Sunday, February 17, 2013

Baudrillard and Board Games

I've been reading on and off this book about the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Before you rush off to read it as well, I have to warn you that it generally has not impressed me, and I generally agree with Alan Sokal's assessment of postmodern philosophy as being obscurantist bullshit. Nevertheless, there was one section that made me think a little.

Baudrillard did some thinking about consumerism and the value of objects. I'll give a quick summary of the philosophy which will be totally wrong because the first rule of philosophy is that you're not allowed to say anything simply enough for anyone to understand it because then they might refute it. Nevertheless...

  • Objects have 4 types of value - functional, i.e. how useful it is; exchange, i.e. how much you can get for it; symbolic, i.e. how much it means to you; sign, i.e. what it says about you.
This bit I agree with - that's why I have a bed (functional), money (exchange), my grandfather's brush (symbolic), a Bencon t-shirt (sign).
  • Originally, items were produced for their functional value.
  • In a consumer society, items are produced for their sign value.
A striking example of this last point occurred many years ago with somebody that I used to know. That person had friends visiting who looked at our CD collection and said "you haven't got any good music!" Which is of course a matter of opinion, as I had quite a lot of Nick Cave at the time. Anyway, somebody that I used to know was having a birthday so asked me to get her some good music. Upon interrogation, it turned out that it didn't matter what music it was, so long as her friends would recognise it as good music. (It turned out the answer was Nickelback.) This was a classic blatant example of something being valuable for its sign value above its functional value, which horrified me at the time, being quite naive in the analysis of consumerism.

Baudrillard, as is his wont, continues to take things to extremes.
  • In a consumer society, items are acquired for their sign value and their functional value is an alibi for their acquisition.
That is to say, you don't buy a can of Coke because you're thirsty, you buy a can of Coke because you want to be seen buying a can of Coke and you drink it because that's what it's supposed to be used for. It would be equivalent to buy a can of Coke, throw it away and drink a free glass of water. Exactly which scenarios are silly here?

Anyway, I'm not here to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, as I'm as vulnerable to this sort of self-delusion as anyone. I'm not writing this blog post because I need to write this blog post, I'm writing it because I want to be seen to be the sort of person who writes this sort of blog post! It's all so you'll like me! However it does make me sympathetic to all the people who say "money doesn't buy happiness", "reduce reuse recycle", etc, etc, etc, even if I don't take practical action on those things. Money doesn't buy me happiness, but it does buy me things that show other people what sort of person I think I am, and that gets me some friends and THAT makes me happy.

OK, onto board games. The most obvious sign of consumerism in board gaming is the Cult of the New - the obsession with getting the newest games being published. I don't know if I've ever really been part of that, as I think I've always been part of the Cult of the Old as well and surely the two can't be mutually compatible? Certainly I do pay attention to what's coming out at Essen, and I have every intention of getting Bora Bora if AdamP doesn't beat me to it, but that sort of activity is just maintenance of my professional library...

... because the way I want to present myself with respect to board games is as an expert player. This means I need to continue playing the latest stuff and I need to express opinions on it, but I also need to understand the old stuff and have experience with that as well. I try to understand and appreciate games from their cultural and historical perspectives as well, rather than just being known for owning a lot of new games. If I can get myself organised after I've finished writing this I'd like to write a review of Taj Mahal, a 13 year old game, because it's a great game that I value.

Another manifestation of the sign value of board games is the photos of games in progress that are posted on Facebook. About once a week I'll take a photo of what I'm playing, particularly if it's pretty, and post it. Within a few minutes I'll have Likes from friends in Sydney and Seattle suggesting that they too are the sort of people who like board games. Well known Idahoan iconoclast DWTripp pooh-poohs people posting photos of some meal they're eating, and posts photos of his old motorbikes and wives - but whether it's food, games or bikes or cats, it's always just a shout-out to your buddies saying "Hey, we both like these sorts of things! We should like each other more because we both like the same things!"

Is this crass attention-seeking? A former colleague of mine resisted joining Facebook for years because he said "it's all just 'look at me, look at me!'". At the time he was dying of cancer and I explained to him, "yes, it is, and we want you to join because we really are interested in you". It seems sometimes people really do want to give you attention. I know if I can ever make it over to BGG.con I'll have a damned fine time meeting about a hundred of my Facebook friends whom I know are of my tribe, because we've already given each other the right signs.

Now, as I alluded to above, trying to escape from the system of signs is just another sign. Once players get over The Cult of the New, they become a Jaded Gamer. Then they become a Gamer Who's Trying To Cut Down Their Collection. Off the top of my head, I can name batcut, CyberKev, da pyrate, shawn_low, thepackrat and Vexatious as Australian geeks who are seriously in that phase, and the Aluminium Gamers all have it in mind. Is cutting down your collection, i.e. rejecting consumerism, really a need, or is it still just a sign? What's the purpose of trading away a game rather than just throwing it away? Do you trade just to be part of that tribe?

I've discussed this matter with CyberKev several times, as we're always open to philosophical discussions on the nature of the hobby. The sad conclusion is that life is a time when you do some stuff and then you die and what you did really doesn't matter very much anyway. At that time your stuff will become someone else's problem. Until then though, it remains as a halo of wood and plastic bits occupying space and bytes, carving out your particular place in the world.


Iain Triffitt said...

First off - love Taj Mahal and you did a great presentation of it.

Secondly - I've developed a vague concept I'm vaguely calling "consumities" - that is communities that are tied together by a particular mode of consumption - in our case it would be board games. Why I think it's worth labelling with a clumsy neologism is that I've met people who's company I really enjoy (your good self included) that I otherwise wouldn't have come into contact. Not only that, but shibboleths have evolved (geek t-shirts, "meeple", "worker placement", "cult of the new") that we use to identify each other as part of the same consumity - it appears to me that we're not just buying and playing games, but we're also weaving a culture around the activity that has a distinct sublanguage, customs and rituals. We gain the same warm glow (there's a specific German word for it that I can't remember at the moment) from being a part of it as we can from family gatherings - in a way, I guess, consumity is an attempt to define a new form of human interaction. Instead of being bound by blood or proximity we're bound by our mutual participation in a consumer good.

I'll probably have to work it up further in a blog post on one of my many abandoned sites, but your post sparked me to try and inscribe part of the idea to see if it made some kind of sense once committed to text.

Game Over said...

I have nothing to add but felt I should comment so I can feel part of the group

Friendless said...

Thank you Trif and GO! My theory on consumities is that they are not so much a modern-day cargo cult, but a natural result of human desires assisted by technology. Until the industrial revolution, consumer goods were unheard of; and until the internet it was practically impossible to find people who shared your interests, or even indeed to find interests. Consumities are what happens when when the two things are possible.

How do they fit with Baudrillard's idea? Are consumities that evolve because of the need to use board games? In the case of Critical Mass, that's exactly true. OTOH there are lots of people out there who get given a copy of Setters and don't play it, so they're not driven to form a consumity to use their goods. There must be more to it, such as a desire to be part of the board game community for other reasons, such as to get to hang out with awesome peeps such as yourselves.

gregor said...

Perhaps its got something to do with wanting to play the games with people who also enjoy spending their time that way?

Like the notion of consumities. Makes sense particularly for popular culture/media. I don't think any group of people can hang around each other for any reason for any length of time without starting to evidence tribal behaviours.