The Game’s Afoot

Really, the only reason to write fiction is because it’s fun. It’s probably not going to make you rich or famous, so if it’s torture, you may as well find something else that floats your boat.

I also enjoy playing board games. Not just classics like go, though I’m a halfway decent amateur go player. And certainly not the kid stuff from 50 years ago (Clue, Risk, Monopoly). No, I mean the new games. Azul, Splendor, 7 Wonders, Castles of Burgundy. Some of the modern games are amazing. Well, most of them are.

Playing a game has more in common with writing than you might suppose.

First, there’s an endless stream of subtle intellectual challenges. In writing, the challenge is some variety of, “What do I put in the next sentence/paragraph/chapter?” The challenges in a game are generally more restricted, but the level of perplexity can be about the same. In a typical game, you want to do four things at once, and you can only do one of them. The others will have to wait for later, and you may never be able to do them at all. Same deal in writing. A great scene may have to go in the scrap bin because there’s no place to put it.

Second, both activities are colorful. True, the color in writing fiction is all generated using the alphabet and a few punctuation marks, so it’s all in your head, but if you’re not feeling the colors, you’re not doing it right. Some games have fantasy themes with weird creatures. Gorgeous boards and cards are the norm.

Third, you’re operating within a well defined space. There are things you can do, and things you can’t do. If you’re writing classic fantasy, your character can’t pick up the telephone, because there aren’t any telephones. That would be against the rules. Bishops can’t move like rooks.

Fourth, you’re deploying your resources in an effort to do as well as you possibly can. This may mean finding that 7-point score, or it may mean finding the right opening paragraph for a chapter — but either way, you’re trying to find the right move. And if you keep at it, you’ll get better. You’ll learn new tactics, and the thing will become more satisfying.

The nice thing about board games, though, is that after a couple of hours you’re done. Unless you’re playing one of the major campaign “legacy” games, there’s no long-range planning.

Some people may object that writing is Serious Business. But the way I look at it, the whole universe is just play. And at the risk of destroying my own metaphor, nobody is keeping score. If you find Serious Business fun, go for it! If you don’t, don’t. All of the supposed moral imperatives in the world are artificial. We agree to play by those rules, or we don’t.

Board gamers will tell you about house rules. If you don’t like what’s printed in the rule book, you and your friends can just change it. Same deal with writing: Somebody may tell you that you can’t write a novel in 2nd person future tense, a middle grade picture book with college-level vocabulary, or a whodunit in which the detective fails to solve the crime, but if you think it would be fun, go for it. House rules.

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