Today I wanted to write about a book I read a couple of years ago called "The Player of Games". Spoiler warning: I'm going to spoil parts of this book. As usual a third or so of spoilers I throw out will just be things that I make up, so hopefully that'll keep some of the mystery even for those who read on (In case anyone didn't work it out from the title, the Battlestar Galactica spoiler in my Treachery post was misleading, if not outright fiction). Until I looked it up just now, I didn't realise that The Player of Games was published back in 1988, I read a modern reprint and nothing in the book dated it, perhaps it'll turn out to be one of those timeless books. I'm told it's not Iain Bank's best work, but I loved it and I look forward to reading some more.
The events of the book mostly take place in the Empire of Azad, a society that has built up entirely around the game of Azad. Every great year the inhabitants of the empire take part in a game tournament that determines their social status, with the tournament's outcome determining who holds important offices within the empire. The overall winner of the tournament is named Emperor and rules the Empire for the next great year.
The ideology surrounding the game is that it represents life and the moves players make are expressions of their philosophy. As parts of the game are highly based on intuition over pure logic. For example, the game contains genetically engineered pieces that change function as the game progresses, preventing it from being solved by traditional methods. The game offers a place for philosophies to compete and the basis for the Empire is that it ultimately puts those who hold the most worthy ideas in charge. In the Empire, this selection process results in good and worthy leaders, in contrast to the result of fictional leadership choices made based on other types of game.
One of the things that stood out for me about the book was how well Iain Banks borrowed from existing games. A lot of the mysticism surrounding the game is familiar to me from discussions of Go. I used to study artificial intelligence, so I'm familiar with the mathematical reasons that the best computer players haven't been able to beat the best human players and can see that as computers improve that will probably change. I still like to hear Go masters talk about the game and that how, even (perhaps especially) at the top levels, intuition is more important than logic and that this is why a computer cannot defeat a human. There are tomes written on the expression of different philosophies and concepts in Go, that I couldn't do justice to if I were writing this entire blog about it, let alone one paragraph of one post. Perhaps one day I'll get into it more deeply, as I enjoy the exploration of the concept of a game deep enough to express ideas so as to be the cornerstone of a culture.
The protagonist of the book is Gurgeh, the titular 'Player of Games', who's not from Azad but ends up competing in the national competition as an ambassador from his own Culture. He's been selected as he's a master of a variety of games, though he's never played Azad before. The experience of having mastered a great many games and being thrown into something new is one I can identify with, it's a great experience and it's great to feel like it's shared with this character in this book. This weekend, at Bread and Games, I finished my game before a turn based trial or Brawl but before the real time game began. I didn't fancy sitting out so I joined in with a game played in real time without knowing the rules, it was exhilarating to play that way, learning the rules and strategies from watching other people play and adapting and countering. Sometimes I play games in a relaxed way and it's nice to feel a bit of pressure occasionally. The Player of Games really captures the high pressure feeling that some games have, though I suspect the influence may have come more from high stakes Poker or other fictional high stakes games.
The book talks about a lot of subjects, but I don't feel like I even have space to cover the ideas that apply to games and gamers. I won't spoil it, but it contains the best description I've ever seen of how to win a high interaction group game in which every other player agrees to eliminate you from the game before playing each other that I've ever read (One that I've successfully executed in Game of Thrones and Junta, but been soundly thrashed attempting it in Diplomacy). There's also a pretty good description of a gamer tantrum, which is embarrassing to see related to the wider world, but is still something that I can't really deny as part of the hobby.
As a designer there are concepts in the book that probably wouldn't work out but hold together for the narrative because the author never needs to describe the rules. Playing entire games to determine starting board positions for subsequent games can be frustrating and often make the early stages of a game feel like they're irrelevant to the game as a whole. Other things leap out as concepts that I'd love to play with, genetically engineered pieces that change shape and function as the game progresses could offer a tremendous variety of possible designs. I guess this relates to everything that got me excited about Doppleganger.
Ultimately though, it's not really a book about games, gamers or even people. I wrote about it here in that way because this is a gaming blog and it's good to talk about gaming ideas here, but really like most great science fiction it's a book about ideas. About having the sort of curiosity that makes you look at the world and say "What if?".
Iain Banks died yesterday. I never met him, but everything that I've read from people who did suggests to me that he was kind hearted and witty, a rare combination. I'll only ever know him through his works, which isn't really knowing him at all - but, nonetheless, makes me thankful that he was in the world.
Every life that touches others in a positive way is something to be celebrated. When someone is able to reach beyond those they have met and leave works to be enjoyed by strangers, some of whom may not have even been born yet, that's something very special. I think it's important to rejoice that such people have lived rather than to be sad that they died. Rest in peace, Iain Banks, 1954-2013.