Game Theory: Levels of Meaning

A few months ago, I discussed theme as the secondary meaning of a game. A slightly different interpretation is the game as a medium for ideas, and the theme as the message being delivered. This relationship can be used to examine the theme, breaking the theme down into subject as a medium, and meaning as message. This relationship is another way of interpreting the amount of theme that a game has.

Using the concept of message and medium, there are three levels of understanding a game. The first level is playing the game itself, the mechanical level. The second level is understanding what the game represents, the metaphor level. The third level is what abstract concepts the game is trying to present, and is the deepest level of meaning.

Abstract games contain no metaphor level. The message in abstract games comes entirely from the mechanical aspect of playing the game. This includes the game mechanics, and how players interact with the game and each other. The message in this case is completely integrated with the medium. Most games in this category have no level of deeper meaning. Playing the game is the meaning of the game. Go is one of the rare games that can jump straight to deeper meaning from medium.

Some games use only the mechanical level and the metaphor level. The vast majority of games fall into this group. This can be the result of careful design choices to abstract away elements of theme to produce an elegant game, like Ticket to Ride. Unfortunately, it can also be the result of lazy theme selection.

Lazy theme selection can also be called “skinning”. For any mechanic, there are numerous theme options that will work. I already discussed the relationship between choosing the right theme for mechanics, and lazy theme is what happens when this is ignored completely. The end result is usually a game with no clear identity. Many of the games in the recent epidemic of zombie games have done this just to take advantage of a popular theme. HP Lovecraft and the Cthulu mythos is another perennial favorite.

I don’t want to discourage designers from choosing these themes (Martin Wallace’s A Study in Emerald is proof that it can still be done well, adding Sherlock Holmes too!) but it should be a deliberate choice of appropriate metaphor. In other words, designers should be honest (with players AND themselves) about why the theme was chosen.

Despite the number of farming and train themed games, most seem to avoid being accused of lazy theming, though maybe that is staying to shift. Perhaps the themes of growth, ongoing effort, and production have so many interesting interactions that they can be used for a wide array of games. This is also a bit of a downside, because it means that they are immediate and obvious choices for theme in a world full of ideas. And certainly, the Euro game standby of trading in the Mediterranean can be a lazy theme. And you can’t really criticize so many way games for using the same battles and settings, since they are based on fixed historical events.

A smaller number of games are able to include all three levels of meaning. I have played the Catan: Oil Springs Scenario, which definitely achieves this. Beyond the gameplay and theme of resource production, there is an explicit message of the importance of environmental stewardship. Moby Dick seems to be carrying the message of whaling as a harsh and unrelenting experience. Many games are less heavy handed with this approach. Agricola, for example, Could be seen as having an underlying message of balance, based on how scoring is arranged.

People also put meaning into things just by interacting with them. Our own opinions and prejudices naturally shape our experience with the game. The line between intended meaning and inferred meaning can often be blurred. This is one of the things a designer can take advantage of to make a game that resonates with players.

As a designer, consider what message players might be able to take from the game. This doesn’t mean you must make your game try to teach something, but instead let players decide what it is trying to say. This will give you insight into how players will play the game, and how they will enjoy it. As a player, think about what the designer was trying to tell you. This can give you insight on how to play the game, while making it a more effective and engrossing experience.

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to present the idea that the content of a message can only be understood in the context of how it is being said. This is a good description of what is occurring in abstract games. And certainly, any game has some component of meaning that is inseparable from the act of playing the game. Our goal as lovers of board games should be to extract the meaning from games. This can be as simple as “have fun”, or as deep as we want to make it.

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  1. #1 by ingredientx on March 3, 2014 - 5:08 pm

    Good column. One rebuttal: I don’t think a typical Euro “trading in the Mediterranean” theme is necessarily “lazy” (although it’s usually tired). Those well-worn themes have a purpose: they inform players that the focus on the game is not its theme, or its theme-mechanism integration, but some new and interesting mechanism.

    Dominion is a perfect example. When it came out in 2008, there was nothing like it, other than CCG deckbuilding, which is technically “outside” the game. Its almost-absent theme of medieval territory-building informed players that its theme wasn’t important, and encouraged them to focus on its mechanism, which was unique at the time.

    Stefan Feld’s games are also excellent examples. They’re pretty polarizing for a few reasons, but most of his games have the lightest of themes. This seems very deliberate to me. Trajan is not about Roman politics, it’s about managing your mancala-like board. Amerigo is not about bloodlessly colonizing a new world, it’s about trying to best take advantage of cubes coming out of the tower. He has some games with slightly more applied themes, like Notre Dame or In the Year of the Dragon, but even in those, the emphasis is more on the mechanism than the setting. I completely understand disliking Feld games because of their lack of theme (or because there are so many ways to win them that it can feel arbitrary, but that’s another story), but as a philosophy teacher once told my class, “I’m not asking you to like it. I’m just asking you to understand it.”

    I think if you have a mechanism-first game, and it’s not tied to any specific theme, it’s better to give it a light, familiar (albeit tired) theme than to try to force a gaudy theme onto it.

    A great example of a mechanism-first game with a poor theme is Zombiegeddon, which is just Knizia’s Jäger und Sammler with a zombie theme. It’s proof that you can’t just take a dry, mechanism-first Euro and just slap on an engaging American theme. JuG is about its mechanisms, not about its theme, so Zombiegeddon just never feels right. It just doesn’t feel like a zombie game. It’s about moving pieces, not about survival.

    A personal favorite example is Monkeys on the Moon, a wonderful bidding game that new players tend to struggle with because its cool, unique auction clashes with its gaudy theme of civilizing lunar monkeys and shooting the most cultured ones back to Earth. I really like the game, but it’s a tough sell to new players because the theme and the mechanism just don’t work together. If its theme was about, yes, trading in the Mediterranean, it would go down much easier.

    So those boring Euro themes serve a purpose. It’s completely understandable to not like them, and seek out games with a stronger theme-mechanism integration. As a designer, I try to avoid using them in my own games. But they’re not “lazy” themes; their use is quite deliberate.

    • #2 by Oakleaf Games on March 3, 2014 - 5:50 pm

      Good point. I can clarify that just using a trope (such as “Trading in the Mediterranean”, or Zombies, or Cthulu) doesn’t automatically mean that the theme is lazy. It can be the end result of a lot of careful decisions that settle on that as the best possible theme for the game mechanics.
      You’ve also touched on the meta-level of theme and message, where the theme carries an message about the importance of theme versus mechanics. And some games just don’t warrant the development of a complex game, because it sends a mixed message about the game itself.
      Personally, a lot of the games I like can be accused of using “boring themes”. Theme really can tell a player a lot about a game, and carefully choosing the theme to take advantage of this (even if it’s an otherwise unexciting theme) is definitely not lazy. And that’s really the message here. Don’t choose a theme without thinking of the message.

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