Last night, I caught “Silly Little Game,” the ESPN “30 for 30″ documentary about the origin of Rotisserie League baseball / the fantasy sports industry. I’ve also been reading Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract on the Kindle and watching Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary on Netflix — which happens to feature (among many other notables) Daniel Okrent, who invented Rotisserie Baseball along with his other media-writer baseball junkie friends in New York.
So, okay, big deal: it’s April, and I’m geeking out about baseball. What else is new? Really, though, what all this baseball bingeing is making me do is think about GAMES — how we play them, all the levels at which we interact with them, and especially how they’re invented and go on to take a life of their own.
Some of the best parts of James’s book and Burns’s documentary are about the very early years of baseball. You might think we don’t know very much about baseball at all in the nineteenth century, but we actually know a ton. We’re even able to reconstruct individual players’ statistics going back practically to the Civil War.
And every difference between early baseball and the game today which you might point to that seems huge — fielders didn’t use gloves? Batters got to tell pitchers where they wanted a pitch? Baserunners would run into the outfield and across the middle of the infield to avoid tags? — doesn’t change that baseball 150 years ago looked almost exactly like the game you probably played in a yard or park or the middle of a street with your friends and brothers and sisters. The differences seem weird only because baseball is so unchanged.
Once the game is there — in its basic shape, its speciation — it’s there.
Another paradox: once the game is good enough that it can’t be killed, that means it’s too good to be controlled either.
This is what happened with rotisserie baseball — Okrent et al came up with the basic idea of the thing at their meetings at the Rotisserie Française restaurant pretty much as it exists now, but then it metastasized into dozens and hundreds of leagues, each offering slightly different rules, and then into football. Any control the original inventors tried to exert over the thing just led to people ditching the name “rotisserie” and calling it “fantasy.” And now these totally virtual, second-order games do billions of dollars of business every year.
Fantasy sports shows that all games, too — and maybe especially baseball — can be read closely or distantly. Close-reading a game like baseball — watching players play, or playing yourself — gives you the experiential feel of the game, its textures, its nuances, the color of the grass, the smell of the chalk. Everything that doesn’t translate into a rule book or a box score.
Even with a game as structured as chess, there’s still that reality of sitting at a table, competing against another player who’s sitting across from you — your mind and will against theirs, where the state of the pieces on the board is just a momentary expression of that fact.
On the other hand, distant reading offers you a completely different perspective on a game. You can deconstruct it, formalize it, break it into pieces and recombine it. That’s Moneyball. That’s text-mining. It’s the telescope, not the magnifying glass.
Can any game be looked at this way? I kind of think it can.
Last idea. I would love to be able to invent a game. Something as conceptually simple and detailed and fun as baseball, or rotisserie baseball, or Diplomacy, or even the weird balloon volleyball game my sister made up when we were kids.
I don’t know how I would do it. But if I could, I know I’d want to do it with the people in this room.
The Poke is a UK satirical site, a little bit like Chicago’s The Onion. Thursday, they published a fake news article about a version of Monopoly — complete with a fully-imagined and –illustrated fake gameboard — branded on the beloved HBO series The Wire:
“The Wire is all about corners,” says Hasbro spokesperson Jane McDougall, “and the Monopoly board is all about corners. It was a natural fit.”
Based around the journey a young gangster might take through the fictionalised Baltimore of the show, players move from corner to stoop, past institutions featured in successive series like the school system and the stevedores union, acquiring real estate, money and power before ending up at the waterfront developments and City Hall itself.
There’s a classic scene in the first season of The Wire where D’Angelo (nephew of the drug boss Avon Barksdale and one of the series’s many unlikely protagonists) tries to teach two young dealers who work for him (Bodie and Wallace) how to play chess. Chess quickly turns into an elaborate metaphor to describe the violent realities and unreal ideals of the drug world they all live in:
But of course, it turns out not just to describe the drug world, but any world seen through the lens of The Wire. The two sides of the chess board could be one drug gang warring against another — Avon vs Marlo Stansfield. It could be the police detail trying to catch and trap the leader of one of the gangs. In the world of the police, too, pawns are expendable, and the people at the top fall under a completely different logic. (Every so often, a pawn will be transformed — like Prez, the hapless street cop who becomes first an invaluable decoder and data-miner and eventually, a middle school math teacher.)
But the single-plane, A vs B world of chess is really only an adequate metaphor for the narrow world of The Wire’s first season, the immediate objectives that eventually get unravelled. As Stringer Bell tries to tell his partner Avon, “there are games beyond the game.”
That’s the world Stringer tries to navigate. You begin with drugs, fighting for corners. Then you step back, build institutions — other people work for you. Eventually, you transcend the street level and become a power broker, directing traffic but never touching the street. Then you take your ill-gotten capital — your Monopoly money — and turn it into real capital, by investing in (get this) real estate, political connections, legitimate businesses. Stringer Bell’s dream is Michael Corleone’s dream (which was Joe Kennedy’s dream). Power into wealth and back into power again. But it’s all just business.
That’s where Monopoly comes in. Like chess, Monopoly is about controlling territory. Unlike chess, it’s not neofeudal combat, with handed-down traditions and ideologies of strategy and honor — the illusion that everything is perfectly under the player’s control, that all the pieces in the game are visible.
Monopoly is transparently about money and greed. It lays bare the multiple, adjacent worlds and the interlocking systems that tie them together. (In The Wire, the worlds adjacent to drugs and cops include the ports, politics, the schools, and the media.) You gain territory and choose how you build on it, but you also roll dice and overturn hidden cards that can send you in a completely different direction. It’s actually absurdly easy for players to cheat — especially if you let them control the bank. And every time you pass Go, the game — at least in part — starts over again.
The Wire is about a lot of things — the decline of the American city, the futility of the war on drugs, the corruption of our institutions. It’s also about the gap between our ideologies of how things ought to be as opposed to the way they actually are. “You want it to be one way,” drug kingpin Marlo tells a worn-out security guard who tries to stop him from shoplifting. “But it’s the other way.”
Overwhelmingly, that gap plays out in the field of work. The second season, about the blue-collar port workers, is transparently about work — but really, every season is about workers, bosses, money, promotions, recognition. The innovation of The Wire with respect to its representation of drug gangs and cops is to present them as the mundane, kind of screwed-up workplaces that they are.
And capitalism has always been screwed-up about work. On the one hand, we’ve got Weber: the Protestant idea that work has an ethical value, that everybody has a calling and that we prove ourselves through our success. On the other, we’ve got Marx: the only way the system works is by extracting value from its workers, and the more value it can extract for less investment, the better the people at the top make out. “Do more with less,” as the newspaper editor, mayor, and police bosses say over and over again.
I think this is how I finally came to terms with The Wire’s last season, which added journalism to the mix. It’s about that disillusionment — the idea that the work of journalism has an intrinsic value, and the corruption of that through cost-cutting and self-serving behavior. And maybe that disillusionment is extra bitter for Simon, who couldn’t stand what capitalism did to his newspaper, his city, its employers, its politics. The gall is too thick.
Simon’s collaborator Ed Burns had a more reconciled view of it; he’d worked as a cop, as a teacher, then a screenwriter/producer, and seemed to find satisfaction in different parts of each of them. It’s Burns’s wisdom we get when Lester Freamon tells Jimmy McNulty — who (like Simon) unleashes his anger on anyone who tries to get between him and his work — “the job will not save you.”
A Wire-themed Monopoly board might have begun as a joke, but let me tell you, Hasbro: you definitely think about it. I posted the link on Twitter, and it was picked up by Kottke and then by Slate, who both attributed me. You wouldn’t believe the reaction people had to this. Just like the series itself, it struck a chord. Also, just think of all the quotes from the series you can use to talk trash while you play:
So I got a demo of Minecraft last night. Have you heard about this game? It’s the work of one man, a brilliant game designer from Sweden, and it’s completely blowing up in the indie-gaming world right now.
It is also unlike any game you’ve ever played.
Here’s a primer. It’s basically a giant planet-sized Lego set—with that same blocky aesthetic—but instead of choosing pieces from a collection, you have to make them all from natural resources. Chop down a tree and get wood. Dig in a cave and get coal. Put sand in your kiln and get glass. And so on.
It’s an open-world game with no score and no objective. Well: no explicit objective. It’s actually pretty obvious, once you get ten steps into this giant sandbox world, that your objective is to build an awesome house.
But it’s not just a big CAD program. There are some interesting dynamic (almost ecological) elements. Water flows freely, monsters come out to harass you, and fire… well. Fire burns:
So here’s the pitch for the new web-based MMO called Glitch:
The whole world was spun out of the imagination of 11 great giants. […] So all the game play takes place in the past inside the world of the giants’ imagination.
I love it.
(But is it OK that I sort of want it to just be a graphic novel?)
Often insomnia would strike in, and I would ask aloud, to the darkness of the room, “will anyone appreciate this”? (My girlfriend had by that time developed the habit of using earplugs). And then in a spectacle of light rays and stars, the Fairy of Reason would appear to me and speak tenderly: “good hearted child, if you love it, some people, who have things in common with you, will too”. And then, on my knees, holding my hands together, tears shaking on the corners of my begging eyes, I would ask, “what if I’m just a freak and no one is like me?” And then she’d say, in her soothing voice: “Well, it’s true that you do some weird shit. Do you always have to do the dishes with gloves on?” And then I’d reply: “I don’t like detergent, my hands get all dehydrated and”. But the Fairy of Reason would not wait for me to finish: “Do you really need four duvets, in springtime?” And me: “Look, I get chilly when I sleep. Can we get back to my game?” And then, just as she appeared, in a beautiful glow of white color, she was gone.
I’m either going to kill myself, or I’m going to turn this into a game. After the four most miserable weeks of my life, those seemed like the only two options left.
It was the summer of 2009, I was about halfway through writing my book, and I got a concussion. It was a stupid, fluke accident: I was standing up, and I slammed my head straight into a cabinet door I didn’t realize was still open. I was dizzy, saw stars, and felt sick to my stomach. When my husband asked me who the president was, I drew a blank.
I knew I was trapped in that cycle. And the only thing I could think of that could possibly make me optimistic enough to break it was a game.
It was a strange idea, but I literally had nothing else to do (except watch television and go on very slow walks.) I’d never made a healthcare game before. But it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out my alternate reality theories in a new context. I might not be able to read or write very much, but hopefully I could still be creative.
What follows? A secret identity, a network of allies, a series of missions, some barista-assisted caffeine modulation, adventures at the perfume counter, a pair of purple leather stiletto boots—and a simple but powerful multiplayer game called SuperBetter.
Man. What if, in fifth grade, they taught you how to design simple game mechanics to help yourself get, or stay, healthy? What if this was common sense?
I just finished reading Thomas Goetz’s The Decision Tree—coming in early 2010—which highlights, among many other things, the spooky effectiveness of simply tracking your progress. Choose a goal, keep track of how you’re doing—do nothing else differently—and you’ll still end up in better shape. You’ll weigh less, have a stronger heart, or slay your concussion faster. Seems a bit Heisenberg, yeah? Also seems a bit like magic—but it works.
So put that on your shelf next to Jane’s book and all together you’ve got a pretty insanely powerful new paradigm for health—maybe for life—that I hope is going to seem like common sense some day soon.