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Wednesday, 01 October 2008 02:00

On Games, Art and Shades of Gray

By  Andrew Y. Ames
I enjoy a good game. The roll of the dice, the shuffle of cards, and the movement of pieces around a board fascinate me. My interest encompasses everything from traditional parlor games to modern digital marvels. From checkers to chess, Super Mario Bros. to Alien Hominid. Games let me take chances, outwit opponents, and conquer worlds. You can relate. We all enjoy a good game.

But I am still trying to figure out what makes a game good. I think that I know part of the answer: good games capture some aspect of life. They are microcosms that isolate, imitate, and magnify a part of our world and experience. But in doing so, they simplify, and most of the time they oversimplify.

The majority of board and video games are black and white constructs, with rules that clearly define good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. These games are idealized versions of our own worlds. Games like Monopoly, Life, and Risk are sanitized models of business, life, and war. They are based on familiar realities, but they are distorted versions of these realities. These games simplify matters so that players can escape to worlds that they wished existed: binary worlds; dualistic worlds; domesticated worlds. The real world is not black and white, however, and games need not be. Good games are as gray as the real world. Good games expose the unrecognized complexities of the human condition. The artist/ game designer can create a gray world in which players are confronted by ethical dilemmas.

Over the past year-and-a-half I have been making gray games and learning more about what makes a good game and how people react to playing in gray worlds. Some of my games have met with great excitement and fascination which are then played over and over. While others have become what many would consider contemporary art objects that aren't played with at all.

WarDecks is a game modification in the tradition of Fluxus. To create the piece, I re-sorted fifty-two decks of playing cards so that each deck contained only one type of card (e.g., a deck with fifty-two queens of hearts). I handed out decks to fellow artists, academics and friends and asked them play War, a card game for two or more players. The rules are simple and widely known: the cards in the deck are shuffled and dealt to the players; each player has the same number of cards; to play a hand, players simultaneously reveal a card, and the highest card captures the hand. The object of the game is to capture all cards in the deck. I did not change the rules of the game, but I did modify the code.

No one, of course, can ever win a hand because every card in the deck is the same. But the modification makes a point: no one can win the game of war. Those who played the game reported that the modification took all of the fun out of the game. The experience also makes a point: the game of war is not fun. At best, the game and its real-world counterpart are tedious and pointless. The work succeeds in some ways, but fails in others. Players enjoy discovering that all of the cards in the deck are identical, and they are amused by the realization that no one can win a hand or the game. But interest quickly fades into frustration, irritation, and abandonment. The game is interactive, but does not sustain interest, and players do not necessarily associate the game of War with the realities of war.

Argument is a table game that allows three players either to collaborate or to compete—the players decide. The players sit at a round table that has 144 circles inlaid on the top. They take turns moving their own game pieces from circle to circle. The pieces stack, and a player who creates a stack of three pieces, removes and collects the pieces. In competitive play, the person who removes all of his or her pieces and collects the most pieces, wins. In collaborative play, everyone can win, but only if all pieces are removed from the table.

Setup and play are easy; winning is not. Each player receives six of each type of piece and lays the pieces out between three rows. The symbol on top of each piece shows its movement. Each of the three pieces moves like a familiar chess piece: a knight, a rook, and a bishop. In addition, each type will only stack on a specific type of piece, and the relationships are similar to Rock, Paper, Scissors: rock over scissors; scissors over paper; paper over rock. Players do not have to remember the relationships because a hole in the bottom of each piece matches the top of the specific type of piece on which it stacks.

The physical structure of the game was intended to foster collaborative play. Players sit at a round table as equals. The table is small enough to encourage intimate conversation, but too large to reach across easily, so players must help one another move pieces that are out of reach. Even if players choose competitive play, they must collaborate with one another in moving pieces. Watching people play the game has shown that players often choose to compete, a more traditional mode of play, and the competition reveals something about human behavior: when players collaborate, they are talking to one another; when they compete, they talk much less or not at all. These behaviors seem to increase as players become more familiar with the game. When players choose to collaborate winning isn't as black and white. There are three possible outcomes, everyone loses because they can', everyone wins, or in rare cases one person wins. When playing collaboratively, the game is more like a puzzle than a board game, for players must have open communication to plan a strategy to clear the board. People enjoy playing the game, and because it requires three players, it does bring people together. Players decide how to play, and the decision changes how they interact with the game and one another.

Last Resort is a modified game of chess in which two opposing sides wage war to protect civilians and territory. The Bleached side consists of eight pawns, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and a nuke; the Oiled side has eight pawns. Neither side has a king or a queen. The game itself has six civilians. The chessboard has alternating walnut islands and black sandpits. The game of chess traditionally represents war between kingdoms, and the kingdoms have equal power, observe the same rules of engagement, and pursue the same end: to overpower the opposing king. The distribution of power in real war, however, has always been asymmetrical. War today is rarely an attempt to unseat a king, and contemporary wars are not fought by military forces of equal strength; the differences between sides may be enormous. Traditional rules of engagement are not necessarily observed. The conflict may not even involve one nation against another nation, and the distinction between military and civilian participants is blurred. Last Resort modernizes the game of chess by mimicking these aspects of real war. Each side has its own code. The Bleached side, which represents strictly regimented soldiers, wages war to protect the citizens of a foreign territory; the objective is to liberate a people believed to be oppressed. The Oiled set of pieces represents autonomous soldiers who fight to protect their freedoms and to recruit citizens to support their causes. Players on both sides seek to protect life and freedom, but they do so for very different reasons. One fights to free a foreign people in another land; the other fights to be a free people in their own land.

The asymmetry of war is encoded in the pieces and their movements. The Oiled player has eight pawns that move, at the discretion of the player, like a rook, knight, or bishop, though no more than three squares at a time. The Bleached player has eight pawns, two rooks, two knights, and two bishops that move like conventional chess pieces, plus one nuke that moves one square in any direction. The game also has six civilian pieces that either player may move diagonally one square at a time. Players take turns moving one of their own pieces or one of the civilian pieces. Players can move pieces to empty squares or squares occupied by opponent or civilian pieces. Moving to an occupied square removes the occupant from the board. Oiled pawns and the nuke may be detonated or moved. To detonate an Oiled pawn, it and all adjacent pieces are removed from the board. Detonating the nuke removes the nuke and all pieces within three squares of the nuke. During a turn, a player can either move or detonate a piece but cannot do both. The first player to move four civilians to the row closest to their side of the board wins. If three or more civilians are removed from the board, the player who removed the fewest civilians wins.

I've created a situation where the citizens are the most valuable piece of the game, the key to winning is not strictly through annihilating your opponent, but through the people effected most by the conflict, those caught in the middle. In the game players can choose to play justly and protect the citizens. Or manipulate civilian loses to gain support through deception. Further, its an attempt to humanize the act of a suicide/ martyr bombing an act done out of desperation in hopes to sway the odds of an uneven playing field.

Rock Paper Scissors Bomb is an iconic representation and modification of the hand game Rock Paper Scissors, (also known as rochambeau or jan-ken-pon) in the tradition of the Dadaist readymades. I have changed the code of the game from hand signals to the actual objects, and changed the rules by including a bomb, specifically an inert hand grenade. Although it is nothing new to add a fourth item to the game–for example, one set of rules includes dynamite which can beat rock and paper but is defeated by scissors because they are able cut the dynamite's fuse–the bomb trumps everything. I only include one of each item, shifting the game of chance to a game of speed. The game becomes a race for players to reach the strongest item first. Although this piece is designed to be static, it has an implied interactivity allowing viewers to contemplate how they might play.

No one can play this game, but one can imagine racing for the bomb. In this modification the bomb unseats the balance of power and puts the viewer in a cold war mentality: "if I reach the bomb first I know I will win." This implicates the viewer and the desire for power, and raises the question of motive: Is it a fear of losing or a need to win that evokes a race for the bomb?
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