Splendor th Tabletop Game and Empathy:
I was at school board game club and someone busted out Splendor. I had never played the game before and was excited by the buzz that had surrounded it. The game was sadly a letdown. In fact, I outright hated the experience. It was a terrible game and I was baffled as to why people were so keen to play it. Tom Vasel even lamented that it lost the Spiel des Jahres to Camel Up, which was a no-brainer to me with Camel Up being one of my favourite racing games. A friend even bought Splendor to my birthday to play with me and I simply refused as I could not consider playing another game of it. What an idiot I can be.
Three nights ago I was looking at Instagram and saw that Terra Mystica was now available as an app. I went and checked it out. Then I thought I would see what else Asmodee had added to their game library. Spendor was there and I rolled my eyes. “Why would I want that? What a terrible game.” This was the general scope of my thinking. I scrolled on to look at what else was there. But as I left Splendor behind I felt a twinge of regret strike me.
I listen to podcasts regularly. One podcast I use to love listening to was Games with Garfield. This now defunct Podcast was a small gathering of people who discussed games with Richard Garfield, arguably the greatest game designer in the modern age. On one of his podcasts, Garfield discussed at length his attitude to gaming. He plays all sorts of games, even games he hates. He plays popular games he doesn’t like because he wants to understand why other people like them, and to consider how he could enjoy the game or change it to make it better. This may seem like a simple design technique to understand other systems and processes, but what Garfield is really demonstrating is a key component to the design process; the strength of empathy. Empathy is often portrayed as a counterpart to sympathy and sometimes mistaken for being a feeling. Empathy is far more than a tool for relationships. Empathy requires being able to “put yourself into another person’s shoes,” or to see the world from another person’s perspective. In this way, empathy is a tool we can develop to understand the world differently.
As a teacher I try to help students develop empathy because it works for improving relationships, moral and ethical decision making, and just as importantly, learning. As a thinking strategy it is useful to consider differing world views and see the life from multiple perspectives. As an example, in an English lesson this skill is essential for understanding written materials. In fiction understanding the character's perspective is essential to the experience of the story. But if I take this further I can then consider what the perspective of the author is by how they portray the events within the story. Conversely, it is necessary for the author to write a story that her or his audience will enjoy. This is key to accessing critical literacies. When we take this skill to academia it is a must that when you do literature reviews and academic arguments that you can process and understand another person’s position on a given topic. Understanding another perspective informs your own grasp of a topic and strengthens the position you take. Empathy is key for appreciating story, critical literacies, as well as the beginning of good design.
Every design process begins with looking at who the design is for and what needs the design must meet to be successful. This requires really placing you as the designer into the shoes of the audience and consider how they would want to experience the product. As you may already see this is essential in game design when designers are crafting an experience that audience needs to find fun and engaging. Especially if they are trying to create for a target audience. If a designer was tasked with creating a game for junior school aged children and then made a 3 hour heavy Euro it would be reasonable to say they have not considered their design with empathy for their audience. Empathy is the guiding principal of all design. Unfortunately one of the hardest tasks of any designer is giving up personal attachments for the betterment of player experience. Empathy is the only reason designers give up these things they love in the hopes of making a better game.
Empathy also has a role in gaming. I find as a player I often draw upon empathy when playing. When I put together a gaming night, or run my gaming groups at school I am always trying to create a gaming experience that players will enjoy. I know which people I can play mean with and I know which people just want a fun game. I try to understand when players are getting frustrated and help them through it so they can get on with loving the game. Empathy makes me a great gaming host and a better person to play with at the table. But this power can have its dark side. Empathy can be a tool used by horrible people to destroy opponents. For most when playing empathetically we make sub-optimal decisions because a fun game is often better to a fierce game. But not for all. If you can harness the power of empathy and truly see the board from your opponent’s perspective, you can absolutely destroy them. Consider my friend Leigh. A truly empathetic person. He is a wonderful friend, great husband, volunteers at his church and in his community, and is studying to do work overseas to help the poor and disadvantaged. But get him at a gaming table and he will consider the whole board from every perspective and use that knowledge to exploit every weakness and wreak destruction on all who oppose him. If you meet Leigh only every play cooperative games with him.
Suffice to say that empathy is both a wonderful tool for building better relationships, better thinkers, and better gamers. Garfield was right. His philosophy of playing games he does not like to understand what they have to offer makes him a better designer. And it opened me up to something I would never have experienced, which is I actually discovered that Splendor is a decent game.
This comes as no surprise to many of you who have been playing it for ages, but it did to me. My first experience was so bad, yet I am glad I took Garfield’s advice and played again. I see the beauty of the game now and even enjoy it myself. I was reluctant to admit it at first, but I found myself just continuing to play game after game. I am not saying it is better than Camel Up, but it is a good game... alright, great game. In the meantime take a lesson from Richard Garfield and practice seeing life from different perspectives than your own. You won’t regret it.
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