I've been thinking about children's board games ever since I read Chris Dahlen favorably compare Chutes n' Ladders to Fracture last fall. And then this week, I read a piece over on Boingboing in which Stephen Johnson (writer of the essential Everything Bad is Good for You) tore Candyland a new one. (A sampling: “what sort of message does Candy Land send to our kids? ... It says you are powerless, that your destiny is entirely determined by the luck of the draw, that the only chance you have of winning the game lies in following the rules, and accepting the cards as they come. Who wants to grow up in that kind of universe?”) The fascinating thing is that there's this whole battery of games-- Battleship, War, 7 up, Puppy Pals Bingo-- which defy all my basic assumptions about what makes games compelling. And since Charles Pratt encourages us game-critic-types to understand all different kinds of games, it seems worthwhile to figure out the mystery of Candyland.
The thing is, none of these games require any meaningful decisions on the part of the player. In Candyland, all you do is pick colored cards off the top of a deck and move to the corresponding color. Even if you're a total cretin, you can kick ass at Candyland. Same goes for Battleship: you actually have to decide where to put your ships and where to attack and whatever, but there's no skill involved. Battleship is just an agonizingly extended version of the game, “how many fingers am I holding behind my back?”
This all seems wrong to me. Sid Meier purportedly described a video game as a series of interesting decisions, and while this isn't perfect it certainly squares with my sense of things: games are interesting because they provide this tightly governed space where your decisions and skills and apprehension of the rules determine whether things go right or not. It's this making-things-go-right-through-skills that make your triumph over your little brother at NHL '94 worthwhile. This conquest would ring hollow if it all hung on chance. And we hate the video games when they punish you with arbitrary obstacles – ninjas hitting us with exploding arrows from offscreen, and the like. It offends our sense of propriety. Our sense is that for once in our lives, we should be spared outrageous fortune for a few hours.
Gambling may help to further clarify things. Casinos have all sorts of games that are as senselessly random as kids' games-- Keno, Slots, Roulette, and the like. It's the riding-of-money-on-things that makes these games interesting. Nobody would play Roulette unless there was some action to be had Since your success or failure is a matter of pure luck you need to get some cash involved in order to gin up some interest in the proceedings. We can all agree that Candyland would be sweet if there was some cash at stake, but that's regrettably not the case.
So what's the appeal? My ladyfriend told me I'm overthinking this: “you don't need any complicated concept at the center of Candyland, because you're in a magical land made out of candy.” This point is well-taken: there are pictures of candy involved. Maybe Battleship scratches your itch when it comes to your fantasies of nautical warfare; I had Electronic Talking Battleship growing up, and it added a lot in the atmospherics department.
Also, there's a way that these games create drama out of uncertainly. While you can't control your destiny in Chutes n' Ladders, its rules create all these late-minute reversals and dramatic tension. There's an appeal to the mere sense of tension, this am I gonna make it to the end feeling. It's exciting, especially if you are four and the status of victor is new to you. A lot of great games like Monopoly or Catan have this element of fortune in them because they hang on dice rolls. Maybe these games are a more faithful representation of real life, because success is a liberal mixture of planning and luck.
But in the end what I'm led to think is that Candyland is fun because it's a game about mere rule-following. As Johnson says, “winning the game lies in following the rules;” and though he means this as a knock I think it's the reason we like these games. Moreso than winning, the big accomplishment in Canyland is just correctly playing the game. Following the rules is the only skill the game requires. It has to be that following rules is fun. In itself.
Why is it that we would follow rules for recreation? It sounds all wrong, horrifically un-fun, to say that we like rules. Well, my hunch is that it's because human beings are rule-mongering creatures. Other animals know how to do all their essential life-tasks on instinct; a spider doesn't need to learn to spin it's web. But in order to accomplish our higher-order tasks-- assemble our Ikea furniture, sow crops, apply for a car loan-- us sapiens need to learn how to follow procedures, grasp abstract rules, understand patterns. These native talents are our meager dispensation from nature. As Kant says, the natural world acts according to rules but humans act according to the conception of rules. Candyland is a kind of dry run.
In Everything Bad is Good for You, Johnson proposed that this basic human lust for rules was built into our psychology by evolutionary pressures. This is why we like video games-- we're hardwired to take enjoyment in discovering the rules latent in the systems we confront. And though evolutionary neuroscience is a tenuous enterprise at this point, I've always thought he's onto something. The whole edifice of human civilization rests on our malleability, our capacity to mold our conduct in accord with rules. Sometimes this conformity is voluntary; sometimes not. The redeeming thing about games, these little artificial sets of rules we construct for ourselves, is that they present this one space where this conformity is a matter of choice, rather than necessity.
Image courtesy of the marvellous bead artist Peggy Deciember.