What are Games, Really?

12/26/2021

A sticking point throughout my life has been my inability to speak Spanish. It's unfortunate, but I'm committed to improving. Fast forward to holiday season 2021 and I'm trying to connect with my extended family in Mexico. Because language has been an issue, it's been difficult to really break the ice between us. I'm a playful guy, but that's hard to get across when you can't express yourself properly. One night, I was determined to play a board game named Coup with everyone and we hit a breakthrough.

After getting over the hurdle of explaining the rules, we had so much fun. Language was no longer a barrier between us. We simply expressed ourselves using the game. We saw who enjoyed strategy, bullshitting, and pure chaos. Coup itself became the language by which we communicated. It broke the ice for all of us and it's been easier to communicate ever since. It was magical.

The significance of this moment cannot be understated. I hit a huge realization in my game design journey: When you break it all down, games are a form of communication. The ruleset of a game becomes the language by which you express yourself. Not only that, the ruleset can force players to communicate differently, revealing things about them you'd otherwise never see. For example, I never knew my girlfriend's mom has a great poker face!

There's nothing quite like finding a shared vocabulary with someone you can't talk to. I experienced this once before in Japan, when I played Magic: The Gathering with a local who couldn't speak English. It was amazing then, and it's amazing now.

Next time you find yourself struggling to communicate with someone, try pulling out a game. You never know what you'll learn about them or yourself.