“British politics is full of people who think they’re playing mah-jong but they’re actually playing Ludo.” Wise words from Robert Shrimsley on the Financial Times’s politics podcast — but I fear the situation is even worse. British politics may be full of people who aren’t playing any good games at all. That would be a shame for them, and for us. Games are wonderful; we should all be playing more of them.
In truth, any sort of serious hobby seems to be valuable. Many of the smartest people have at least one: Albert Michelson, the physicist who measured the speed of light and won a Nobel Prize, painted well, played the violin, and was a seriously good billiards player.
“Billiards is a good game,” he once announced. But it was not as good as painting. Painting was not as good as music. “But then music is not as good a game as physics.” Michelson was not alone. One long-running study of scientists, begun by the psychologist Bernice Eiduson in 1958, found that the most successful scientists tended to pursue arts, sports or music to a high level. In contrast, the less successful scientists “had no comments on hobbies or artistic proclivities either because they had none or found them irrelevant to their work”.
But of all the deep pastimes one might embrace there’s nothing quite like a tabletop game to sharpen the mind, strengthen friendships and ease the soul. A quick internet search will produce countless explanations of why boardgames are good for children — they get them away from screens and social media, subvert family hierarchies, allow them to experience success and failure in a safe environment, and teach social and cognitive skills.
I have no argument with any of that, but games should not just be for children. All those benefits accrue to adults, too.
Almost a decade ago I interviewed Klaus Teuber, creator of The Settlers of Catan, one of the best and most successful modern boardgames. “You can know someone for 10 years,” Mr Teuber told me, “and the first time you play a game with them you see a side you never saw before.”
It’s true. A good game is a refreshing change of tone from gossip or dinner party chit-chat about politics or house prices, yet it remains a convivial activity for consenting adults.
Games can be a serious matter, of course. War games have been used by the military since the early 1800s, when the Prussian army’s love of Kriegsspiel was widely thought to be one of the secrets of their military success. A tabletop war game uses models to represent troops, dice to represent the vicissitudes of war, and an umpire to introduce the possibility of miscommunication. It teaches deeper lessons than simply thinking and planning, while being just as safe.
Thomas Schelling — a cold war strategist and winner of the Nobel Prize in economics — once wrote: “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” War games offer a solution to that conundrum: the experience of trying to outwit a gaming opponent makes the unimaginable start to seem familiar.
More elaborate field exercises can produce a great deal of understanding. Steven Johnson, author of Farsighted, argues that a major US Navy war game exercise in 1932, “Fleet Problem XIII”, highlighted the vulnerability of US naval bases to attack from Japan. The game produced the insight, if anyone cared to use it.
But the highest form of gaming is, of course, the role-playing game, of which Dungeons & Dragons is the most famous example. Role-playing games are notoriously difficult to describe, but they combine the dice-rolling rules of a war game with the long-running characters of a soap opera, and a healthy dose of improvised theatre and “let’s pretend”.
Martin Lloyd, the creator of the children’s role-playing game Amazing Tales, argues that such games have all sorts of benefits: they bring friends together, inspire individual and collective creativity and require problem-solving. They have sometimes been used with more ambitious therapeutic goals in mind — for example, to help people on the autism spectrum develop social skills, and as an alternative to group therapy for military veterans. But for most gamers the point of games is that they are enjoyable in a deeper way than most mere entertainments. They create moments of enchantment to rival the finest music or theatre. A good game has you solving puzzles, throwing yourself into improvised acting, and then helpless with tears of laughter. The friendships I’ve forged over the gaming table have been the ones that have lasted.
But Mr Teuber put it best. “Every day we work hard and we make mistakes and we are punished for those mistakes. Games take us to another role where you can make mistakes and you don’t get punished for them. You can always start another game.”
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 1 November 2019.