Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gaming and Metaphor

"Key metaphors help determine what and how we perceive and how we think about our perceptions."
M. H. Abrams

The practice is wargaming is in many ways the telling of a story. That story can have many different layers of meaning; for some a wargame is simple martial contest aided by some (supposedly) random number generators. Other people treat wargames are a stage-play for a fiction that's being narrated in the confines of their own mind. And still others find them to be a pleasant divergence from the hassles of day to day life, a convenient excuse to gather with friends of like mind and relive the more care-free days of youth. Most of us experience wargames through these facets (and others) in varying degrees, but what separates a wargame from the vast seas of board games, card games and more esoteric pursuits is the simple pageantry of toy soldiers on terrain that inspires the imagination.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that wargaming always has at least one foot solidly planted in the realm of metaphor. Even players for whom the models are little more than playing chits must find something compelling about the visceral appeal to a coherent force marching in tune to an imaginary drum across the battlefield laid out before them. For those who take the time to play up the illusion with exquisite paint-jobs and coordinated armies the experience is even more intense. But that willing suspension of disbelief - that fragile balance that allows us to put our rational mind behind us and just enjoy - hangs by a slender thread. Something dissonant that detracts from the performance of our armies quickly tears into the mortar holding brick after brick of enjoyable distraction in place. Players have the lion's share of burden to prevent the curtain from falling; hopefully everyone contributes to ensure the terrain looks characterful, armies are inspiring and in short the make-believe is plausible.

But clumsy handling of the metaphor of a game system can tear us from the cradle of our fantasy as well. There is a level of stark disbelief that snaps to the front when your model that is carrying a comically over-sized gun finds it to be of more use as a club. Or when a skilled bowman seems to have barely more range than a normal man can walk in whatever unit of time the designer has chosen to represent the eponymous 'round of combat'. In some cases these artifacts are unavoidable; using a ground-scale inevitably means there will be a mismatch between what we expect the effective combat range of our 28mm figure to be and what must be in place for the system to allow enough variety to not turn into trench warfare of the Great War. Yet sometimes the fault must lie firmly on the heads of the designer who put conflicting ideas about the game into play.

Surely, if we like the tenets of a game we get acclimated to the curiosities that tear down immersion and they fade from our mind. Perhaps we even embrace the oddities and find redeeming qualities in them that give us reasons to ignore the obvious weirdness and just get back to enjoying the game. Unfortunately these can serve as impediments to adoption of our favored game system by new players; or even worse cause them to speak out against the game. A player that finds a game's metaphor to be inconsistent might warn his friends about it, or even (oh no!) make a nasty blog post about the offending game. This can poison other would-be players from trying out the game, which shrinks an already small community further.

Ultimately how tightly a game defines its metaphors is a function of how much polish it has undergone, in my opinion. Games with poorly thought out interactions often have conflicting metaphors are play - are we playing cowboys and aliens, or Aztecs and Godzilla? Games are predominantly melee based often run into this when a 'shooty' army is introduced; suddenly the norms get flipped around and inevitably the shooty army is seen as 'unnatural', 'poorly balanced' or 'ill-conceived'. The same goes for 'shooty' games that suddenly find themselves with an unstoppable melee army, or a racing game that has you doing derivatives trading to figure out how much fuel you have in your pit stop. Most of the time someone comes across these oddities the thought that comes to mind is 'Did nobody notice this?'. And unless that willing suspension of the dissonance kicks in, that little pebble of conflict can grow as more and more pebbles aggregate to form one big bolder of 'this game sucks'.

As in any product, polish is essential to having a desirable product. In my (not quite so humble opinion) I wish that more designers would step back, ask themselves just what metaphors their game (and all it's pieces) are trying to capture. And then objectively gauge if they are meeting their own expectations, much less their target market's.

Otherwise, its back to the polishing stone; at least until you get something you can ship.


  1. Another really good article. If you don't mind I'd like to do a 'highlight' article on my blog so you get more traffic and subscribers. I think you've put a lot of thought and effort into your articles and others I'm sure would like to see them. Would you mind if I did that?

  2. @FG Of course, I'd quite appreciate it. Though I should probably rename the blog IceRaptor's Soapbox or something similar. Cheers!

  3. Ice Raptor? writing a blog? Count me in! :D

    Great articles. It would be nice if more of us miniature gamers took a step back and tried to see the larger picture now and then, instead of debating if that +1 is "over powered" or not.

  4. @Martin - Thanks for the vote of confidence!

    And yes, I think sometimes we can get really mired down in the details and not remember that ultimately the game is trying to convey some larger meaning that may not be immediately obvious. W40k is grimdark space opera, Infinity is essentially Ghost in the Shell style stories, and Heavy Gear is VOTOMS in summer clothes. We can just hope that the game mechanics let those ideas peek through during play!