The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Editorial: Games Are Useless Distractions and That's Okay

Guest editorial from James Tanaleon

Published on 26 SEP 2014 10:17am by James Tanaleon
  1. business and industry, background / research material, english
Wargamer.com regular reviewer and occasional editorial writer gives us another thoughtful piece about computer games. Read on ...

In today's post-modern world, applicability to “real life” is the utilitarian credo that determines whether or not something is worthwhile. In other words, many people today tend to make distinctions between something that is “useful” and something that is a “distraction” as if the former is good and the latter should be avoided. How many times have we been told that games are a useless distraction? I'm sure we've all heard it at least once or any of us who have not heard it probably get away with such a thing because we game covertly and out of sight of colleagues or family. I think we've also heard the pushback several times. I think we've heard “but this game is very applicable to so many other levels!” that promoters of gaming reassure us with. 

In my own experience, I've done these apologetics for games before. In my youth, I used to tell my teachers in high school that I enjoyed playing Europa Universalis II because it taught me about history and politics—conveniently leaving out my utter and unadulterated megalomania. How many times have I been regaled by my friends that games like Axis and Allies have helped to teach them critical thinking and strategy. But are these claims actually true? 

Recently there was a feature on the radio programme This American Life which featured a segment talking about the much beloved board game Diplomacy—a personal favourite of mine. In it, the presenter of the segment revealed how he had brought the former United States Ambassador Dennis Ross to the World Championship of Diplomacy. For those who don't know about the game Diplomacy, it is a board game played without dice with simultaneous move phases that are predicated on the player being able to spend the 15 or so minutes beforehand convincing potential allies to side with him or her. Considering that no one person can ever take on the rest of the board on his own or even completely crush a competent player one on one, the game is designed to enforce the promises of alliances and cooperation in the “diplomacy” phase before secretly writing down moves—all of which can be betrayed. The interesting thing about this radio segment was the way in which Dennis Ross could properly determine who was trustworthy and who was not. At the end of the first day, he had made everyone laugh when he had told them that he was impressed to find people who had an “instinct for what real diplomacy is” and someone joked with “are you hiring?” The joke, however, is informative. Despite everyone there having such an instinct for diplomacy, Dennis Ross was the only actual Diplomat at the gathering; and no one was recruited. So can we really say that the game has applicability to “real life”? Sure, but it would never be the normal way to become a diplomat. We do not see Diplomacy as a required course. Henry Kissinger was rumoured to count Diplomacy as his favourite board game, but it's not like he was trained by it to be the diplomat he became. 

Axis and Allies may help to give people instincts in strategy and critical thinking, but it will never replace a course in military theory nor would it even be a supplement worthy of replacing other coursework. Those of us who fancy ourselves strategists and wargamers have to contend with the reality that, at best, we're armchair generals. But is this honestly a bad thing? I think part of the problem is the modern sensibility that just because something is “useless,” it is therefore unimportant. Oscar Wilde once said: “All art is quite useless,” intending to point out that much like beauty, truth, and love, art transcends utility. In our utilitarian world, people look upon the romance of games as a distraction. But in reality, a distraction from what? If all the human person considers is utility, then there is no fun, excitement, or love. This is why I believe games have a particular quality that gives them a transcendent quality. 

I'm not saying all games do or even that good games will always invoke a transcendent experience, but take a game like Shogun 2, for example. The cries of battle, the siege of castles, the rush of cannons. All of the attention to immersion helps to trigger for the player a sense of the epic and invokes emotions and thoughts that lift one out of the merely mundane. 

So am I saying games are art? Hardly. I would even say that games like Shogun 2 when played by most gamers rarely invokes anything important: for them it really is a distraction both from the mundane and the transcendent. However, the possibility of it being something more is there. Anyone who has played Civil War 2 might also be familiar with this sentiment. If someone were to replace the Union and Confederacy with made up factions, the game would lose its potency. Entering into a narrative necessarily speaks to something deep within a human person. This may not have any practical application, but neither does honour, yet we as humans have valued it for centuries. 

Furthermore, I think we should abandon the defense of gaming on the grounds of its utility. Like I outlined above, I think it's better to defend gaming as a necessary recreation of the human soul. Even the strictest Benedictine monks in their monasteries are given one hour out of every day to play games if they wished. To defend games as useful is like saying that the only good thing about music is that it's mathematical. We don't listen to Pachelbel's Kanon D-dur because it's a mathematical formula, we listen to it because it's beautiful and it reminds us of weddings. 

Gaming, it seems, is always in search of legitimacy. We only need to look so far as games such as Starcraft or League of Legends which shroud themselves with keywords that make pretenses to legitimacy. “Esports” is the latest incarnation of this camouflage. “Professional” gamers in Korea are given $200,000 a year salaries as a means of showing that the gaming industry is powerful and should be respected. Yet can we really respect games and gaming on such grounds? If a crass brute bribes a restaurant owner so that he can crash your favourite high class restaurant with his friends, would you consider that respectable? In other words, throwing money around is the lowest form of achieving legitimacy. Therefore, instead of attempting to define the importance of games in the human experience based on utility or money, I think every gamer should rediscover the eternal qualities that they find in their favourite games. Games may not make us into heroes or give us the discipline of a warrior, but anything that gives us a window into that and anything that shows us a glimpse of that so that we may admire it should not be so easily discarded as unimportant. We may never be Aragorn or Frodo but that has never stopped us from recognizing that reading such things are good. Yes, games are useless, but so many good things in life are.