Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham.
Heralded as the ‘summer’s most unfinished book’, Thomas Piketty’s 700-page, non-page-turner, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is now appearing on countless ‘books of the year’ lists. So, because it’s almost Christmas – and what do we British people do at Christmastime, but play party games? – let’s use it for a quick round of one of my favourites: ‘Distinguish the Actual Last Line of the Book From Alternatives Made Up By Other Players In Order To Gain Points By Guessing Correctly and/or Fooling People’. I really know how to have fun.
So, here we go, pick your Piketty now…
a.) “The same would also be true of the infinite fragmentation of interest and rank into which the division of social labour splits labourers as well as capitalists and landlords.”
b.) “Capital is the dominant ideology of our hermeneuntic arc: its power delivers a costly circle.”
c.) “Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.” *
I bet this won’t be the only game you’ll play over the next few days – even if you claim to hate them. Indeed, they’re more popular than ever. A recent, much-quoted Guardian article claimed that “the past four years have seen board games purchases rise by between 25 per cent and 40 per cent annually”. And whilst the metaphorical Monopoly map grew last month with the opening of London’s first board game café, this is hardly revolutionary: little Durham City has had one for a while.
We’re all behind the game over here, anyway. You’re wasting your time, and your competitive urge, if you’re playing bad TV spin-offs, or watching the softcore trash of baking and dancing contests. The really cool new stuff is French and German; it’s designed by geniuses like Uwe Rosenberg and Reiner Knizia, and made by companies like Rio Grande and Days of Wonder.
Beautifully constructed, its appeal (and cost) is driven up by the inclusion of intricate wooden character pieces, graphic novel-style instruction manuals, dynamic interlocking board sections, and cubed ingots or commodities for ‘worker-placement’ actions. These games are very clever, too: K2 (something you’re most likely to win by resisting a sprint for the top) is worth playing for its weather forecast system alone.
And this ingenious banality typifies the way in which board games have overtaken the modern musical as the most bizarrely-themed form of popular entertainment. Games my brother has recently made me play have involved us bean trading (Bohnanza), building nuclear arsenals (Manhattan Project), and experimenting with animal husbandry (Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small).
Home-grown gaming may need a continental makeover, but it still provides the keystone to the stereotypical jigsaw of British leisure. It ties together our love for crossword puzzles, linguistic pedantry, the how-done-it murder mysteries of writers like Edmund Crispin, and – of course – watching PMQs. Our islander competitiveness, constant bad weather, and love-to-hate-it schooly obsession with team sports drag us, at tea-and-crumpet-time on a December day, ever towards the top of the cupboard and its family compendium of battered cardboard boxes.
And this propensity belies the left’s stale calls for the zero-sum-touting equalisation in which competition is cruel. Does this trendy apologism contribute to our general reluctance in admitting we like to play? Game terminology is highly disparaging, after all – particularly in politics, where, ‘You’re just playing games!’ resounds daily across the despatch box. And God forbid you bring it into the realm of the relationship, suggesting, like the better Amis’s most caddish cad, Patrick Standish, to the lovely Jenny Bunn: ‘‘It’s the oldest game there is, and the rules are: he says, ‘I like you and…’ and she says, ‘I like you but…’’’
Though maybe Standish isn’t simply an attractive but misogynous prat (actually, I’m afraid he is), because game playing offers so much more than triviality or negative manipulation. Game theory – Neumann and Morgenstern’s 1940s hit of a concept – is still rolled out from its mathematical home towards all corners of the Risk empire, suggesting solutions for problems as diverse as house buying and nuclear deterrence. Since, according to the theory, pretty much anything calling for strategy or joint decision making is a game, pretty much everything is.
But can that be right? Because all this, finally, brings us to the best game of all: the Mornington Crescent-esque challenge of defining the word ‘game’, itself. Ludwig Wittgenstein exploited the infamous difficulty – he claimed pointlessness – of this task, to assert that we don’t need to be able to define words in order to understand them. And, for many, this signalled the end of the ‘game’ game. American academic Bernard Suits offered a great counter, however, in his brilliant and aptly enjoyable, The Grasshopper: Life, Utopia, and Games. Suits’ Aesopian protagonist suggests, in his simplest attempt, that playing a game (as well as making Utopia intelligible) is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.
Whether or not the grasshopper succeeds in providing a definitive definition, the fact that we’re game for all this puzzling is surely significant. Deciding to partake (and reflecting upon partaking) in intrinsically valuable activities divides us from even the cleverest animals. And whilst Deep Blue may be unbeatable at chess, no computer has cracked Go yet. Even if one did, it wouldn’t have truly been playing the game, because the motivation behind playing, and the enjoyment this provides, is essential. Games aren’t a means to an end, and they prove that we aren’t either.
But the real reason you’ll end up playing them this Christmas is that they’re incredibly useful. They fill the free time with which we’re suddenly dowered – time we’re used to wasting on the endless bureaucracy and mindlessness of modern life. They also provide an alternative to having to talk to those annoying people with whom we suddenly find ourselves stuck for dragging days. ‘Quick bash at Scrabble, Auntie Melanie?’
And they offer more than this. In The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell proffers chess as a way of dealing with grief; in the days following my father’s death, my brother and I must have played hundreds of rounds of Battle Line. An Ancient Greek-themed ten-minute addiction in which you effectively play nine hands of face-up poker at once, it calls for immense concentration. Appropriate, too – the three of us drove my mother almost mad with our incessant game playing, usually based around trying to impress each other by asking, and attempting to answer, the most difficult questions we could think of.
Anyway. Whether, politically, you see clever play as vital to decision making, or games as something to be carefully denied, we have big ones ahead of us. So, here’s a final Christmas offering: guess the opening line of the first article you’ll read on the morning of 8 May…
*PS: if you went for:
a.) you need to reread your Marx.
c.) well done.