This is going to be one of those articles where I start somewhere and end somewhere else with the path b’tween full of twists and slopes. I want to jaw about responsibility. It’s something that’s been gnawing on me for awhile. It’s something that often occupies my thoughts long into the black sky A.M. It sits comfortably uncomfortable alongside my emotional winding down of a night with intense conflict and strategic maneuvering.
Responsibility is something we should own. When you sit down to play a game with others you’re entering, and in fact creating, a delicate ecosystem. It’s a unique environment composed of unique individuals. In addition to myriad personalities, shared histories, and both explicit and implicit rules structure, there are specifics of the moment, a fallout from that exact time and place. Below the laughter, below the plastic bits and wooden table, there’s a tempest that belies the calm and calculated nature at the surface. It’s something we cannot hope to control but it is something we can attempt to ride.
What the hell are you talking about?
What I’m saying is that it is our responsibility to ensure a good time is had by all. This requires a bit of empathy and a bit of sacrifice. This concept isn’t radical. While this hobby is what it is and I’ve seen appalling behavior, the majority of individuals I associate with subscribe to this philosophy. Aaron hates Tigris & Euphrates so I don’t push for it. Jeremy has a disdain for cooperative games so I leave those in the ground. Ben’s been itching to play Factory Fun so I take a break from shoving publisher supplied review copies down his throat for an evening.
By the way, games lie people. Factories suck and the most eventful days include someone losing an appendage or getting their flimsy bits stuck between two cogs. That ain’t fun.
But anyway, those sacrifices are small. What picks at the scab of my heart is a conflict of responsibility with rules incentivized behavior. What I’m talking about is in-game action that causes another pain.
So I have a buddy, let’s call him Hal because that’s his name. He’s a very external fellow. Wonder what he’s thinking? Take off the Beats™ and this dude will let you know. Mostly, Hal is a bit negative. I can’t often tell how he feels about a new game because his vocal chords live in the same pitch as Bolt Thrower’s bassist.
Nevertheless, I will curb my in-game behavior based on reading the group and Hal is definitely part of the group. When I was teaching him Eclipse, one of the best games ever designed according to a bunch of rad people (I’m rad), we came to a moment where I could crush him. It was his first game and he was playing competently, but I had forcefully grasped the center of the galaxy and was exerting my influence like a malevolent space dictator. He was beaten back and I wanted to deliver a final blow, virtually removing him from the game with a couple of rounds remaining. I felt like it was the right move strategically as I’ve been burned more than once exercising mercy.
I couldn’t do it.
It would have soured the entire experience and left him dejected. This messed me up. I let him live.
I didn’t want to fail Hal. As an architect of this ecosystem I had a divine responsibility to ensure its health. But don’t I have a responsibility to the integrity of the game and its collected systems? Do I have a responsibility to the other players sitting nearby, expecting an honest effort within the spirit of the cardboard we’re battling over?
That line is fuzzier than a ball of three-second-rule peanut butter.
Another story: it was our first play of Scythe, a group of FNGs eager to get on with the growing and destroying. I was playing a faction that was heavily incentivized to plod across the map and pickup the encounter tokens. I nabbed those on the borders first, keeping myself within striking distance of a few other spaces in neutral territory. One player decided to move towards one such space so I reacted by claiming it first. This effectively wasted his action. He proceeded to lose it and was teeming with anger.
His protestations centered around me continually thwarting just him, effectively picking on him over the others. I was baffled. Was I really doing this?
He was visibly upset, frustrated, and even angry. It shook me and really threw me off. I internally vowed to avoid this person for the second half of the game. But it kept bothering me. I had to try and fix this.
So I spoke up. I apologized and said that what he expressed was not true, I was not deliberately targeting him. His anger would not subside immediately and he then moved on to explaining that I could not tell him his feelings were wrong because they were his and his alone.
I shut down. I believe I still won the game but there was no sense of joy or warm sensation at the pit of my stomach. It was awful and it still bothers me to this day, years later. This is not why I game and I don’t want that type of emotional baggage.
As I sat there nauseated, I made a decision. That behavior, what I had inflicted upon him, forced a choice of weighing the importance of people versus that of the game. It wasn’t a choice at all. We have a responsibility of compassion, regardless of activity.
But it’s never easy.
If a player is routinely visibly upset playing high conflict games, then what do I do? If that’s what everyone else wants to play, do we exclude them? Do we handle them with kid gloves? What if this affects the integrity of balance and threatens to collapse the experience?
I have many more questions than answers here. Certainly players must own their own adverse behavior, which includes how we respond to external pressure. We must control our emotions and act appropriately. Trying to adjudicate right or wrong in this instance though is foolish. We all have a responsibility to ourselves and the other souls sitting across from us. It’s only a game.
It’s only a game.