion which modern video games can be guaranteed to inspire.
I wonder how many video game designers have sat down and thought less about the individual player’s emotions, and more about the multiplayer group’s. As far as I can tell, only Shigeru Miyamoto has ever publicly acknowledged this, in a teaser video for Wii Music which was released through Wii’s internet media channel. In it he proposed a game all the family could contribute to – Granddad, sister and mother all would chip in to form your orchestra, and your combined efforts would show as an enjoyable piece of music.
I say, “trust Wii to be the first to this idea” – after all, it is a console sold on family play, and that makes a refreshing change for new players like my parents, put off by petty and often violent interactive contests. As my fellow designers at university recognised – when we were working on a two-player game demo called Floaters – genuinely co-operative games are an astonishingly niche type in our medium. While it’s very easy to make a multiplayer game competitive, angering its players just as much as Monopoly did, can games return us to happier endeavours?