Make Board Games, Not War

The phrase “Make Love, Not War” has no clearly defined origin as several writers lay claim to it. Was it singer/poet Rod McKuen who first uttered the phrase? Or folklorist Gershon Legman? Or hippie presidential nominee Louis Abolafia?  Or was it all of them through some sort of coincidental cosmic sub-conscious message the universe felt it needed to tell?  Whatever its origin, the hippie chant “Make Love, Not War” still resonates with us today as a rallying cry to embrace the positive, not negative, side of human nature.

But what if there was a third part to the equation?  With love on one end of the continuum and war at the other extreme, there lay a third option in between. Games. Games are not love, though they can be presented as such. Nor are games war, though, again, they can be wielded as such.  Games are unique, and to better explain this, let’s take each concept one at a time.

When taken at its most simplistic level, love is the act of giving. When you give of your time, your attention, your resources, your knowledge… giving anything you have with no expectation or interest in receiving anything else in return is an act of love.

Since it resides at the opposite end of the spectrum, it is no surprise that war is the act of taking. And I am not just referring to the act of taking on a geographical scale. It doesn’t have to involve countries and armies and all of the death and destruction that usually entails. War can be waged on a miniscule level. In fact, it can be so small that it isn’t seen as the ugly act of war that it is. For example, bullying is an act of war. Domestic violence is an act of war. Any event that takes something from another person – their property, their dignity, their sense of safety – is an act of war to one degree or another.

Because of their virtual nature, games are neither. But that really depends on the players’ motivations.  Let’s return to that in a moment.

Games aren’t real. Even hyper-accurate games that endeavor to simulate real events like Avalon Hill’s Advanced Squad Leader are games of fiction. If you couldn’t divert from history, what’s the point of playing?  Just read a summary of the actual events and save yourself hours of gameplay and rule lawyering.

We play because it is escapist entertainment. We want to lead a colony to success, solve the murder, discover the treasure, slay the dragon, and save the world.  And in doing so, we may make choices or take actions that we would never take in real life. You can backstab your buddy in Munchkin and it not be an act of war since its all part of the game.  However, if you do it too often, or if your actions are perceived as having malice, and you’ll start to move on the spectrum towards war.

If your motivation is to have fun with friends and play within the context of the game situation, everyone goes home happy. But we all know players who take it too far.  They don’t want to win, they want to humiliate the other players and gloat about it. And when they fail – or feel they have been cheated even when it is obvious that they had not been – they throw tantrums. When that happens, the virtual situation becomes real and play becomes war.  These table-flippers’ motivation is only to take – take the win, take the fun. It’s a victory for them as they take the rules of the game and situation and twist them to their own selfish needs.

Yet the motivation of playing a game for reasons other than fun isn’t always bad. Imagine a parent sitting down with their young child to play Milton Bradley’s Hi Ho! Cherry-O. The motivation of playing this game is different for each player. The child’s motivation is to have fun which is an act of gaming. But for the parent, it is an act of love. No parent wants to beat their child in Hi Ho! Cherry-O – at least no parent I’d like to know. Parents play such games to give their children time and attention, and to teach them rudimentary math and social skills.  Teaching them to lose gracefully will come when the child is older. For now, flick the spinner and count the cherries and love the shared time together.

As I have gotten older, I’ve sought out games that rush right up to the line between “game and war” or “game and love” and balance there. The Tuesday night gaming group that I attend each week was originally exclusively an RPG meetup.  As the years went by and life situations peeled away players, the group became too small to effectively run RPG campaigns, so we moved to board games.  The majority of the games we play are co-operative, so we’ve been able to stick to that RPG feel.  Games like Defenders of the Realm, Castle Panic, Pandemic: The Cure, Burgle Bros and Star Trek: Expeditions most often have graced the table. We work together, usually in harmony, and in that way tilt towards the love end of the spectrum (without it ever becoming a love fest).

But there are the nights when we bust out Dominion, Munchkin or Kung Fu Fighting and the gloves come off. We never venture anywhere near the war end of the spectrum since we always stay within the context of the game. But when that Pirate Ship card in Dominion comes out – and it seems to come out every darn time we play the game – the tone of our group’s interaction definitely takes on a sharper edge that isn’t present when we band together to play a co-op.

I believe that games are important for our mental well-being. Without them, we would never get out of our daily mental ruts and routines;  our perceptions would become harder, our worlds would become smaller, and to paraphrase the old axiom, we would all become duller people.  Games allow us to think about other things, indulge in wild fantasies, and take bigger risks than we usually allow ourselves to take. As long as we remain good sports and keep games in their proper perspective, we can explore this space between love and war and be better more complete people as a result.

© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved