Ex Lax

ALthough nobody I've met believes it, in high school I wasn't in the band. I played lacrosse instead (there were basically those two options). One weekend I went to a camp hosted by someone who played in one of the professional leagues back east, and during the opening monologue he gave us before we broke apart into passing, shooting and dodging drills he told us through a thick stoner accent and even thicker shades that "the Iroquah, man, used this game to simulate WAR. I want you to, like, think about that when you're out there today. WAR." Thankfully he didn't have us perform some ritual but it was almost to that point.

There's an old fable about a hypothetical wargame being conducted in the last days of the Battle of the Bulge among German staff officers in France. During the game, the Americans attack the village the game is being played in, and their movements and the positions of the German forces wind up appearing remarkably similar to the movements and positions of the different forces in the wargame being conducted. So, instead of stopping the game, the officer in charge orders it continued, with the 'moves' of the players being translated into orders to the real units outside. This is one example of how simulation passes semalessly into reality under the right conditions, and lacrosse, which as it was practiced by natives is even less of an abstraction from real war, has an even better seamless transition that isn't a fable at all: during Pontiac's rebellion a group of Ojibwas played a game of lacrosse in front of a fort they wished to take, and while the British soldiers were outside watching the game as they had before someone 'accidentally' knocked the ball inside the fort. Since there were no out-of-bounds areas in lacrosse at the time, everyone naturally ran inside the fort, where they pulled out their weapons and killed half the garrison.

I'm making the connection between wargames and sports because someone who read my article on skill in games disagreed with it entirely and said that people choose games as if they were sports, and so games should be judged in the same way sports should. Does the game provide me with a good challenge, does it engage me? If yes, then I'll play it, if no then I don't. He said that my entire analogy comparing understanding of games to understanding of literature is completely baseless, even though he did agree with my conclusion that the only meaningful criterion of understanding of games is skill in them. Most people agreed with my argument and didn't agree with the conclusion, which is more or less what I expeceted. I didn't expect the opposite.

On the surface of it this opinion of games seems to get rid of the possibility of a 'message' or a 'meaning,' reducing games to their sets of rules and closing off the rest of the world- nothing in the game (a ball and a stick, or an asteroid and a spaceship) having any meaning beyond the playing field of the game and its irrelevant outcome. Most people criticized my conclusion along these lines. But what happens when you take the same ball you were playing with and turn it into a gambit to bypass your opponent's defenses, and you take the stick you were using to hit the ball and instead hit someone over the head with it? What do your game rules, which got you into a position to change the world outside of the game, mean then? Can you combine my conclusion, that games are better understood by those that can play them well, with the argument that games are sports and the only legitimate criteria is the complexity of the rules they posess, with games having an artistic purpose, like literature, that cannot be reduced to the sum of the different rules? Let's ask the stoner from my lacrosse camp.

Obviously most games can not lead directly to something as drastic as storming a fort or directing the course of a battle. Tetris can not fold into something real that easily (unless you work a job where you stack boxes of different sizes from the floor to the ceiling) and some games, bad games, pretend to correspond directly to real life via forced 'meaning' while actually preventing the kind of seamless transition that lacrosse offers, which, I think, is the only way in which games as artistic expression can ever refer back to reality in a coherent way.

I still think a game, like a sport that is actually more than a sport (lacrosse was, under normal circumstances, used to prepare young men for war and was conceived of partially as collective worship), can make an argument or provoke a response or affirm something that is connected to the rules while doing something that cannot be traced back piece by piece to the rules. It's just that lacrosse, and not a bad novel, should be the model for games that are supposed to mean something.

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