The house always had a funerial sense about it–the smell of camellias mixed with stale cigarette smoke when I was young; the sense of void after my grandmother passed. Knowing that I was there to say goodbye somehow made the hello easier. The dog seemed to recognize me and was happy, but she also understood the tension in the air, trembling so much that her teeth chattered.
My grandfather was lucid the first day, as if he wasn’t being eaten alive from the inside at all. We talked a bit about politics, though I make it a point to not pay attention to that much anymore so I wasn’t much of an aid to the conversation. Before he went to bed he told me that he was ready to die. He had come to peace with it. That was the proper goodbye.
The second day he slept.
The third day he fell down trying to get out of bed. We helped him walk to his chair, though he was insistent that we learn how to fold the walker and assure him that we return it to the proper spot in the hall. He has always been the kind of person who has a particular proper place for everything he owns. He could barely enunciate his words or form a sentence. He kept insisting that there was some kind of paperwork he needed to sign. He stared into space, confused. I thought of the cancer moving from his pancreas to destroy his mind.
I found it hard to sit that third day. Though when I stood I had nowhere to go or nothing to do.
The first bittersweet night my mom and I sat in the living room, talking about the future and playing games. I taught her Onitama and I imagined my pieces as part of a grand battle of skill and cunning. This was a game that looked and felt significant–historic.
The week before (or the week after?) I got to play a wonderful game of Here I Stand, a game steeped in history and with the kind of heft that makes your actions feel more like events or occurrences. When I sent my troops across the channel to invade France I felt like I had a taste of what those old kings felt when they pursued military glory.
Human psychology loves narrative. We fashion it to everything around us. We want, subconsciously, everything to be part of a story. I don’t know the reason for this. Perhaps this is an evolutionary artifact of higher-reasoning minds. We are aided by our understanding of cause and effect to a more complex degree than other animals and our fascination with stories is a byproduct of that.
The downside is that we fall prey to narrative biases, like the gambler’s fallacy, which shift us away from an accurate understanding of the world. The cynic would point out the errors in the beginning of this article. The dog wasn’t trembling because of the tension in the air, but because she has severe anxiety issues. My grandfather couldn’t form sentences not because the cancer had spread, but because of the morphine he was on to manage his pain. Partitioning the story into thirds preys on our feelings of symmetry with that number. Playing board games is simply moving objects according to a set of rules.
The cynical naturalist way is wrong, though almost by definition that’s an incredibly difficult claim to prove. Stories have an empathetic power, as they help us understand the deep thoughts and feelings of others. They have a moral power, as we learn to understand what is right and honorable and good. They have a metaphysical power, as they shape how we understand existence and life. They are sometimes rightly cloudy and imprecise, as they try to communicate ideas that live beyond plain language. Are stories a tool necessary to get past the limits of our minds and our language, or are they necessarily part of…this; all of it?
One of my biggest pet peeves in the world of board gaming is when people talk of “theme” when they really mean “artwork”. I don’t think anyone ever makes this mistake all of the time, but I earnestly believe that the thematic strength of a board game lies more in the mechanical design than it does in the chrome. Twilight Struggle feels like the Cold War because of the way the mechanisms incentivize both sides to be paranoid about what information the other side has. Ocean’s Hungry Grasp in Spirit Island feels like a spirit of the ocean when you see how its action options cause it to ebb and flow like the tide. Theme isn’t about looking nice (though there’s nothing wrong with that), it’s about pulling the players into the mindset the setting of the game should demand!
When games do this they not only pull the participants into an engaging experience, but they help everyone appreciate the game as a work of deliberate creation and creativity. Thematic games, as storytelling devices, can help us empathize with other people and understand our world better. Historical games can be an amazing means for this kind of education, as they seek to bring players into a way of thinking perhaps lost to time.
Games can also help us deconstruct false stories by showing more clearly the consequences for irrational actions. Fallacious thinking is more clearly and quickly punished in a tight eurogame than in the real world, and such games can help us reconsider similar decisions in our real lives.
By pulling apart, abstracting, and reconstructing complicated narratives in the world, games are a way to stand aside from the oftentimes busy hassle of our day to day lives and bring to us some kind of clarity. They’re economic fables, or interpersonal testing grounds where, ideally, we can remove ourselves from the real stresses of life and adopt the subconscious educational mindset of a child: play as a means of learning and developing in a relatively consequence-free environment.
Perhaps that’s the fundamental reason I’ve been attracted to games all of my life. I spent hundreds of hours exploring video game worlds as a child, then hundreds and thousands more thinking, working, and competing in the game of competitive debate. Now: board games. I have a tendency to run away from the pressures of life. When my depression was at its peak in college I hid in bed. I fantasized about running away from all of my commitments and starting over fresh, as if I could run away from the memories everything going on at that time.
I feel like I’m still unequipped to handle the responsibilities I should be able to take on. My life feels like me standing in that house, unable to sit, but also unable to do anything useful.
Apparently after a brief stint in madness, my grandfather is feeling better today. I don’t know what the shape of his narrative will be over the next few days, weeks, and months. But I know the meta-narrative. The grand shape of things. The hope imbued in reality.
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
-1 Corinthians 15:54-57