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How games can shape American culture - and vice versa

How games can shape American culture - and vice versa Exclusive

March 5, 2015 | By Alex Wawro

“We are going to be held responsible for our games’ content, and what we communicate to players,” designer Julia Keren-Detar opined today at GDC 2015.

“So what will somebody 50 years from now think about our current time by playing the games you’re making right now?”

Keren-Detar is currently working on Mushroom 11 as a creative director at Untame, the Brooklyn-based indie studio she founded with her husband.

She’s a developer who played board games for years before being introduced to video games, and she believes that video game makers can better understand how their work influences contemporary culture (and vice versa) by studying how early American board games evolved.

“By looking back, we can see that culture consciously and subconsciously infuences design,” said Keren-Detar. 

Before the 1800s, she points out that tabletop games were mostly symbols of wealth. Hand-crafted, with ornate flourishes like gold trim, they were typically toys for the wealthy to pass the time.

But as the middle class began to grow, they began to spend their disposable income on entertainment like books, theater…and board games.

In the 1800s, the lithograph print became widely available, which meant the price of printed board and card games dropped and their availability grew. By 1843, the draconian Mansion of Happiness: An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement was published in America and became the country’s first real “hit” board game — though it was designed with mechanics that had been at play for generations.

“The mechanics behind it come from a long line of what were calling ‘racing games’,” said Keren-Detar. Players typically rolled the dice, then moved around a board hoping to hit good spots and avoid bad spots.

But Mansion of Happiness was a bit different — instead of having bonuses and penalties based on everyday items like chickens or geese, it had metaphorical rewards and punishments like virtues and sins. The game’s design was heavily influenced by the prevailing ouritanicalism of the period, though Keren-Detar also reminds developers that games of chance have been part of culture for thousands of years.

“This idea of using dice to invoke a god’s favor is pretty humanly universal,” said Keren-Detar, but the way in which that favor changes the game is often influenced by the culture of its designers. 

Shortly after Mansion debuted, another breakout game hit the U.S. - the Checkered Game of Life. Made by Milton Bradley, a lithographic printer who almost tanked his company trying (and failing) to sell lithographic prints of a beardless Abraham Lincoln, The Checkered Game of Life challenged players to reach Happy Old Age and avoid Ruin. 

By contrasting the difference between these two hit games, says Keren-Detar, designers can understand how their work reflects their culture. Mansion of Happiness denotes bonus spaces with virtues like “Charity” or “Temperance”; The Checkered Game of Life (or LIFE) metes them out as money and property.

“A lot of the early board game makers were coming out of the book-printing industry, so you can kind of understand why they gravitated towards games that tried to teach lessons or tell stories,” said Keren-Detar. “By contrast, a lot of the early European board games came from toy makers.”

It’s a bit reminiscent of Hasbro’s Monopoly, which became a huge hit later in American history. But many designers, says Keren-Detar, don’t know that the original version — patented as The Landlord’s Game in 1904 — had two very different designs that could be switched at will.

The 1094 version of The Landlord’s Game could be shifted over to “single tax method” mode, a design change that reflected a fundamental shift in the message of the game’s mechanics from “greed is good” to “for the good of all.”

By choosing to play “single tax method” players would land on a space and pay the rent to a communal pot — even if it was a property they previously owned. As the money in the communal pot grew, things on the board would unlock: railroads would be bought and become free for all to land on, for example.

The game’s creator meant it to be a way of teaching people about the virtues of Henry George’s single tax economic theory, but it turned out while an idealized financial system might be enjoyable in real life, it wasn’t much fun as a game.

And as the game spread, players began to develop their own house rules to make it more fun to play — making it easier to bankrupt each other, for example — and the “single tax method” quickly fell out of favor and was lost to time, along with its intended message.

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