Life's a Game

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

The concept of Lila is a belief within Hindu philosophy - the entire cosmos is a divine play acted out by the god Brahman. In this idea you, me and everything else within the cosmos is all one being playing out a godly game over and over again for infinity. What else would you do if you were God other than play?


When you view the world in this way you realise everything within it is a form of play.


To take us back to a more material viewpoint we know through Game Theory, discovered by the late John Nash that numerous interactions within our day to day life are structured strategically around play and these findings have had application within economics, evolutionary biology and politics.


To use a simple example of Game Theory in action, imagine you are with three of your friends and you meet a group of 4 people. One of these people has a Nintendo Switch which you and your three friends really want to play. However, if you all talk to the person with the Nintendo Switch they will be put off. The other 3 people don’t have a Nintendo Switch, but would still make good friends - however, if you all talk to the person with the Nintendo Switch, they will leave.


So what do you do?


In this game, the answer is for you and your friends to work together. You choose for one person to make friends with the person with the Nintendo Switch so they can play and then everyone else makes friends with the other people. In this case everyone wins. Though one person perhaps wins more as they get to play Mario Kart.


We further know the importance of play within childhood development, play is vital to healthy brain growth, engaging socially with other children, developing new competencies, enhancing imagination and creativity, amongst a whole host of other benefits.


As quoted from this fantastic Tedx Talk by Peter Grey on the topic:


“...play is nature’s means of ensuring that young mammals, including young human beings, acquire the skills that they need to acquire to develop successfully into adulthood.”


These examples demonstrate the non-trivial nature of play and their wider application in day-to-day life, and yet as a society we often view play as a triviality.


As a waste of time.


As something unproductive, or for children.


At school we give pupils ‘playtime’ as though learning about writing, or art, or history, or mathematics are not in their own way also ‘play’ and instead the play must be cordoned off into its own segment.


Yet would we consider playing the piano or guitar "trivial"? How about playing football? Or actors playing their parts in a play? Perhaps, but we also spend vast sums to watch our favourite musicians, or see the best athletes compete, and we binge-watch actors playing their parts.


Still, there is a stigma attached to play - for children it’s acceptable; for adults it’s seen as a sign of immaturity. The word "Man Child" is thrown around a lot. Especially when it comes to specifically playing Tabletop games.

I remember playing Magic: the Gathering when I was about 18, and my dad saying


"Why are you doing that, it’s a game for babies?"


Which still hurts. Yet he had no issue buying those cards for me as a kid. At what point and why does a game change from something for children to something adults can do?


Within our productivity-laden Capitalist society play only seems justified if we can point to some productive justification for its existence. But we don’t need to justify it. It just is. This is why I’m fond of the Hindu view.


Play is what there is for no purpose other than itself.


Children understand this on an intimate level.


When I was a kid, I remember we had this picture book that told a story of Cops and Robbers. There was a big picture in the book of a police station, but laid out more like a house. Contained within were various hazards from barking dogs, to passing police officers, to traps hidden under the stairways. We used to play this game where we had to trace the ideal route for our robber to go through to avoid the police whilst getting away with the treasure.


The book wasn’t a game book; it was simply a picture book, but we took a look at it and turned it into a game as though it was the most obvious thing in the world to do. I fondly remember finding the book again when I had moved schools and picking it up. My teacher said that I could take the storybook home with me if I wanted and I corrected her.


"No Miss, it’s not a storybook, it’s a game book!"


She didn’t understand. We did. Somewhere down the line we lose that understanding that you can take literally anything and turn it into play.


A page from an illustrated children's book. there is a yellow house with two floors, and each floor has police officers on it. The text on the page reads "Here are the cops of London. Hardworking brave and true, they sip their tea, stay up till three, and take good care of you."

Looking back, this isn’t much different from what we do with Dungeons & Dragons now. I was in a childhood version of a Dungeon - a dangerous, complex and multi-tiered abode full of monsters, hazards and traps. This map of the classic module The Lost City isn’t much different - there’s numerous hazards within, and the players have to navigate through it in the best way they can whilst getting as much treasure as possible.


A page from a book containing blue-colored maps of 3 dungeon tiers

OSR play in particular is suited as a direct extension to those childhood games we play, such as the one I did with that Cops and Robbers book due to its inherent open nature. Classic OSR Dungeons like In Search of the Unknown, The Lost City and The Keep on the Borderlands are designed inherently open-endedly, for a myriad of approaches. For example, once into the central chamber of Tier 2 of the Lost City, you can traverse into the realms of the religious cult of the Brotherhood of Gorm towards the east, find the secret Stirge filled treasure room to the north, or skip to the third Tier by traversing west. (This style of design is known as "Jaquaying", after artist and designer Jennell Jaquays.)


Modern iterations of D&D play out things in a much more straightforward fashion. For example Wave Echo Cave which is the big dungeon at the end of The Lost Mine of Phandelver module. This is a module designed for new players, but so were modules like The Lost City and Keep on the Borderlands, yet they kept that much more open and freeform approach. In respects to Wave Echo Cave we see a far more linear dungeon with only 1 level that splits into roughly two routes that both take the players to the final destination.


A Map of Wave Echo Cave, a Dungeon

If we had only been able to trace two routes through that Cops and Robbers book, it would have been an incredibly dull game. It was because we could keep tracing a myriad of different routes over and over again that the game came to life for us. Each time we could tell a different story, each time we didn’t know how our game would end, and each time was new, exciting and dangerous.


That’s the childhood magic that OSR games emulate through a philosophy of play that focuses on player agency, non-linear design and a rules-lite approach that allow players to use the full force of their imaginations and creativity in the midst of play.


As what else is there to do but to play?


Plines is a writer interested in technology, tabletop roleplaying, video games, film and classical history. Plines writes about tabletop games at www.hexjunkie.com


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