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The Blind Men and The Gaming Elephant

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You might have heard the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. If you haven’t, it goes something like this: A group of blind men (or men in the dark, depending on the version you’re told) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part — the tusk, the trunk, the hide, etc. — and only that part. Then they compare notes about what they touched, only to discover (unsurprisingly) that they are in complete disagreement about what it is that they’ve touched.

The parable is often used to illustrate the nature of subjectivity. Subjective experience can be true, but such experience is also limited because it does not account for all truths or the totality of truth. Heady stuff and I’m sure by this point you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with board gaming.

Here’s the point. This week I encountered some gamers that really should be smacked upside the head with this parable. I won’t say where I met these people, but suffice it to say that they were puffed up with the type of arrogance and elitism that I see too often in the gaming community. The attitude arose because someone who had only played mass market games dared to refer to himself as a “gamer.” This elicited derision and caustic comments from others about how such a person could not possibly be a gamer. Gamers don’t play Monopoly, Yahtzee, LIFE, or Battleship. This guy was clearly a noob and the veterans took him to the woodshed for it.

The thing is, this was this person’s first time at any kind of public gaming event. Because I don’t like to see anyone get verbally beaten up (and the guy seemed like a decent guy, regardless), I made it a point to reach out to him. He’d come to this particular event because he’d seen a post on some social site or other about a board game event at a certain store. (It was Tabletop Day, so, yeah.) Being relatively new to town and, again, not a hard core gamer, he’d never heard of the store but thought, “What the heck. I like board games. This could be a fun way to meet some people.”

So he went, only to learn that the games being played were like nothing he’d ever seen before. Pardon him for not knowing that there was a whole world of games beyond what he’d seen on the shelves at WalMart. He’d never met gamers like us. Never been inside a game store. Never heard of any of the games on the tables. He thought he knew what board games were, but he had no idea exactly how large and diverse the board game world is.

Despite his surprise, he was willing to learn and excited by the prospect… Until the nasty people raked him over the coals and snickered over their meeples at the poor guy as he tried to grasp the rules of Five Tribes. Suffice it to say, by the end of the night, despite the efforts of myself and a few other nice people, he wasn’t really keen on the hobby. I’m pretty sure he’ll be back to playing Monopoly in whatever safe environment he’s been playing in up until now. At least I hope so. I hope the experience didn’t put him off even mass market games.

Blind men & elephant
The blind men and the elephant.

And it’s such a shame because you and I know that there’s a wonderful world of games out there to explore. There are Euro games, Ameritrash games, hybrids, casual games, war games, role playing games, party games, miniatures games, and microgames. And, yes, there are mass market games.

The thing is, these are all pieces of the same big honking elephant known as “gaming.” The “Gaming Elephant,” as it were. If, like the blind men, you have only ever touched one piece of this elephant (in this man’s case, mass market games, which I’m sure the elitists equate to the elephant’s butt), you will assume that that’s all there is to this particular elephant. And, heck, you probably won’t even know that it’s an entire gaming elephant until you stumble (or someone leads you) to a different (and better) elephant part. (In other words, you need to stop groping the elephant’s butt and find something cool like the tusk or the trunk before you know that there’s something better out there.)

It’s not until you’ve touched all (or at least some) of the other pieces that the whole gaming elephant comes into focus. If all you’ve ever touched/played are Euro games, you might consider yourself further up the elitist, elephant-discovery-scale, but to the person who’s played Euros plus Ameritrash plus war games, you’re still woefully uninformed about the totality of the gaming elephant. And so on.

So, while the parable of the blind men and the elephant is useful for illustrating the subjective nature of truth, it’s also useful for illustrating the subjective nature of, “What counts as a gamer?” It should be less about “What counts?” and more about, “What have you seen and what else can I show you so that you see just how marvelous and diverse this elephant is?” Even those of us who’ve seen most of the gaming elephant have our preferred pieces. We stick with what we enjoy, either out of habit or because we’ve touched other parts of the gaming elephant and found them not as great as the other parts. Who are we to judge someone who has never seen the whole elephant, or who has seen it but decided that they prefer the tusk to the ear?

Moral of the blind men and the gaming elephant story: Cut people some slack before you hammer them into the ground for not being as aware of the gaming elephant as you are. Maybe they’ve never had the chance to come into the light and see the gaming elephant in its totality, or even more than just one piece. Maybe all they know is the Wal-Mart butt of the gaming elephant. They still like the same gaming elephant that you do, just a different part.

That’s all that’s necessary for admission into the gaming world. Don’t be the jerk who keeps them in the dark and tells them that the piece of the gaming elephant they know and love isn’t even “real.” Be the one who leads them into the light and shows them the better, more exotic pieces of the gaming elephant.

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion6 Comments

  1. Jennifer,

    Well-written and sympathetic to many folks who are unfamiliar with the vast array of games and scolding enough to those out there who should clearly know better.

    Cheers ,
    Joe

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience and reminding us to be inclusive of others. If we encourage others to join us in exploring games, the more popular these other types of games will become, which will generate more ideas and higher quality games and so forth!

  3. Unfortunately this type of elitism is rife in the gaming community. My guess is that because our hobby attracts people who aren’t very powerful or of high social status otherwise, they take it upon themselves to view the world through the eyes of “gamers”, a Select Few who have Mastered the Art of Real Games.
    And when someone less skilled comes to them, they do what most kids and almost all social incompetents do: talk themselves up in the eyes of their peers by talking someone else down.

    Thank you for this article, and hopefully it will make some people rethink their action.

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