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Subject: GAMES VS. SIMULATIONS, an essay by Phil Eklund rss

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Phil Eklund
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Sometimes I am told that my works are not games, but simulations. I usually counter that “games vs. simulations” is a false dichotomy, and ask my detractor to define what a “game” or “simulation” is. He invariably declines, perhaps asserting that definitions are unimportant or subjective.

Let me state my thesis plain. Although not all simulations are games, all games are simulations, defining “simulation” as a “selective re-creation of reality”. Further, all games are works of art, defining “art” as “the selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s value-judgments, following the principles of aesthetics”.

A game can be compared to another great artform, the novel. Both have a protagonist with a challenge to overcome, and a conclusion where the struggle is resolved. In both, the protagonist can succeed or fail. Both reveal the artist’s value-judgements and ultimately his philosophy. Both obey aesthetic principles: plot, structure, goals, selectivity of subject, clarity of expression, and integration of game elements.

In a solitaire game, the challenge to be overcome is in the game processes. In a multi-player game, much of the challenge comes from the decisions and skills of your opponents. But winning is secondary to the experience and story.

In my most recent game, Greenland, the emphasis is on the exciting story to be told. Indeed, even though the turns are a generation long, the saga unfolds as if in a role-playing game. Suppose your sword breaks in battle. If this were DnD, you would curse and go to the blacksmith to fix it. But what if the blacksmith starved generations ago and his craft was lost? Or if there was not enough iron or fuel to spare for a charcoal furnace? What if the defense of your entire culture centered around one piece of metal, handed down from generation to generation?

For the design of Greenland, I included everything important for survival of a culture, using value-judgements based on my philosophy to determine importance. As a boardgame auteur, I integrated every element into an artistic whole, according to my vision. A vision distinct enough that most can recognize my work without seeing my name.

To be an artist, you need something to convey. You need to believe in something. You need context, principles, and long-range direction; you need connection among your goals, coherence among your turns, and a broad overview uniting your disparate experiences, conclusions, and actions into a sum. In short, every artist needs a philosophy, the means by which he comes to make value-judgements.

Are very abstract games also “re-creations of reality”? To a lesser extent, but yes. Reality runs by particular rules, called Laws of Science, and favors those who masters the rules. In this way, the rules of even the most abstract games mirror reality.

There is a “post-modernist” theory of art that claims it is up to the viewer to interpret or provide meaning. However, random splashes of paint or plotless word salads are not art. And one who has no clearly-expressed vision, or is concerned only with what is trendy, popular, or fadish, is no artist.
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Thank you for the insights into your thoughts about games and how you would like them to be. This is why we love your games
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Chris Currie
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I agree with your point that it's a false dichotomy. Your games offer a well-crafted engine for telling a story and providing in-tune players agency. However, while I LOVE Bios: Megafauna, it does feel like you're along for the ride sometimes. You get to make choices and start working towards a goal, but three calamities in a row and all that's left is the birds in an orogeny zone. It's funny and makes for a good story that feels authentic to the theme, but to watch all of your work freeze and then burn to death could make some folks say "all control in this game is illusory". Whether that makes it a 'simulation' (in the board-gamer parlance), I don't know.
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To be an artist, you need something to convey. You need to believe in something. You need context, principles, and long-range direction; you need connection among your goals, coherence among your turns, and a broad overview uniting your disparate experiences, conclusions, and actions into a sum.
I love this Phil. It's a great summary of the type of game I've been trying to seek out recently.
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qwertymartin wrote:
Quote:
To be an artist, you need something to convey. You need to believe in something. You need context, principles, and long-range direction; you need connection among your goals, coherence among your turns, and a broad overview uniting your disparate experiences, conclusions, and actions into a sum.
I love this Phil. It's a great summary of the type of game I've been trying to seek out recently.
Me as well. And it is what I wish more reviewers of games would try and grapple with. Good criticism doesn't just describe the features and pass judgement. It's more vital function is to engage the reader with in a more intimate conversation with the work - and indirectly the author - on its meaning.
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Phil, I'd be fascinated to see the kind of RPG you'd design.
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phileklund wrote:

But winning is secondary to the experience and story.

I couldn't agree more. That´s the key for me. meeple
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When I say a game is more simulation than game, what I think I mean is that it emphasizes the simulation to the detriment of the competition between players. One definition of "game" is "competition." If the storytelling aspect is so strong that the competition is muted, to me it becomes a less interesting game - though it might still be a very interesting simulation. Watching a system interact and occasionally poking it to see what happens may be fun, but it isn't necessarily a game.

Sometimes, at the end of a Phil Eklund game, I feel like we poked at system interactions, but the players had virtually no influence on the outcome of the game.

It's all well and good to say that the journey is more important than the destination, but if the destination is completely random then (IMHO) it isn't a good game. It may have been a great simulation, and I may have had a lot of fun, but it wasn't a good game.

I agree that "game" vs. "simulation" is a false dichotomy. For me, the best games are the ones that are high on both competition and simulation.
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Phil, I love the fact that your games are deep AND feel like a simulation.
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phileklund wrote:
There is a “post-modernist” theory of art that claims it is up to the viewer to interpret or provide meaning. However, random splashes of paint or plotless word salads are not art. And one who has no clearly-expressed vision, or is concerned only with what is trendy, popular, or fadish, is no artist.
I agree with everything you said - except the part quoted above. Random splashes of paint or plotless word salads can be art and have a place, indeed there was a minimalist movement in the 1960's and 1970's whose drive was to evoke the most emotion using the least elements. Who am I to decide those splashes of paint are completely random or carefully crafted to appear completely random?

I don't think that all artists have to have a "clearly expressed vision" to "qualify". I think many artists create many works of art on their way to finding their own "clearly expressed vision". Sometimes art comes out of the journey to find a vision, much like you suggest the winning of a game is secondary to the experience and story.

Art is mostly in the eye/mind of the beholder, with the catalyst coming from the artist. Fortunately, no one person has yet been bestowed with the task of deciding whom is and whom is not an artist - we all get to decide individually for ourselves.

Peace
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Mike Clarke
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As a voracious reader from the time I was a child I started playing board games many, many years ago to relive the types of adventures in books where I was the pirate, the explorer, the conqueror.

Your comparison of games to novels and their realization as art really resonates with me. It's why I prefer heavily thematic games with an element of chance and the possibility of mitigation (after all isn't that life?) and why, decades later I still play them.

As a history buff and amateur astronomer almost all of your creations work for me. I appreciate their philosophy and their truth.

I think your games are art in that they present out of the general noise and chaos, an order and perspective that has depth and meaning and is unique to you.

As someone who has played High Frontier and Pax many times I can safely say your games are an experience. I'm happy to be playing them win or lose, because win or lose I always get something back that's just for me.
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kind of pretentious tbh
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LOL. Now that I re-read it I can see where you might think that. Perhaps I could have put it more plainly, but, while we're being honest, that's a true story and I meant every word.
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mikecl wrote:
LOL. Now that I re-read it I can see where you might think that. Perhaps I could have put it more plainly, but, while we're being honest, that's a true story and I meant every word.
I liked what you said Mike. The capacity for wonder in the play of ideas, especially keeping it across a lifetime, is of high value.

It did not have an ounce of pretension to my ears. Rather, it sounded like we were on our second beer instead of on the internet.

*

I'd like to add I think Greenland (and other Ecklund games) forces you to both examine your internal relationship with control and encounter both theme & subject as a dynamic rather than a 'setting.' Both of these challenge values in the player and form the basis of meaning. I like that sort of thing and, like Claudio and Martin, reach for it and value when the conversation that follows is more than an analysis of mechanics or a brief stopping point for game churn.

Thanks for this essay, Phil. I'd just returned from a rainy, delayed, post-midnight bus ride traveling from my first play of Greenland across the Seattle metro. Finding this essay on my return fit beautifully into my musings on first play.
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no, I meant the original post was kind of pretentious
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Mease19 wrote:
Phil, I'd be fascinated to see the kind of RPG you'd design.
This

and to some extent

This

each awesome in their own way
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yoggoth wrote:
no, I meant the original post was kind of pretentious
Too funny - Phil's post was clear, while yours wasn't.
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At the end of a long day, I love finding posts like this on BGG.

phileklund wrote:
A game can be compared to another great artform, the novel. Both have a protagonist with a challenge to overcome, and a conclusion where the struggle is resolved. In both, the protagonist can succeed or fail. Both reveal the artist’s value-judgements and ultimately his philosophy. Both obey aesthetic principles: plot, structure, goals, selectivity of subject, clarity of expression, and integration of game elements.
I think you are given too much credit to the author's intent. I don't mean to rehearse all of the usual conversations about the relevance/non-relevance of intent (I think just about everyone in this thread has been in those conversations before). Instead, I just want to suggest that regardless of our opinions about artistic intent, I think we can agree that intent is only one aspect of what a work of art is and can be.

The notion of heteroglossia is really useful here. Works of art (and, for Bakhtin, especially the novel) speak with many voices. They may have a lot to say about an author's values, but they also speak to the values of an author's time and the representational constraints of the form the piece of art takes. I think that this provides a space for us to appreciate and use works of art which seem "without argument" like post-modern art (I often find myself agreeing with Jameson's observation that they are symptomatic of late-capitalism, but that's another argument).

I certainly agree that we can read games as arguments. But, I think too that often they might argue against themselves. In Greenland, do societies choose to fail as per Jared Diamond's suggestion, or are we the victims of circumstance? My Norse from tonight's game would argue that there was simply nothing to be done--the parade of disastrous events was simply too relentless to allow them to flourish. I think these tensions actually make a particular game even more wonderful and I think they are a place where games, as an artform, can really set themselves apart. They re rife with the kinds of ambiguities that make our most beloved novels so compelling.

I would say a lot more, but my wife and brother are requesting an encore game of Greenland before bed. Congrats again on the game Phil!
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I think there's a huge difference between creative works and their mechanical dissection by those looking to discover their secrets.

On the one hand you have the artist and creator, on the other the plumber trying to fit together all the myriad pieces so he can understand how the artist manages to create works of such power.

His mechanical constructions and conclusions are a weak and incomplete shell because imaginative power doesn't follow a template. It draws from everything, from the artist's environment, from the universe itself.

The power in an artist's work is the vision that springs from his imagination communicated by the art form he has chosen. I doubt there's a single artist that thinks in terms like Bakhtin or who sets out to emulate those concepts when he creates a work, in Bahtin's case, a novel.

It seems to me minimizing artistic intent is another form of the argument I read here earlier that everyone's an artist because the most important part of art is not its creation, but how it's perceived.

In that world, random splashes of paint and plotless word salads now qualify as art because to quote Brent, "Art is mostly in the eye/mind of the beholder with the catalyst coming from the artist."

The artist, reduced to merely a catalyst, is the smallest part of this equation. Anyone really can be one as long as you have creative perceivers. I don't think so.

The greatest achievements throughout history have been due to the creative ingenuity of individuals. The artist is therefore the most important part of that equation.

Or put another way, without Phil Eklund, you don't have Pax Porfiriana or High Frontier. He's more than a mere catalyst. He's the creator whose artistic intent influences and focuses our perception.

To me art is an act of creation and the artist is its architect creating something out of nothing, creating order out of disorder, disorder being the state to which things naturally return like plotless word salads or random splashes of paint.

I don't find anything special in them.

Plotless word salads and random splashes of paint may serve a purpose as inspiration for art, but unless there is some underlying connectivity, some attempt to bring order out of chaos, to communicate a concept, make a statement or evoke an emotion I can't call it art.

Plotless word salads and random splashes of paint are what we did in Kindergarten on our way to learning how to impose order on an unruly world.

So for me at least, when it comes to the deconstruction of art, postmodernism is a fraud.
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mikecl wrote:
Or put another way, without Phil Eklund, you don't have Pax Porfiriana or High Frontier. He's no catalyst. He's the creator.
This seems to me to be a completely false dichotomy.
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
mikecl wrote:
Or put another way, without Phil Eklund, you don't have Pax Porfiriana or High Frontier. He's no catalyst. He's the creator.
This seems to me to be a completely false dichotomy.
Damned if you're not right Cole. Poor choice of words there. If I wasn't on mobile I'd strike that particular paragraph now that you've pointed it out, but it doesn't change my point.

Edit: Fixed and revised my original post. Still on mobile but whaddya know. Strikethru can be done on mobile if you're careful. Talk about fiddly though.
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this article triggered a very interesting discussion!
i´m very much in favour of games like greenland that try to expand the possibilities of board gaming (and board game looks) but from my point of view the Phil´s definitions above strangely seem to narrow those possibilites down, which in my mind is not helpful. Here a few thoughts to explain what i mean:

1. Games are a not only simulations but also reality in themselves:
of course most games are "about" something and by that simulate that. It´s interesting though that a lot of games simulate something, that doesn´t exist in reality: all fantasy games and science fiction games create worlds that don´t exist so it seems strange to call them simulations: can you simulate something that is not there?
also: what about a game that is about pieces of cardboard and wood living in a cardboard box? strangely, a game like that still doesn´t exist (as far as i know) but it might be something that would be a simulation of itself...
in short i´d say defining games as simulations of reality is surely part of the truth but leaves out other important parts of games´nature.

2. the game - novel comparison:
this is a very helpful comparison but why constricting yourself to the novel-concept of the 19th century?
Of course most of the time when reading a novel i want an experience that is relaxing, entertaining and not too challenging. that might be true for games as well. but from time to time novel novel concepts - just by existing - show that there is a lot more possible.
Maybe choose your own adventure books wouldn´t exist without modern literature cut up techniques?
There are exciting books that reflect about the possibilities of books themselves - what about games that do the same?
Maybe the historic development of games mirrors that of comic books. Most of them are easily digestible entertainment but some of them try out whats possible if taking itself seriously as an artform.
But if you want to do that, i cannot see the point in confining yourself by narrow definitions.

3. what´s art?
i won´t try to talk about that - only one remark: i guess any skilled fotographer will be able to point her camera onto a few random paint droplets and produce a beautiful picture by doing so. Here the art seems to lie in two things at once: first in spotting the beauty (the art is found by the interpretation of the viewer) and then pointing it out to others.

i´m looking forward to great new works of art from Phil and for now will try survivng in ancient greenland!
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I disagree that all games are simulations - except in your (Phil Eklund's) definition, which is so broad as to mean little. To paraphrase - Because we are part of the universe we cannot but simulate it, we cannot get outside of it and so our mini-creation must be mimicing some part of the greater thing.

Some games simulate nothing but the interaction of a number of mechanisms along with player input. Ok, that may be a simulation of a combination of mechanisms (or is it ACTUALLY that?), but the thing itself is about the game (ie. competition in a, yes, simulated space), not the simulation. These games may have an evocative theme but they belie the real angle from which they come by any attempt to obtain this theme only from their premises.

Where a game becomes a simulation, in that simulation intent and game intent are balanced, is where the game (balanced competition) is not more important than the exploration of a real or possible event within a simulation therof. Obviously some entities veer over more to less-game and more-simulation then an equipoise.

(On a more philosophical note - if we are part of the universe do we ever 'simulate' it, as though in some place apart from it, or are we actually extending it?)

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That's what all postmodernist say

That or "there is no such thing as postmodernism"
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