Homo Ordinator - English Original Version
by Alex Randolph,
in "Board Games in Academia III. An interdisciplinary approach"
Florence, April 1999
My purpose in this talk is to touch on same aspects of board games that are often overlooked, and also, perhaps, air some views on matter that I feel are related, but that are rarely if ever mentioned in connection with games.
To begin with then, let me say that many, many years of very close involvement with board games, I still have not ceased to find them astonishing, to wonder and marvel at their very existence. How did they come about? And why? And when? These neat little self-contained systems, apparently self sufficient, in which we can enter or not as we please, that serve no useful purpose whatever, and yet have the power, on occasion, to detach and absorb us perhaps more than anything else in our lives. We can say at list this, I think. That all are set-ups confrontations. For make believe conflicts. Taken from real life, for most part, but drastically simplified and from which all the disagreeable and messy features of real life have been removed.
But what is a board game, what must it have to be one. First off all, I would stay, it must have an identity, therefore a name, also some recognisable physical feature, although in fact neither of these is absolutely essential, since they can be substituted; whereas absolutely essential for the existence of a game are its rules. I would even say that a game and it’s rule are the same thing, that the rules are the games and vice versa. By sitting down to a game we declare that we accept its rules – which in return must tell us precisely what we want to know; how to play, what is allowed and what is not allowed, and what we must do to win. Years ago I wrote in the margin of my old Homo ludens, in attempt to differentiate between games and other forms of play: “If a play activity has rules that may not be transgressed, and if its scope, aside from sheer enjoyment, is to produce a winner, it is a game, otherwise not.”
This applies, of course, to all games, including the “other kind” which we are probably not supposed to so much a s mention here… the life-size games we play with our bodies and generally with the auxiliary of a ball or equivalent on which to focus our attention: football, golf, ping pong and so forth: The two kinds have many things in common. But in fact they are words apart and the differences are so gross and obvious that I wouldn’t mention them, were it not for a near paradox they bring forth. The charm of board games is that they are miniatures, by definition small enough to be put on a table, meaning that we can play them with our imagination, not physically with our bodies. And there lies the paradox. The large-scale games are narrowly limited by the size and reach of our bodies and ultimately by how far we can see, while there are no such limits for board games. Without the slightest difficult we accept that board on the table represent a whole battlefield, or all of Europe, or the entire universe, for the matter… or else perhaps some fantastic chimera, a labyrinth in which hungry minotaurs roam and from which we must run for our lives – “we” meaning not our real selves, of course, but our pieces
For there is always this nice duality in board games between ourselves and our pieces; we are both inside and outside the game; there is a Lilliput level when we feel and almost believe that we are inside and a Gulliver level when, from outside and above, we handle the pieces and move them about.
Sitting down to a board game is in some ways like sitting down to a very fine meal. There is the same kind of joyous anticipation – provided the players are really hungry – meaning, provided hey have a burning desire to win. The desire to win is the fuel that propels a game forward. If one player is indifferent or distracted and does not care if he wins or loses, the game will flounder and become boring, which in a game is worse than death. The holy rules is: if you don’t want to win, don’t play.
Play is a voluntary activity: Therefore, to survive, a game must be loved – there is a really no other criterion of judgement. But what must it contain to be loved, what are the minimum requirements? I would say tension, surprise, a smooth flow – plus some identifiable and if possible inexhaustible fun element, such as the up-and-sown feature in Snakes and Ladders, which is what will make it live forever. But what about game at a higher level of depth and complexity? They, too, must be loved to survive, and not everyone finds depth and complexity particularly lovable. But I can think of at least one element that makes all such games if not loveable, at least very enticing, and that is that the deeper and more complex a game is the more players are encouraged to intervene in it, to make decision that affect its course. At the very top players may even feel, and rightly so I would say, that it is they who are creating the games as it progress.
There is a famous cartoon of two chess players so deeply immersed in their game that they don’t notice a war going on around them. What I like best about this cartoon is that it is only very slightly exaggerated. If instead of war, the scene ad been a crowded caffe with loud conversation and a loudspeaker blaring nearby, we would have found their absorption normal – and they, of course, would not have noticed the difference. The fact is that phenomenon is not at all rare, and that the game on the table need not have been chess. Today there are a few quire remarkable games, including some for up to four or more players, that require deep concentration, which can easily shift to kind of engrossment. As a matter of fact, we can feel it coming as we play. There is an abrupt change mood. A cloud of silence descends on the table: no more banter, no more pleasantries, all faces terribly serious. Our eyes riveted on the board. And all at once it has happened. We are suddenly totally isolated. We might still vaguely perceive some noises and motions around us, but they are no longer registered. Nothing matters anymore but what happens on the board, or is about to happen there. We are enthralled, which is probably what we must look like, as if touched bi a magic wand.
Huizinga was the first, I believe, to observe and describe this phenomenon in the first chapter of his famous book. He calls it a stepping out of ordinary life. In the English version, which he wrote himself, he uses such appropriate words as “seizure” and” rapture”.
There are, of course, other circumstances in life when we experience very similar moment of extreme concentration and detachment from our surroundings. When we feel a sudden need to write something down, before it has lost it freshness; or feel on the verge of solving problems; or simply when we are deeply absorbed in reading. But there are experience that we live alone. In board games we can have them in unison with others.
Altogether, I do often feel that in all of civilisation there is nothing quite as curious and intriguing as a board game. The more remarkable, then, it is certain that board games have appeared independently many times in the course of history - as part of cultures that had themselves sprung up separately and independently, often thousand of miles apart, or centuries apart in the case of superposed cultures.
There is a lot of evidence regarding this. Probably the most stunning instance, a little less than five hundred years ago, was the discovery by groups of adventurers of he two native American cultures that had flourished for centuries in complete isolation. As we all know, both were deliberately destroyed. Such disasters have happened may times trough the ages, but it is still difficult to think of them without a pang. In any case, it is strange and peculiarly poignant for us that among the debris that survived the destruction in both regions, were a number of board games, a few of which are still played ion some form today.
From this it is difficult not to conclude that there must be a predisposition in us that inevitably brings about culture, and with it board games, when conditions are favourable, the most crucial one being, when at least a portion of a population ca afford leisure. But it being a fact that cultures can develop separately and in different periods, obviously this predisposition in us, or potential, or whatever it may well be, had to be in us from the very beginning, before the original human group had begun to disperse, and which we then carried with us, unknown to ourselves, for many thousands of years, until al last the opportunity arose, here and there, for it blossom.
But a potential or whatever consisting of what – and for what purpose. Surely nit for what it eventually brought forth. There is no such thing as foresight in nature. And so we van only wonder and speculate. For of course we know next to nothing, and only barely that, about our distant past.
Still, today we can at least say some confidence that hundred thousand or so years ago, therefore quite recently, geologically speaking, after a number of false stars, there appeared at last this feeble, naked, defenceless creature, without claws or fangs or fur, quite miserable looking when compared to a bear or a tiger, but possessed of something so new and powerful, that in another geological instant it had conquered and populated the entire world, had changed its appearance, and is now in a position to destroy it.
That something was of course of our enormous brain. Never had there been anything like it in three an half billion years, which, we are told, it look life to reach its present state. A few other attributes were still needed to made us complete, such as the famous opposite thumb and the special vocal chords that allow us to speak; but nothing to compare in importance with this brain, that gave us, among other things, consciousness and whit it the knowledge that we would die, thus making us human.
I would like to propose this hypothesis: that this oversized brain of ours, in order to operate, had to force upon a number of compulsions, of which one is extremely evident, and that is the urge to make order; or perhaps, which amounts to the same thing, that it forced upon us the deep dread we have of chaos, prompting us to believe that by making order we could keep it at bay, but that if we relented, even for a moment. Chaos would take over again. In any case, our every urge to make order is visible enough. It is this constant need we have to straighten out, to put things in place – to tidy up, t sort out, to classify. It is our love for straight lines, right angles and circle. We are order-making creatures, like it or not. Other creatures have other characteristics, ours is to make order. Which, however, is not an hardship, quite the contrary, for making order can be strangely satisfying, an even the disorderly among us know well , for on those rare occasions when we do put our affairs in order, afterwards we are surprised by how pleased and relieved we feel.
But this physical order-making is really only a side effect. The truly marvellous thing is that this same urge allows us to reason: to think in an orderly fashion, one thing after another, and thereby arrive to solutions – of problems that happen to face us, trivial or deep, but also of mental task we may have set ourselves for our entertainment: the process is the same. Actually the brain has also other ways of solving problems, but of which we are completely unconscious. Without warning we may suddenly served a ready-made solution, but don’t know how it happened. A sudden flash of insight. Whereas we are perfectly conscious of what happens when we reason. Children often reason aloud, counting the steps on their fingers. We have this facility of concentrating our attention: we select a subject that interest us, remove from it what is not essential, then reassemble what is left in a pattern or sequence that is new and that makes sense to us.
I have a recurring vision…of something I was told, or read somewhere, or maybe only dreamed, but in any case a very long time ago: an infant on the beach, barely able to talk, is picking up pebbles and with great concentration is putting them down in a row. That is all, end of vision. There really is nothing else.
I think that what fascinates me so is that the child is proving that is human. What it is doing is first of all intentional. It is play, but clearly meaningful, which perhaps play always is. And it is rational, hence orderly. Somehow I feel that it is the beginning of every truly human, and so also, ultimately ,of the highest human endeavours, especially those which I find most precious, because they have not purpose outside of themselves, they are themselves their purpose, [ like ] poetry, art, music, story telling, pure mathematics, pure science, philosophy. All are spiritual luxuries. Luxuries are things that delight us, that we long to possess, but that we can very well do without. They are not practical. They are not needed for our survival. Board games are luxuries, too, of course, albeit minor and marginal, but in the sense of non-utility, perhaps the purest. But they belong to a different order if things. They are ephemeral. At the end of game there is nothing tangible, such a poem or a theorem. At the end of the game there is nothing. Unless the game is written down, of course, in which case, however, it becomes a record. There are whole libraries filled with nothing but chess books. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of brilliant chess games, but not lifeless and buried in books. They cannot be meaningfully compared to chess games that are alive and in progress somewhere at this very moment.
The category closest to game is probably story telling. Stories, too, are orderly reproductions of life. Events are carefully selected and arranged in a sequence, very much like the child’s pebbles on the beach. This is the story line, or in a more complex narrative there may be several story lines intertwined. Contrived scenarios in which things are made to happen. But there are two crucial elements that keep games completely apart from stories, or for that matter from anything else in our experience.
One in uncertainty: we must not know what will happen next. This is the essence of our enjoyment in a game – as it is indeed in real life, from which it is directly and consciously taken. Uncertainty is the key of what makes games not repeatable, never twice the same. It is also what we mean by he term suspense: it means dreading something imminent, without quite knowing what it will be. Of course tremendous suspense may be enjoyed in a story, too but only once. Only the first time. And even the first time, when we need unashamedly while looking at a movie, or stay up all night, unable to put down a book, some hidden part in us know very well what grips us so is not happening now, that the movie was made last year and the book was written a hundred years ago. Whereas when we sit down to a game, the game is still in the future, has not yet begun to exist. Also, the second time we read a story we may enjoy it much more than the first time, almost certainly so, if it is a good story, but no power on earth cam make us not know how the story will end. Whereas in a game, as in real life, nobody knows how the story will end.
And the other element is justice. In a game there must be justice, otherwise it is senseless, it is no game. This is almost too obvious to mention. Who would think of sitting own to a game that he did not think was fair. But in real life we don’t have this choice. Inside of us is a deep sense of justice which I believe is innate. Children reveal very early that they have this sense: the first time they say something is unfair. But is also the time when we became aware on injustice, of the humiliating inequalities of life, and that this story that we were all created equal is really an atrocious joke. Social inequalities, but also inequalities in our appearance, in our abilities, in our natural talents. However, we learn to adjust. We are told to make the best of it and we do. But we never cease longing for justice. I am convinced that this is what attracts us so powerfully to games, that make us need and love them so much. We know, thought it is never said, that games are the only place in life where justice is certain, because it is the only place where it is necessary. An exigency, by the way, that is also clearly reflected in the game boards we use, in their almost maniacal regularity. Whether they are works of art or only scratched on a stone, they seem to cry out that they are fair. And that is what makes them so recognisable.
An archaeologist unearths an artefact and immediately senses that it must be the board for un unknown game. “It is game”, he tells his assistant. Which of course it is not, unfortunately. What he dug up is the vestige of a game, proof that there once was a game, but the game itself is gone since the rules are gone and almost certainly will never be found – because they were never written. The people who played the game knew the rules. So why should they have written them down?
But fortunately in some cases the line of oral transmission was not interrupted, so that we have actually quite a large number of descendants from ancient games, even though, with the only exception or Go, as for as I know, all the original games have long ago disappeared. One curios fact about these games is that almost all are either war games or chase games, these being games in with our principal enjoyment comes from running down or running away from others players’ pieces. The people who crated those original games must have belonged to a privileged warrior class, who did not have to work and therefore had time to play, and since what they probably enjoyed most in life was to make war and chase animals, or occasionally people, not surprisingly those were the pleasures they tried to reproduce for their entertainment.
But war games and chase games are so profoundly different that we must really think of them as separate species, or even separate genera, with hardly anything in common aside from their being board games. War games are always 2-player games of strategy. Chase games always need a motor, a chance device of some kind, dice or cowrie shells or whatever, without with they could not move forward.
In some of the oldest and most interesting chase games the players have several pieces, which means that after each throw they have a choice and can make decisions. But most fascinating, from the point of view of the “pleasure factor”, which is what interests me most, as you may have noticed, are the game of pure chance, in which we have only one piece – with which we can identify but over which we have no control, no power whatever. We are completely helpless, which is precisely what we enjoy, I suspect. We have no responsibilities. All we can do is look on anxiously and cry out when an enemy piece is at our heels and coming closer. We need a three to reach a safety: “Give me a three!” we implore aloud, “Please give me a three!” But we get a one and moan and bang a fist on the table.
The exact opposite of what takes place in a classic war game, here there is not device to move the game forward. What moves the game forward is the mind of the players, who are silent, composed, eyes fixed on the board. What are they thinking about? Mostly, I believe, each is asking himself what the other is up to. Which is the gist of a game of pure strategy: we play in function of the other player, of what we think is on his mind. He result is a running interior monologue on both sides of the board, an explains, incidentally, why these games can only be for two players. “If I do this, he does that, then I take, he takes, I take,… but what if he doesn’t, then what?… I better think again… etc.”
Very different in a game of strategy is also our attitude toward the pieces. We don’t identify with them, but in some fashion we still breathe life into them, or at least some of us do, especially in games as such chess, in which pieces have different powers. A bishop in a table is a nothing. A piece of wood. But if put on a chess board, it immediately seems to bristle with a desire to move, to be off in its crazy oblique way. But bishops are relatively latecomers to chess. Whereas in all the classic forms of chess there is always a line of foot soldiers in front of the noble pieces in back: lowly peons which we are ever ready to send forward to be exchanged or sacrificed for minimal advantages; although we know that each one of them as in it the power to promote, some day, to a major piece, a metamorphosis which in Western chess can be particularly devastating. We can also see our formerly humble pawns grow and swell with importance when they menace to promote. An advanced passed pawn approaching the eighth rank looks like Genghis Kahn. But the most life-like of all the chess pieces is of course the horse. As a child I had a real passion for this piece, which I have always called a horse, since that is what it looks like. Wherever I saw a surface of squares on a wall or floor I would at once imagine an horse-moves on it. I liked the horse’s wrong-headedness, that is never stayed in its rank or file and always landed on a square of the other colour. And I also sympathised with the reputation it had not being very strong. Although, of course, as we all know, in good hands a horse, too, can became a terror, especially when firmly implanted in the centre. Nimzowitsch said that a protected horse in the centre was like a spine in opponent’s throat.
But one cannot talk of games that have come from antiquity without at least mentioning the mancala games, a multitude of closely related games, that are played by millions in Africa and elsewhere, but are almost completely unknown in the West. It is a little awkward for me to bring up this subject, knowing that some of you are authorities in the field. Still, I would like to use this unique opportunity to make two short comments about these games, from a point of view that is not quite the usual one, and which you might therefore find interesting – or so I hope.
Nothing has been said more often about mancala games than that they are games of pure calculation. Which they are of course. Taken singly, the calculations are not difficult, since they involve only small whole numbers and the process is mainly a matter of counting. What makes the going difficult is that the numbers change at every move, changes that must be kept track of and remembered, which in he long run can be quite wearing and not particularly amusing, especially for those who don’t have a natural knack for such things. In the West we don’t think of arithmetic as being great fun, on the whole. Attempts to introduce games based on arithmetic have all failed miserably. Children hate such games and refuse to play them.
My first comment, then, regards the fact that whole population love these games of pure calculation”. This means that there must be in all of they, some particularly attractive and captivating feature, in no way related to the mental efforts the games require, something that is pure fun. And what this is, I suggest, is the unique mancala gesture: scooping up all the seeds from one of the pits and then sowing them one by one in adjacent pits around the board. A remarkably satisfying gesture, also very elegant, and that anyone can enjoy regardless of the level of play, from calculating wizards at the top all the way down to very small children who many not yet know what they are doing, but have already discovered that is fun. It is in fact irresistible, I find. And since it appears in all mancala, games, without exception, the gesture itself must be extremely ancient, going back, perhaps, to the very origins of the game, two or three thousand years ago.
And the second comment, I want to make s about the multiple lap mancala games, particularly those that are very complex, of which there are many. In multiple lap games the last seed does not end the move except under certain conditions, for example if it drops in an empty pit, or in a pit containing a particular number of seeds; otherwise the move continues: all the seeds in the last hole are scooped up again and sown afresh, a process that can be repeated a number of times. Such long moves are amusing to carry out but awesomely difficult to calculate in advance. And so the question is, would it be possible, and would it be meaningful and enjoyable, to play such games. Observing all the intricate rules, but without the burden of calculation? In my opinion, yes. And the reason is, that in all mancala games, once a starting pit has been chosen, and all the seeds in it have been scooped up, the rest of the move is inexorably determined; and this regardless of whether the choice was rational or the result of a hunch. After that it is only a matter or watching the move take its course, which is in any case interesting, much as we might watch a ball descend in a pinball machine, bouncing from ring to ring, until it settles at last in its appointed slot. My suspicion is that the more complex mancala games are played most of the time in this fashion, that is to say, intuitively.
Incidentally, to return to the gesture, two years ago I saw masters of wari from Antigua play at the Mind Sport Olympiad in London, and was pleased to notice that these great players, too, not only enjoyed he mancala gesture, but clearly enjoyed showing off how smoothly, rapidly and accurately they could perform it.
But the enjoyment of a particular gesture can be had in many other games as well, of course, though perhaps not as intensely. Just to slide a piece the full length of a board, for example, can be quite pleasurable. Or making leapfrogging captures in draughts, particularly long multiple ones on a 10 x 10 board. Or entering Go stones properly, holding them between index and middle finger, then striking them cleanly on the board with a nice “click”. Or simply the various gestures we can choose from when we cast dice…
“The dice is cast” said the beloved leader as he started to cross that river, actually only a rivulet, and changed the course of history. But in his own language he said “The die is thrown”, which must mean, at the very least, that in Roman times die were not always cast gently. But nothing compared to when we shoot craps in America and actually fling the dice against wall. Which explains why American dice have sharp edges and vertices: so that they shouldn’t roll back too far after they hit the wall. While European dice have rounded vertices and edges, which makes them suitable for rolling or pouring out of a cup.
Fascinating little objects. Our symbols of the unpredictable. When I see dice on a table, I find it difficult not to pick them and throw them at least once, and then be interested in the result. Eleven. But why eleven? Couldn’t it have been something else just as well? And if not, at what point did it become eleven – when the dice were still in the air.? Or when they had landed but had not yet settled? Or was it before the launch, when they were still in my hand? Or long before that, long, long ago, all the way back to the beginning of time? I wonder how many philosophers, in the course of history, have used dice to illustrate these ancient and troublesome questions.
I am being pressured to close. But before I do, just one more word about dice and those troublesome questions. Something that most of you may not know , which is how Japanese gamblers cast dice. The normal way, when we gamble, is to first place our bets, then throw the dice – but not in Japan. In Japan the dice are shaken in a cup, then the cup is swiftly turned upside-down on a table, trapping the dice underneath. Only then do they place their bets. But my question is: what about the outcome hidden under the cup, is it sill in the future?
And now, in lieu of a conclusion, which after such a rambling talk would make little sense, I would like to end with a suggestion, if I may. That when we say board games we give to the word board its ancient meaning of table, hence board games would be all games that are played on a table. For it seems to me a little strange and arbitrary to exclude such games as dominoes, Mah Jong and other tile-games, only because they are directly on a table. And the card games, of course. There has never been a more ingenious, efficient, economical, ubiquitous playing device than playing cards: I find it actually exhilarating to know, when I put an ordinary pack of playing cards in my pocket, that I am carrying around fifty or more of the best games ever invented. In any case, my proposal would make it much easier to define what a board game is: it is a game that is played sitting down around or across a table, or in other cultures, sitting down around or across a space on the floor, a tatami, or carpet, or whatever.
Such a straightforward definition would be practical, and useful, I think, especially in view of today’s extraordinary proliferation of games that are played in front of a screen. More and more of these games are of high quality and they are evidently fascinating, especially for the young, so much so that there are those who fear that soon they will crowd out all other games and have the whole field to themselves. But I must say that I have no such fears. I don’t believe for a moment that board games are endangered, certainly not the better ones. But my attitude has a little to do with quality. Simply, I believe, that as long as there are tables and people who enjoy the conviviality of sitting around them, there will be games to be played on those tables.