The Hard Problem

Philosopher David Chalmers describes the hard problem of consciousness as the problem of explaining the relationship between physical phenomena and experience. Physical phenomena encompass brain activity such as the firing of neurons and electric signals. Experience here is referring to phenomenal consciousness or awareness, something all of you reading this possess. No method has been discovered that is able to locate or explain consciousness and how it relates to the brain. That’s the hard problem.

David Chalmers

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a similar problem. One native to the hobby I write about and participate in.

Just like the brain, no matter how closely you inspect or sub-divide a board game, you will never actually discover any qualia of happiness or joy. Why are games fun? What specific mechanisms, systems, or methods produce this satisfaction? We can’t objectively link the details of happiness to the various systems of game design employed. This is the foundational threshold for competency or purpose in the medium, and it’s ethereal.

We make an attempt. That is the purpose of critics after all. We can point to certain details or practices and offer judgmental analysis. Most of us have attempted to unveil the subtleties of our preferences and can even name many of them. But in reality, this feels almost illusory and applied in hindsight. Having a particular experience of placing cards to build an engine or rolling dice to vanquish plastic pieces, is just an experience. The satisfaction occurs at different positions within the activity, often at the conclusion. But it merely arises. If you really scrutinize the occurrence, It’s fundamentally a mystery.

While this observation can be applied to other media, I believe there’s a different element at work regarding board games. Art, music, and film all have a very thorough and mature critical apparatus. There are shared points of discussion, parallel critiques, and established principles by which people speak on these works. Board games, however, remain stunted in this regard.

This hard problem is one of the primary reasons why the majority of board game reviews are functionally buyer’s guides. There are discussions of components and the box’s contents, some discourse centered on mechanism buzzwords, and mostly a broad recognition of the firm things. Then, perhaps a rating stating whether the game was “fun” or not. Assessing and engaging that which is fleeting is an uncommon occurrence.

Another of the areas I’ve applied my thoughts on the hard problem is to question a prevalent viewpoint within our community. I’ve often heard hobbyists describe the belief that they find longer games more satisfying. Recently, a speaker stated that the longer a game lasts, the higher the expectation of satisfaction. If it doesn’t meet this squishy threshold, it fails to earn its right to existence and is jettisoned. This hints at the viewpoint that we don’t tend to experience – and thus shouldn’t expect – as deep or as fulfilling experiences in shorter games.

I know this belief because I’ve shared it.

Playing a game is full of distraction. Often, we’re working to interpret and internalize rules. We’re navigating social contracts and wrestling with etiquette. We’re trying to hold discussions and engage other humans in conversation. We’re trying to tune out background commotion and set aside the complications of life.

There is often so much cognitive noise occurring that it’s difficult to be mindful of what is actually happening. The deeper, longer lasting satisfaction that emerges at the conclusion of a lengthier game is often applied post facto. In fact, it requires the completion for any real happiness to occur. If the experience is interrupted or cancelled, it’s distressing and ultimately a relatively empty activity.

I think a significant part of this is in the human condition and our sense of self. We are struggling with the need to always be moving and seeking a better state of being. We want something more. We can’t simply exist. That’s never enough.

But if you examine the actual moment to moment activity and allow for an emotional response, you can find that sense of satisfaction in the smaller flashes of experience. You can’t pinpoint exactly what it is or what’s causing it, but you can feel it. It’s not the happiness that is a result of overcoming pain or strife or an enormous challenge spanning several hours, or at least it’s not just that. The joy that arises at the conclusion of a lengthy game can be seen as the sum of many smaller moments, as a whole that materializes out of the cloud.

The contentment felt in the wake of play can similarly subjectively appear after a night of shorter “filler” games. And it can be just as strong and full. In the midst of play, be mindful of what is actually happening and your emotional reaction. Identify the small elation, the small glee. In each moment, is this bliss any less than that which occurs during a marathon play of an epic? In this recognition you can subsequently apply a summation, the result of which can rival that of a lengthy game.

Any experience can really be examined with such intensity. But I write about games. I think about games. Despite not being able to find granules of satisfaction in the cardboard detritus, we can find it in the moments and in the aftermath of play. It’s unmistakable and feels solid and complete. It’s why we play, and it’s why I endeavor to write and think about games in new ways.


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  7 comments for “The Hard Problem

  1. Greg
    May 2, 2023 at 7:22 pm

    Great post, thanks Charlie.

    Quick question, have you considered getting back into podcasting? It would be good to get your takes in audio format again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 2, 2023 at 7:25 pm

      I have Greg and I would enjoy it. I don’t have the time to edit a podcast on my own, so that eliminates a solo one. I haven’t searched too hard, but I haven’t really found a great situation or an appropriate co-host.

      Thank you for the kind words though and hearing that people miss Ding & Dent is inspiring.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Greg
        May 3, 2023 at 8:35 pm

        Would be great to see it come together, but understandable that the work load is a hurdle.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. May 6, 2023 at 5:02 am

    Thanks for the thoughts Charlie,

    Much of the way I write about games comes from the frustration of others not explaining how games work and what makes them unique. We might not have scientific, purely objective ways of describing those things, but neither does literature or film and they do much better. I strive to explain how games work, to analyze them. I appreciate critics who share their experience, but I always lean back on analysis because few are doing it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • May 6, 2023 at 8:54 am

      Thanks, Erik. I think the problem is that we don’t have an established critical base that has created these norms or conventions. A new reviewer has no one to look to or model themselves after, so there’s no shared language or method. It’s very wild west.

      Liked by 1 person

      • May 7, 2023 at 2:28 pm

        Oh, absolutely.I doubt I have the best approach. But there’s also value in trying to establish that base. I take what I can from the few people that, like you, I think are doing well to the medium.

        Liked by 2 people

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