Bored Games?

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As I said before, I love good video games. N64 is wonderful. I could sit in my room for hours playing “Ocarina of Time” and be completely and utterly fine. But what about tabletop games?

My friend Andrew and I are in the process of starting a tabletop gamers club at the University of Arizona which will primarily focus on board, dice, and card games; Magic: The Gathering, D&D, Settlers of Catan, Fluxx, Dominion, Puerto Rico… for lack of a better term, geek games.

I have noticed that there seems to have been a resurgence of popularity in geek gaming over the past decade or two. While video gaming remains, as it has for over 30 years, big business, board gaming is booming once again. Why is this? Why choose Ticket to Ride over Call of Duty? Why pick Pandemic over BioShock? Allow me to try to break this down for you.

It used to be that D&D players would run campaigns in the back rooms of dimly-lit comic book stores (no offense if this is you), and games of Magic would be planned on the DL for an underground group of geeks. Why is it, then, that nowadays, it has suddenly become more socially acceptable to play Magic publicly in the light of day? Why has Settlers of Catan become such a worldwide phenomenon? Why is Monopoly seemingly on the way out?

I can think of a few answers to these questions.

First, what has changed since the beginnings of geek gaming? Well, Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is one of the oldest RPGs still played today. While it may still be a bit of a taboo subject to speak of, D&D players are “coming out” more now than ever. How can it be that such an unspoken game has maintained such international popularity for so long? Imagination. It’s as simple as that. It takes very little imagination to play Left 4 Dead, let’s be honest. While it may be fun to rage on a zombie hoard, it involves little thought (not to mention little blinking). In D&D, player are forced to make the game, rather than having it simply presented to them. If the only necessary supplies to play D&D are some books and a dice set, the rest of the adventure must lie within the imaginations of the players. Do you choose to face the Cyclops? Do you run away from the oncoming hoard of Half-Elves? Do you stand your ground against a high-stat fighter Dwarf? Whatever you do, it is rarely shown to you. Thus, players are forced to mentally create the scenario. This makes room for endless possibilities. As Barney always told us, if you use your imagination, anything can happen. Thanks, purple dinosaur.

When playing Super Smash Bros., while you may be “interacting” with your fellow players, it’s a completely different type of interaction, one that probably looks more like a button-mashing, Falcon-punching, smack-talking, PK-thundering, hammer fest.

Jerry Seinfeld said it best: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” While I stand by my argument that there is a plethora of artistic merit to be found in beating the snot out of one another with beam swords, tabletop gaming is equally, if not even more artful. Let’s take, for example, pretty much the most basic, foundational geek game there is: Mayfair Games’ The Settlers of Catan. If you are unfamiliar with this game, it is sort of like Civilization or Age of Empires in board game form. (If you don’t know what any of these games are, stop reading, go eat a gallon of ice cream, and play Scrabble.) I have seen some great games of Catan in my life. The game in and of itself is quite simple: settle and inhabit a resource-rich island. The simple gameplay mixed with limitless room for strategy is awesome. Even within the simple box art of the game, the 4th Edition of the game features superb art that is not unlike Millet’s famous genre painting “The Gleaners.” (My apologies, the Art Historian in me is coming out.) The strategy of Monopoly mixed with the concept of Risk, combined with the opponent-screwing joy of Sorry makes for one heck of a game.

But perhaps the best thing about tabletop games, something that video games may never match, is community. Sorry, XBox Live. When playing a board game, one usually plays with friends or loved ones. Good conversation, laughs, Bagel Bites and Red Bull, dramatic comebacks from almost certain loss, these are what makes board games wonderful. I mean, come on, that redneck breathing loudly into the microphone on Halo is just not as enjoyable to be with as your best friends. Maybe it’s the strategy, maybe it’s the fellowship, maybe it’s the face-to-face conversation, maybe it’s the pure joy of placing the Robber on your best friend’s 8, 3-city brick space just before he would get Longest Road, maybe it’s simply the fun of unleashing the imagination and letting it run wild, but whatever it is, tabletop games, both geeky and non-geeky, can truly be magical.

Just be sure you don’t have more than 7 cards in your hand.

P.S. I am thinking of doing a post about game box art. Any thoughts on that?

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What is Art?

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Possibly the most loaded question of all time: What is art? Does anyone really have the answer to this age-old question? In the various Art History classes I have taken in college, my professors often begin the semester by asking this question. I have yet to find an answer, or anything even remotely close.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to attempt narrow this question down a bit. I believe that when the average person hears the term “art,” they think of the Mona Lisa or some other stuffy, gaudy painting hanging on a museum wall, something that rich, snobby wine-tasters like to discuss while eating gouda and smoking a corn pipe. Others say it’s “something that I can’t do.” Still others classify art as overpriced, high-brow filling for an empty wall.

Visual art–Does this define what art is? A painting on a wall? Classical music buffs would likely be inclined to say no, that art is more than that. “Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, these are artists,” they would say. Further still, what about philosophers? Actors? Is it even fair to classify art as being something outwardly experienced? I’m hesitant to say so. Could thinking be an art? Arguably, yes. Could athletics be considered art? Probably. Thus, it even becomes difficult to identify an overarching, general definition of what art is. Marcel Duchamp, the great Dada artist of the early 1900’s stirred up quite a ruckus with his piece “The Fountain,” a readymade piece employing an inverted men’s urinal placed on a pedestal in a museum.

How dare he defame art? How could Duchamp justify this crime of aesthetics? Simple. He was arguing then what I am arguing now: art cannot be defined. Does it have to be pretty? Duchamp’s “Fountain” seems to suggest that it doesn’t. Many people look at a piece by Jackson Pollock, the famous splatter painter (or, for that matter, seemingly any Abstract Expressionist piece), and scoff. “My 3 year-old could do that.” Well then, mom, your 3 year-old is an artist! Encourage him to express himself!

What is art? You tell me. I don’t know, nor do I believe anyone does. Art is a supernatural experience. Perhaps that is the best way to define it: an experience. Is it outward? Maybe. Is it visual? Perhaps. Is it pretty? Could be. Is it tangible? Possibly. If you think you know what art is, please, tell me, because even after the many classes, tests, textbooks, and papers, I’m still unsure.

Okay, I know that this blog is about the relationship of Art and Nerd Culture, but I had to get that out of the way. Obviously, the above is by no means an in-depth analysis, nor do I claim it to be infallible fact; remember, this is an opinion blog. If you want to argue about what art is and what art is not, visit any number of other websites. I’m sure there will be plenty of people there who would love to debate for hours.

Anyway, upon asking the question of the relationship to art and all things nerdy, as mentioned in the last post, there are many differing views on the subject. Can comic books be considered art? I myself am an avid Spider-Man fan, probably one of the nerdiest people around when it comes to the topic of the Web-Slinging Wonder, but in various conversations with friends and classmates, I have heard yay’s and nay’s in reference to comic books’ as an art form. When someone says comic books are merely child’s play, or the kind of thing that creepy, single, 40 year-old men read, I’m hesitant to agree. Maybe it’s because I read them and I don’t wish to be classified as childlike or old and creepy? I don’t know, but whatever the reason, I would argue that there is truly artistic merit to be found in comic books.

Visual artists of the Pop Art movement produced countless works that seem to support my hypothesis. Mel Ramos and Roy Lichtenstein had huge influence on the popularizing of comic book art, just to name a few. Ramos painted portrait-like images of recognizable comic book characters like the famous Batman.  Lichtenstein can be considered the father of modern comic book art, with his extensive use of dot-matrix coloring, and cartoonesque quality of his figures, often employing words or sound effects not dissimilar from those found in comic books then and now. If these Pop masters can produce museum-quality images of “child’s play,” can it not still be considered art if it similar imagery is mass-produced and put into the hands of comic enthusiasts? Think of 18th Century French Rococo art. The many breathtaking works of Antoine Watteau and a plethora of others were mass produced and sold in print shops for very little, making art collecting a common practice, something available to even the bourgeoisie class.

What is art? I don’t know. The best definition that I can muster is that it is an experience. This is just a bit of what this blog will explore. I hope to delve deeply into the culture of the nerdy, exploring how comic books, gaming of all sorts, and other such of geeky, under-the-table pastimes are truly art.

Whatever that is.