Atomization

I was recently listening to an interview with journalist and documentarian Adam Curtis, where he pointed out something that I think is deeply true about modern life: if you, like me, are an American, you can often find yourself very truly and deeply alone. I cannot speak for historical periods before my life, but I know that in every aspect of my thoroughly modern existence, I am atomized. My healthcare, food, work, social relationships, and security are framed by atomization. And, the COVID-19 pandemic, if anything, highlights this.

I think like many people, my continued survival is dependent on my ability to navigate a sequence of complex structures that only care about my continued usefulness. Once that usefulness is done, I will be discarded onto a trash heap, or if I’m lucky, serve as a burden that interferes with the atomization of my loved ones. This is not, in my view, how things should be, but it is often how they are.

So, I say to myself, if I’m going to design and publish games, by God I’m not going to make them atomization chambers. Culture’s effect on material reality may very well be a mirage, but if I’m going to design games, they’re not going to reflect what I view as bald, grotesque individualism. And if they are, I’m not going to tiptoe around it.

Depressed yet?

Lots is a game of relative values, and I didn’t call it that by accident. Objects in the game only have value in their assigned relationship to other objects, and thus have no power by themselves. While incredibly abstract, the game begins with a common question that many games with an “open” starting state possess: what do I do first?

Theoretically, players could continue taking objects and never placing them until the endgame is triggered, thus resulting in nobody winning. That is part of the experience. The arrangements of the value cards can result in one player being unable to do anything but help other players on their turn. I’m not arrogant enough to say that this is by design, but this is the game functioning as intended.

Conversely, as Dan Thurot pointed out in his well articulated review: “The experience was singularly confounding, riddled with both anxiety and certainty, usually at each other’s expense. I would liken it to negotiating passage aboard a sinking ship’s only lifeboat, but that makes it sound too fraught; to clawing toward a free-falling elevator’s handhold, but that’s too madcap; to appraising the market values of five houses in various states of decay, but that’s too tedious. Lots falls somewhere in the middle.”

I believe that in spite of the present atomization of my culture and my personal experience within it, we are inextricably tied to one another, for better or for worse. We cannot escape nor can we ever ultimately sever the thread that connects people, no matter how much corporate monoliths or dollar signs will try. If the game is about anything, it’s me trying to articulate this point. I’m not the first to do so, and I hope to continue doing so with my designs.

Bernie De Koven was deeply truly correct in my opinion. The well-played game is one in which we all agree to the game being played, and we are, at last, finally able to play with one another.

That’s my mission statement, ripe for derision: I want people to be able to play with one another, with my designs as a conduit.

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