Board Games As A Realist Activity

The following is a collection of mostly incomplete thoughts. I’m publishing this now in order to get the thoughts onto the page and to begin a discussion about contemporary society and how board games might be a fantastic leisure activity within it. While I do discuss a few philosophical topics here (with an embarrassing amount of shallowness), I by no means think of myself as an authority or even particularly well-read in the field. I was majoring in the subject before I dropped out of college. I wrote this with a tremendous amount of meekness and I understand that my language and my explanations are probably not as precise as they should be.

American politics over the last year or two has been bizarre, to say the least. One of the most bizarrely disturbing and slightly humorous spectacles to come out of it has been the fact that both sides have come up with a favorite term to call the other side a liar. Trump and his supporters have been big fans of crying “fake news” at the media when they perceive a bit of reporting as misleading or incorrect. The media itself was gifted the phrase “alternative facts” by a member of the Trump posse and wield it with glee.

On its face, this seems like it could be a win for truth–both sides are utilizing rhetoric that implicitly seems to value truth on a fundamental level. But I don’t think anyone who has witnessed recent American politics would say that truth was the big winner out of the exchange. Instead, the rhetoric seems to be generally wielded to incite division and identity politics. (Of course, which side is more to blame is a completely different argument, but I think the answer to the question “is the average American more truth-seeking than a year ago?” is, by all appearances, no. Or at least it’s not yes.)

Why this has happened is certainly more complicated than the scope of this article, but I want to take a stab at explaining at least a portion of it: it’s a lot easier to latch onto tribalism and catchy rhetoric than it is to be diligent about finding the truth. Please, please don’t interpret that statement as coming from a position of haughtiness or pretension. I do the same kind of thing all the time.

Our Lazy Minds

But the statement is just true. Doing the work to find out the truth takes work and our brains are inherently lazy. I’ve been reading an excellent book recently: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by psychologist and Nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. In the book, Kahneman, for the sake of illustration, separates the human brain into two parts: system 1 and system 2. The former is the mostly subconscious part of our minds that displays itself in the form of intuition, snap judgements, etc. The latter is what we would usually describe as “our mind”–the actively thinking, contemplative, decision-making part of our mind. We usually perceive system 2 as the most significant part of our mind, but Kahneman argues that it isn’t. System 2 thinking is the exception, rather than the rule, and in many cases we need to override our system 1 thinking and activate system 2 in order to perceive reality accurately.

There are a ton of examples to back up his point in the book, but in my mind the classic is the Monty Hall problem. For the large majority of people the wrong answer is the one that seems intuitively correct. We have to almost trick our minds into believing the correct answer through studying proofs and explanations.

Kahneman argues that this doesn’t mean that system 1 is bad–on the contrary it is exceptionally useful. There are just some situations where we must overcome that near-effortless part of our thinking and do some system 2 work in order to arrive at the truth.

The Unseen Problem

Of course, even when we’re working system 2 to the bone, it doesn’t mean that the truth will suddenly appear in front of us. There are a lot of problems in the world–on global, local, and personal levels–and most of them are not easy to deal with.

Some are easier than others. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” contains a number of examples of how people misinterpret statistical and quantitative problems. Avoiding these issues is a matter of discipline and some mathematical understanding. This assumes you actually care about being correct. In the “post-truth” world, with alternative facts and fake news, this can’t be taken as an assumption. But if you are that person living blissfully (or not) in a Nietzschean horizon-less existence, you’re probably not going to find much here to be of value.

For the rest of us, perhaps there’s some solace that the language of alternative facts and fake news at least acknowledge the existence of cultural priors that do value truth. (Machiavellian schemers at least understand that they are abandoning the value; it’s the Frankfurtian bullshitters that are truly scary.)

Therefore, again, for the rest of us, the problem remains that while some semblance of valuing truth does remain, and following from that, some semblance of valuing mutual understanding and cooperation in the pursuit of truth, we’re really horribly bad at actually acting on those values. Part of this, as I said before, is due to the fact that we tend to go through the cognitive path of least resistance. But part of it is that (excluding the “‘we’ value truth to at least some degree” assumption I’m using here) we rarely have any kind of coherent value foundations or consistent language to share.

MacIntyre’s Critique

One of the most important ethical works of the 20th century is Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”. Whatever you think of MacIntyre’s support of virtue ethics, I think a large majority of us would immediately agree with his description of why modern ethical debates completely fail.

In chapter 2, MacIntyre presents a few competing arguments regarding a couple of modern ethical debates (abortion, justice, etc). The arguments represented are exactly the kind you would see and hear among educated adults–just war theory, appeals to bodily autonomy re: abortion rights, and so on.

There are two characteristics of these debates that MacIntyre highlights which I find particularly interesting. The first is what he calls the “conceptual incommensurability of the rival arguments in each of the three debates.”* Continuing:

“Every one of the arguments is logically valid or can be easily expanded so as to be made so: the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises. But the rival premises are such that we posses no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another. For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds….It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable. From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly [Marc here: I suspect that today MacIntyre would agree with me that this adverb is no longer necessary] shrill tone of so much moral debate”

I find the following paragraph to be particularly interesting and humbling:

“But that shrillness may have an additional source. For it is not only in arguments with others that we are reduced so quickly to assertion and counter-assertion; it is also in the arguments that we have within ourselves. For whenever an agent enters the forum of public debate he has already presumably, explicitly or implicitly, settled the matter in question in his own mind. Yet if we posses no unassailable criteria, no set of compelling reasons by means of which we may convince our opponents, it follows that in the process of making up our own minds we can have made no appeal to such criteria or such reasons. If I lack any good reasons to invoke against you, it must seem that I lack any good reasons. Hence it seems that underlying my own position there must be some non-rational decision to adopt that position. Corresponding to the interminability of public argument there is at least the appearance of a disquieting private arbitrariness. It is a small wonder if we become defensive and therefore shrill.”

A Brief Aside About Debate

A large chunk of my life has been dedicated to academic debate. I participated in it from middle school through my three years at college. Since then I’ve intermittently coached it at the middle/high school level. I love debate. It absolutely changed my life, and I think it’s a worthwhile activity. However, looking back, one of the biggest problems with the culture surrounding competitive debate is that people tend to treat it as an ideal means for resolving actual issues in the real world.

There are a couple of problems with this, but foremost among them is the fact that academic debate is time-restricted. Each side only has a limited amount of time to speak for obvious practical reasons. Among other things, this incentivizes the kinds of arguments that tend to be extremely visceral and that presuppose very common value assumptions (like “people dying is bad”). This is fine within the context of the activity–some great debates come out of this. But as soon as the debate shifts into competing ethical claims or presuppositions, it tends to fall apart completely.

Combine the problem of limited time with the fact that debate is a competitive, zero-sum activity, and the incentives to reach mutual agreement or ever resolve the ethical arguments at a foundational level are almost completely absent. It’s just not practical, although it is not impossible. (In my experience the form of competitive debate that best avoids these problems is worlds-style parliamentary debate, in which there are four teams instead of two, and they’re ranked 1-4 instead of given either a win or a loss; the incentives there are different.)

Competitive debate is a great tool and it helps sharpen the mind to better engage in critical thinking. It’s great system 2 training. But it doesn’t resolve MacIntyre’s critique–in fact in some ways it exemplifies it.

Back to MacIntyre

The second characteristic of modern debate that MacIntyre highlights is that that they, explicitly or implicitly, “proport to be impersonal rational arguments and as such are usually presented in a mode appropriate to that impersonality.” He then contrasts two forms of presenting an argument:

“In the first type of case I say, ‘Do so-and-so’. The person addressed replies, ‘Why should I do so-and-so?’ I reply, ‘Because I wish it.’ Here I have given the person addressed no reason to do what I command or request unless he or she independently possesses some particular reason for paying regard to my wishes….Contrast with this the type of case in which the answer to the question ‘Why should I do so-and-so?…is not ‘Because I wish it’, but some such utterance as ‘Because it would give pleasure to a number of people’ or ‘Because it is your duty’….The second characteristic of contemporary moral utterance and argument, when combined with the first, imparts a paradoxical air to contemporary moral disagreement. For if we attend solely to the first characteristic, to the way in which what at first appears to be argument relapses so quickly into unargued disagreement, we might conclude that there is nothing to such contemporary disagreements but a clash of antagonistic wills, each will determined by some set of arbitrary choices of its own. But this second characteristic, the use of expressions whose distinctive function in our language is to embody what purports to be an appeal to objective standards, suggests otherwise. For even if the surface appearance of argument is only a masquerade, the question remains ‘Why this masquerade?’”

Summarizing MacIntyre’s argument:

1: Modern moral debates tend to have logically valid arguments.

1a: However, we are not equipped, nor do we rarely even try, to resolve the competing value presuppositions at the heart of the conflict.

1b: Therefore, modern moral debate tends to devolve into mere assertion and counter-assertion.


2: Participants in modern moral debate, explicitly or implicitly, present themselves as if they have internally settled on their position.

2a: However, given the problems illustrated in point 1–that the underlying moral conflict is unresolved–these participants have not settled on their position with complete justification.

2b: Therefore there is an arbitrariness, internally, for why they have settled on the position they have settled on. This creates a kind of unsettling cognitive dissonance.


3: Given points 1 and 2, modern moral debates can, in a sense, be reduced to competing assertions of “we should do this because I wish it.”

3a: However, the debates are conducted in the language of objective standards and complete rational coherence.

3b: This use of language betrays an internal desire to actually resolve the deep-rooted moral conflicts.


Summarized even more succinctly: we want to actually come to agreements and have fruitful debates that attempt to resolve the underlying value disagreements that seem to be currently ignored, but for some reason or another we are unable to do so.

From my perspective, this neatly summarizes everything I see every time I browse the news and every time I read a discussion about an important issue of the day. Whether it appears in the form of shrill and dumb assertion and counter-assertion (think of any talking head ‘discussion’ you’ve ever seen on any news network), or in the form of respectful debate, ultimately it does seem to always come down to competing and unresolved value disagreements. And again, this essentially means that both sides are saying “we should do X because I wish it”.

The Way Forward

In a general sense the meta-ethical dilemma can theoretically resolve in a couple of different ways. From what I can tell (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) MacIntyre proposes two: The first is a sort of emotivism, which claims that moral statements are, in fact, not propositions at all, but emotional desires. In other words, to make an ethical claim IS to say “I wish others would do X”, and no more. This resolution obviously doesn’t help actually resolve the moral debates, but it is resolute in the fact that they can’t be resolved.

The second potential resolution is realism. That is to say that there are coherent values out there that are objectively true–they ‘exist’ as foundational values outside of our perception or understanding of them. An obvious example of a realist ethic would be any number of religious deontological belief systems.

In his book “Real Ethics”, John M. Rist uses the dialog between Socrates and Thrasymachus in the Republic to explain this dichotomy. In that dialog Socrates is trying to find out the true nature of justice, and Thrasymachus famously proclaims that, “justice is the advantage of the stronger”. They then spend the next bit of discussion completely speaking past each other because they’re approaching the topic from two completely different meta-ethical positions.

The way forward seems to be to try to figure out which position is correct. Of course, maybe we will not ever be able to figure that out. But trying is probably better than continuing the shrill path we’re on, and at the very least we ought to understand that there’s even a meta-ethical problem here to begin with.

The Part Where I Actually Talk About Board Games

Board games, by and large, are sort of realist. What I mean by this is that board games contain certain coherent features (what we call “the rules”) that, because of board games’ competitive nature (even in cooperative games you’re competing against a system within the game), allow us to analyze and debate about strategy and play without encountering the kinds of foundational problems we see in modern moral debates.

“Now Marc,” you might be saying, “the rules of a board game are very clearly not moral rules.” Yes, of course. But I think there’s still an analogy. Let me put it this way:

A given play in a board game can be strategically superior to another given play, regardless of which play you think is better.

Explained another way: Two Chess, Go, Magic: The Gathering, Agricola, etc etc players can have a debate about the merits of a particular strategy, tactic, or move without ever needing to resolve any presuppositional disagreements. They both agree on what “better” means–best able to achieve victory. If strategy X will lead to victory 8 out of 10 times and strategy Y will lead to victory only 3 out of 10 times, strategy X is better.

A Bit Of Hedging

I know I’m being somewhat reductionistic here, but I do realize that concerns outside of the game itself can trump this value conception. If strategy X will lead to my opponent succumbing to despair, crying, and flipping the table, it’s not better in that context. But I think my position here still has some value even if it’s reduced to what my friends and I call the “board game bubble”, where everyone can agree to not take things personally and engage in some good old-fashioned competition.

I also know that there are plenty of games that very quickly fall outside of what I’m talking about when I refer to board games. Dungeons and Dragons, for example, has rules and is a kind of board game (well, tabletop game, technically), but isn’t competitive in the same way. Ignore these games for now–I’ll be returning to RPG’s and these kinds of experiential games in another article I’ll write at some indeterminate point in the future.

Fine, So What?

What’s my ultimate point here with this board game analogy? Well, I think that too many people make the reductionistic error of treating leisure activities as “merely fun” or “merely a distraction”. This is a reductionistic error. The average American spends about 5 hours a day doing leisure activities (mostly watching TV). Shouldn’t we at least consider if there’s something more to them than “merely X”?

Given that my primary leisure time activity is board games, I want to think about this question. This is one of at least a couple of articles I’ll be writing, like this, with a more philosophical and/or contemplative bent. Board games have a number of positive attributes–they help people socialize and bring them closer together and they engage our brains in “mental exercise”. But, because they’re a realist activity, I think they can also help us understand not only the meta-ethical problems we see every day, but they can help us, perhaps subconsciously, understand what it’s like to think from a realist perspective.

Please don’t get me wrong–I’m not making a highfalutin claim about board games being uniquely valuable in this regard, nor am I saying that they’re particularly valuable. I’m trying to make a very modest argument here. It is this: thinking about the nature of board games lead me to making this metaphoric connection, and maybe this article can help you (the readers) understand our world a bit better.

But I’ll also make a second argument: Board games are wonderful because they allow us to easily gather together and debate via the strategic actions we take within the game in a respectful and mutually beneficial way. Therefore, they’re not only a representation of realism, but a performative analogue as well: where so much of modern political, ethical, religious, etc debate is shrill, nasty, and selfish, board games can be calm, respectful, and mutually beneficial. I don’t know about you, but this seems to be a better method of debate.

A final, third, modest argument before this article is done: If board games are great because they, more often than not, create such beautiful social and intellectual experiences, shouldn’t we, as members of the board gaming subculture, do our best to make damn well sure it stays that way?


*All MacIntyre quotations in this article are from pages 8-9 of After Virtue, 3rd ed. University of Notre Dame Press.


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3 thoughts on “Board Games As A Realist Activity”

  1. The “two systems in your mind” concept is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” which I read last year. It was really interesting and he discussed how our subconscious mind makes these snap decisions which can be both extremely powerful and also highly influenced by preconceptions or biases we’re often unaware of. I’d recommend the book, but there weren’t really good conclusions in it. He goes through a bunch of case studies and raises the issues that can arise, but doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions or advice going forward.

    1. We’ll have to swap books once I’m done with Thinking Fast and Slow. I suspect it’s more robust than Blink, based on what I know about Gladwell. I think I’m going to get a lot of interesting articles from this book. There’s so much that applies to board gaming.

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