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Friday, January 11, 2019

On Hacking The Games You Play With Your Kids

At this point in history, my kids are better than I am at a lot of the games we play. (With Aviva away for a semester, we've turned the attic into a boardgame room, and Noah has trounced me in, I believe, 6 of the last 8 games we've played? It might be 7.) But, of course, when they were little, the odds were more in my favor, at least with most games as designed out of the box.

A friend wrote on the book of the face: "We're trying to do board games with [our elementary-school-aged kid] more regularly, but when he loses a lot, that can be upsetting..."

So of course I seized the opportunity to talk about leveling games. It's a small thing, but it's a thing expresses a lot of the values that guide my parenting (community, fun, fairness, creativity, resistance to received wisdom for its own sake). And since my parenting is, if not coming slowly to an end, certainly coming slowly to a transformation (I used to have two children; now I have one child, and, oxymoronically, one adult child), it seems like a good time for an essay on this little tidbit of praxis.

When playing competitive games with kids, my practice has been to make differential leveling of games a core game design praxis.

That is: to approach every board game like an unfinished game design space whose constraint is "the people around the table, particularly the little ones, ought to win this game a relatively equal amount, and actually the little ones ought to win it more."

By this I absolutely don't mean that I "go easy" on kids and "let them win"; I find that frustratingly vague, it removes my attention from actually playing the game, and my kids always found it insulting. My value, when playing games, is that we're all playing games, we're all having fun -- not that some of us are playing and others of us are just babysitting the game.

So, instead, we experiment with pre-negotiated, intentionally designed game mechanics that level the field. As I've noted before, when playing with little kids, I want to play full out... and lose. Hence, the game should be stacked against me in a predictable, transparent way. When playing with bigger kids, the mechanism should evolve to be more flexible and fairer -- it's not necessarily stacked against me, because we're no longer necessarily presuming that I'm the best, but it may need to be stacked against the same person continually dominating.

A simplest, crudest option is simply to make the game harder for those known to be better at it -- e.g., each letter in Boggle gives Daddy one point, kids three points.

A more elegant approach is to have the game dynamically vary itself so that it becomes harder for those winning -- we do this in 3-way half-court basketball, for instance, where if you get two points ahead of the others you can't shoot from closer than the foul line, if you get five points ahead you can't shoot from closer than the 3-point line, etc. (If others catch up, the constraint relaxes; if they pull ahead, now they're constrained. The result of this is that the limitation becomes an implicit scoring mechanism; you're playing for the -- temporary -- bragging rights of being the one who's restricted to three-pointers). We used to do it in Set, where once you have two more sets than the others, say, you have to close your eyes for a count of three before searching for the next set. This means you're not prejudging who's "better", you're just hacking the game to make it harder for someone to pull ahead (it's a little harder to hack sophisticated board games this way because you have to rebalance the game, but that can be fun in and of itself.) The level adjustment can relate to the last series of games, if you have a relatively stable set of players; so each time you lose at Terraforming Mars, for instance, you add one extra megacredit production to your starting conditions for subsequent games.

An even more sophisticated variant is to add aspects to the game, or choose games, that reward a different set of skills (for instance, some kids are often better than adults at Memory-type games), or that just add randomness and the possibility of upsets strategically.

But I think the most important part about all this is not the specific hacks, but the general attitude that we are hackers: that the point of a game is to be fun for everyone, that if it's not fun for everyone the answer is to change the game, and that "I always lose" is a perfectly legitimate reason for the game not to be fun.

This is not to encourage "bad sportsmanship" -- on the contrary -- while it's useful to develop a capacity to lose gracefully, if it's always the same person having to display that capacity, then the game is not optimized for the table, and sportsmanship requires adjustment. It means asking of our games that they be inclusive and scalable for players of different temperaments and abilities. In this sense Go, for instance, is a superior game to chess, because adjusting Go for players of different skill levels is an elegant and traditional part of the game, while in chess there's really no non-awkward solution. (In speed chess, however, giving people different clock times works pretty well).

(Collaborative games are outside the scope of this post; they often solve some of these issues, but can introduce others, e.g. more experienced or skilled or assertive players trying to direct strategy even on other people's turns.)

(Noted parenthetically: there's also an explicit feminist ethics behind this idea, insofar as it's an arena to explore the tension between an "ethics of justice" and an "ethics of care", cf. e.g. Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice)

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Reading in Basel

I'll be reading from Die Auflösung in German at 19:30 on Wednesday, January 16th, at Herrengrabenweg 50 in Basel. If you're in town, drop by!

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