Round Tables

Last year at the Ethical Inquiry through Video Game Play and Design conference at the Prindle Institute for Ethics at Depaw University, I had the great pleasure of discovering (and playing) cooperative boardgames, specifically, Yggdrasil. Since, I’ve also been able to play Pandemic, which I like less, although it is more readily accessible for people not obsessed with Norse mythology.

I grew up playing boardgames. Monopoly, Clue, chess, Trivial Pursuit, the obligatory games of small children: Snakes and Ladders, Candyland, Sorry. In my family, we also played mah jongg (my family’s German, so no, I don’t know why we chose that as our family game of choice). But none of those were cooperative. Most games aren’t. They’re about beating other people, whether the other team or everyone else sitting at the table.

But Yggdrasil and Pandemic represent a different type of game in which the players are pitted against the game itself. In Pandemic, players oppose the spread of a disease. In Yggdrasil, though, the players play against the gods. And that’s one of the reasons I like it so much.

Perhaps it’s my competitive streak, but Pandemic‘s us-versus-the-viral-outbreak setting (while fun) is rather horribly bleak. We win, or we all die horrible, messy deaths. Yggdrasil forces you to have opponents with names and (admittedly bizarre) faces. Loki, Jormungand, Hell, Nidhogg, Sirt, Fenrir. And each has a personality (each one does something different and awful to the players). It’s much more personal than the objective horror of a virus. And while Pandemic may be simulating something more real – and therefore possibly more relevant to the real world – than Yggdrasil, there is more hope to the end of the Norse world (if you know the myth). At least if the gods win, the players are remade, the world re-created, and it continues on. In Pandemic… not so much.

But what’s really fun about both games (and, indeed, most of the cooperative videogames I’ve played in which the players are being civil to one another) is the sense of camaraderie that is produced by defeating a piece of paper with a god on it, or a pixellated wave of zombies on the screen. It creates fiero (that woo-hoo! feeling that makes you want to throw your arms up in the air and yell), yes, but it does so in a way that is intrinsically communal rather than individuated. And I think we need more of that in our lives.

So much of contemporary Western society (especially in the U.S.) is me-me-me. Games are also me-me-me. But cooperative games are us-us-us. And when they’re not just team games, but truly cooperative games, they’re even more US-US-US!! And when you play them around a table (instead of mediated through the ether of the internet), they’re US-US-US! in a completely familial kind of way. Sure, it’s a temporary feeling that wears off the minute you start to play Risk and are at each other’s throats again. But cooperative fiero is probably the closest we can get to a sense of gaming nationalism that is non-exclusionary. And that’s a feeling that we should be trying to achieve more often outside of gameplay.

We’re good at factionalism and individualism. We’re good at creating in-groups and out-groups. But what if everyone – like Arthur’s legendary round table – is actually working together against the odds, not against another nation or ethnicity or creed? Isn’t that really what we need in this world? Maybe games aren’t the way we get there, but thinking about what in games helps us achieve it, even temporarily, might help us to realize how we could begin to apply those ideas to the real problems that aren’t so easily overcome.

2 thoughts on “Round Tables

  1. Another interesting competitive-cooperative hybrid is Scotland Yard — most of the players cooperatively attempting to apprehend the nefarious “Mr. X” (portrayed by one of the other players) as he or she invisibly zips around London.

    Your mention of mah jongg makes me wonder whether there are any systematic differences between traditional tabletop games in Eastern vs. Western cultures on the dimensions of cooperation/competition or individualism/collectivism. (Although a culture could certainly be collectivistic with respect to the cultural in-group and still value competition with out-groups, so that dimension might not necessarily come out in as explicit a form as individual players cooperating with one another.)

    • That’s a really interesting question – I’m afraid I’m not as familiar with that many Eastern-origin games, besides Go, Mah Jongg, Backgammon, and Mancala. I’m especially not familiar with more recently made games, like Yggdrasil or Pandemic. Most older Western-origin games (Chess, for instance) are also non-cooperative.

      There are several card games of English or other European origin that involve teams (Euchre, Wist), but none that are exclusively cooperative that I know of. I’d love to hear about any that you might find, though.

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