In a comment on the forums of the podcast Ludology, designer Gil Hova said the following:
Gil Hova wrote:
I feel that there's a strong distinction between recreational and transformative games that will help us here. I think the two kinds of games work at cross purposes.
A transformative game is all about enlightening us on a certain topic and changing us in some way by playing it. A recreational game is all about flow and fiero. In other words, the purpose of a transformative game is to reflect the world; the purpose of a recreational game is to obliterate it.
And then also this:
I like to divide commercial recreational games into three categories: contests, puzzles, and worlds. It's very difficult to assign some significant external meaning to a contest and still have the contest be relevant. Contests can be only about themselves, so they have a very hard time reflecting the real world.
Since board games tend to be contests instead of puzzles or worlds, they have a very hard time carrying artistic meaning. Transformative designers therefore tend to work in genres with a lower barrier to entry, and in a game style that can more easily carry real-world meaning.
I’d like to respectfully disagree with Gil Hova. Though I like his typology and find it useful and illuminating, I don’t think it’s true that contests have a hard time carrying artistic meaning. I don’t find the distinction between recreational and transformative games as instructive – so many bridge the gap that I don’t know that the distinction really holds. The first that comes to mind is Twilight Struggle but the same is true about Dead of Winter, Tammany Hall and many many others. Almost any game with a theme really. Of course, much depends on how you understand “the purpose of a transformative game is to reflect the world” – and we can quibble about whether the purpose of Dead of Winter is to reflect the world or is it a by-product of what the game is doing, but in my opinion the only reason it places you in the extreme situation of a zombie apocalypse is that it’s a brilliant laboratory for revealing truths about human interactions in extreme conditions with a mixture of conflicting and joint interests. I use it in the classroom for exactly that reason. It might be true that the reason Isaac and Jon use it in Dead of Winter is because it’s fun for people and not because it ‘enlighten us on a certain topic and changes us in some way by playing it’ but enlightened we are, and also changed – whether we want it or not.
I’ve written it in greater length in response to the interview that Bruno Faidutti gave on this very find podcast – I think it’s a mistake to think that games (of the contest kind) are ‘too thin’ to carry an artistic meaning or that they are ‘just for fun’ and so we shouldn’t take it seriously even if they do. Any game with a theme has no choice but doing something to reflect the world. So unless you’re Red7 (I was expecting Mike to bring this one up in the safe, non-controversial games… though I’m sure someone will have an analysis of the power relations reflects in its abstract rainbow hierarchy), you will be saying something about the world. And I think designer should embrace it, not avoid it. And we should spend more time, as a community, thinking about the themes of our games.
I’m not going to say that every game has as deep a message as all others, and indeed it’s my point that many games have themes that weren’t really thought through (in other words, I think their artistic meaning is pretty poor), but even a tiny game like Love Letter sends a bunch of messages. Even my 7 year old niece had a bunch questions to ask about this game – why is the princess only receiving letters? Why can’t she send some of her own? Can she ask questions? Why can’t she just choose the one she wants? And so forth. This is clearly a case where the designer just took a stock cultural artifact off the shelf and applied it to the mechanics, and that’s totally fine. But in my opinion, you’re still responsible for the product that you produce even if you’ve used the tried and true cultural stories we all know and love. The point is: theme matters. Contests are not just about themselves when they have theme. And I much prefer the Batman Love Letter, not because I like Batman (I don't), but because the theme makes sense and fits the mechanics. I enjoy the game more that way.
To make my point even sharper and perhaps more controversial (so meta) – I want to discuss another game that is seemingly unassuming and inoffensive as can be. And for the most part, I think it is. But I think it does hide some interesting elements. The game is Harbour– a small box game from Tasty Minstrel and Scott Almes that attempts to distill and streamline a resource management game like Le Havre by making a worker placement game with just one worker. It’s a cute little game that I got on Kickstarter, in part because of the really amazing art that the game comes with.
The theme of the game is pasted on in the same way that the theme of Abyss is pasted on – both games are classic Euro games that basically try to mimic and idealized image of medieval Europe. In Abyss they said something like ‘what if make this under the water? That would be awesome!’ but nothing in the game really changed because of that, you just use squids and weird creatures to do exactly what you would if you were gathering peasants and artisans to attract lords and buy mansions. But the art is amazing. In any case, Harbour has the same deal: we take a Euro games mechanics of trading in a harbor and paste a fantasy theme on it to make it interesting. The fact these are Orcs and Goblins, Wizards and Dwarves means absolutely nothing – the game would just play just as plausibly with regular people carrying out their everyday business. They even have a beholder, one of D&D’s most terrifying monsters, as a librarian (which raises the question – how are you not turned into stone when you check out a book?).
So what’s going on here? In placing D&D monsters and fantasy creatures in the mundane setting of a harbor, the designer and publisher were probably just trying to have a bit of fun by placing these creatures where we wouldn’t expect them, at the same time making their dry ‘trading in the Mediterranean’ theme spiced up with some fancy art. Why can’t an Orc be a cartographer? They ask, and of course we can see that an Orc can be cartographer because there he is, hunched over the desk. Orcs are imaginary creature and we can imagine them to be whatever we want them to be. And maybe some beholders are kind? Why must they all be evil?
But you see we have created Orcs and Goblins as imaginary monsters as a representation some things that we have found in the world. In various sources Orcs and Trolls are depicted as ‘dumb’ and ‘savage’ people – down to the accent that was considered barbaric by the people writing it. Orcs and Trolls represented actual people in the world we were afraid of – bad people, often from a different race or that speak a different language. In our imaginary worlds we give ourselves permission to paint little horns on their heads in our anger and hatred (because it helps deal with it!) but the stories we tell, our children and each other, about the Trolls that will snatch young kids from a villages and towns are not unrelated to the history of relationships between different peoples.
In transposing the Orcs and Trolls into an ordinary, mundane human world – the game unwittingly is telling us ‘there are not monsters in this world. Even those you think are pure evil are creatures with emotions, that really just wanted to develop their artistic skills but ended up as menial laborers because they had no choice’. And if that’s not controversial, than I don’t know what is.