It is only the things we don’t understand that have any meaning… In all chaos there is a cosmos. In all disorder a secret order.
Rolling dice or shuffling cards is the gamer equivalent of summoning a demon of chaos. It’s a prayer for the cosmic intervention of an inexplicable dark force. The very act of rolling dice, and especially the ritualistic fervor that often accompanies it, is by definition a religious act. The origins of life remain a mystery, but the very nature of chaos itself creates the complex order we see everywhere. The rarest outlier molecular forms may be extremely statistically improbable, but once they happen to appear in the swampy swarm of this cauldron of chaos, they can beget complex forms through self-replication.
The gamification of complex real-life tasks distills the unfathomable chaos of life into comprehensible order. A worker placement game allows us to understand correlations in systems such as farms or factories. Games are fun because we enjoy feeling like we can control the laws of physics like gravity and molecular forces. H.P Lovecraft called the discovery of your own insignificance “cosmic fear,” and it stalks us like a shadow whenever we stay up too late.
So why do most game designers introduce an element of randomness to their games?I would argue that dark mystical (or at least unknown) forces are a game designer’s ally because the introduction of chaos to a game causes our subconscious to be reminded of real life. Games are a simulacrum of life, but all the beautiful photo-realistic art and all the flavor text is still just fluff on top of the Spark that moves us emotionally. Understanding the Spark is the struggle of all artists: to know that there is unknowable, and to grasp at it in a comprehensive presentation. To recall a long-lost hidden truth, or cosmic memory. In his Exegesis, Philip K. Dick referred to this as “anamnesis,” which means “loss of forgetfulness.” (Of course, Dick had already gone partially insane when he wrote that book.)
WE RELATE TO GAMES BECAUSE THEY CONNECT US TO OURSELVES.
What makes a game fun is not the perfect marriage of theme and mechanics, or art and presentation. A lot of great games have bad mechanics (Talisman, Warhammer 40k). We play them because they excite something deeper within ourselves. Some games have a terrible theme (Chess) or no theme (Go), but we love them because it is the game Itself we struggle to unlock. The act of replaying these games is an exploration into the unknown. We seek a simulation of our complex universe in an effort to reduce it to an equation. Tic-Tac-Toe doesn’t hold our interest after childhood because we’ve solved it. It no longer reminds our subconscious of the world we inhabit. There is no chaos, no mystery.
Even games without dice often use the complexity of sociological impulses to add an element of the unknowable. When you cannot predict your opponent’s motivations, you struggle to understand them though their next move. Successfully out-maneuvering them feels like a victory because you have reduced something complex and unknown into a series of predictable components. This is the gamer version of quantum mechanics.
There’s a reason Chess has begun bore the popular imagination… as computers conquer champion chess-masters and Russia releases logs of millions of past games, we begin to realize that Chess is simply a game system, technically one that is solvable. Magnus Carlsen remains mysterious to us partly because his chess-master brain is more complex than most computers, and he has avoided playing Chess against computers possibly to maintain his own aura of mystery.
I think a very beautiful and ‘pure’ gaming experience is Conway’s Game of Life. You set up a simple equation at the beginning, and a few lines of code move dots around the screen until they disappear or equilibrium is reached. These dots are meant to emulate molecular interaction, or even living creatures, and watching them live out their “lives” and fail or thrive can be surprisingly entertaining–and scary, as growth rate curves come into effect and large populations suddenly vanish.
When you experiment with an infinity of formulas for the laws of physics, eventually you are bound to get some interesting – the “knife-edge” balance of our real-life universe. Cosmologist Martin Rees identifies a set of constants–six specific numbers–as “the deep forces that shape the universe.” These numbers include things like anti-gravitation forces, weak and strong nuclear forces, etc. Only in the chaos of the birthing of a universe (or possibly an infinity of universes) do we get the elegance of our laws of physics, what you might call the “sense” we make of the universe.
In other words, the mixing of utter randomness in the cauldron of chaos IS what creates matter, what creates order, what creates anything that we can view as meaningful. Anything less complex than utter chaos eventually reveals itself to be just another system.
So let’s embrace dice rolling, deck shuffling, hidden information, and mystery in games. It’s what our subconscious relates to anyway. It’s how we lose our forgetfulness and reconnect with hidden truths. It’s how we find ourselves. Anything less than that is just Tic-Tac-Toe.
With thanks to Peter Vaughan.