Board Games are at the intersection of artistic and commercial functionality.
By TAN ENG JUN
There is a lot to be said of the appreciation and promulgation of art, but really it often falls to nothing more than a passing fancy; a chance discovery or rumination on the hidden creative inside all of us. If the goal of art is to provoke or inspire, then the most effective means of its experience is to be seen and taken in person.
But when the art of the world can be seen instantly with just a phone, this effect is significantly diminished. Instead, through the spoils of modern choice, we instead view as much art as possible, driven by complex algorithms crafted to appeal to our psychological reactions.
And so while accessibility may have put art into the hands of many, it seems that only few fully undertake the journey of discovering the meaning behind its inspiration. Today, it seems to be more valuable to have a wider albeit shallower understanding of art, so that one may be able to summon in-depth expert knowledge at will with their phone. But if such is the way of the evolution of art, how best to navigate this future? How best to deliver artistic experiences that bring with them that sense of provocation or inspiration?
Enter functional art, or art that brings with it interaction and engagement. When the audience is allowed to have their own input into the experience of the art, it affords them a unique experience, creating a lasting memory that they can explore at will. This creates a tricky situation, where the unbridled input of human decisions can create a disjointed experience. So, we put some boundaries to limit the interaction, and rules to stimulate engagement. We provide a goal to provide a foreseeable end, or a motivator to channel desired human outcome. We can represent the audience with tokens, and give them context by placing the tokens on a board. With that, we end up with a board game, with rules and limitations to guide the experience.
Where this gets interesting is that although board games have existed in simple forms with games like “Chess” or “Snakes and Ladders”, modern board games have shown that the audiences are capable of understanding ever more complex and even free form rules in games like “Catan” or the ever-popular “Dungeons & Dragons”. These are games that garner millions of fans both old and young who come for the strategy but stay for the rich and flavourful art they include as part of playing the game. These flavours, or rather “skins” accentuate the memories audiences can make, often drawing from real historical or cultural myths that excite the imagination, and arouse wonder.
Recently I had the joy of experiencing this for myself when I played “Empayar”, a Selat Nusantara flavoured board game drawing inspiration from the rich cultural maritime history of Malaysia. Like other artistic experiences, the tendency to give it a passing look was there, but I found myself drawn to the detailed and inspired character art that dotted the small promotional board at his booth. Beside it was the creator Aziz Sumairi, dressed in traditional clothing, wearing a relaxed and welcoming smile.
I asked to play a game with some of the friends that were accompanying me, and what ensued was a raucous good time that was surprising, to say the least. What started as an awkward foray into the board game mechanics quickly became a role-playing experience as we took on the roles of the many interesting characters that were available to pick. The game centres around trading, and collecting resources whilst navigating and picking places on a board with a beautiful hand-drawn map aesthetic. I had unexpectedly picked the Sultan, a handsome and wise-looking character. The whole feel of the board and art encouraged me to hearken back to the days when Melaka truly was the trading capital of South-East Asia.
Historical anecdotes were traded, debates on history and even a bit of flair were added to the overall dialogue and performances and I found myself lost in a different age and time for the two brief hours that we engaged with each other. We found ourselves mimicking a style which was most definitely anachronistic, peppered with pop culture references before it finally hit me – we had essentially learnt about history and culture without realising it. Perhaps with all these distractions could this kind of functionality bring more meaning to art provided one accesses it with the right mindset?
I was ready to learn more about our history. The art and experience made me curious enough to interview the founder Aziz Sumairi. True enough, his goal was to foster experiences like mine, to foster the creativity through functional play in a way that makes learning about our heritage more engaging. It gave me pause to think. Perhaps what we really need is to adapt Western adaptations of board games, which themselves owe heritage to their own culture and history, and adapt them for an Asian context. This way we can bridge the gap and thus halt the increasing erosion of our own culture by providing a functional context from which we can birth new ideas and experiences.
But alas, before I knew it the game had ended. I had lost, and my friend won, but to put it mildly, I think the genesis of mixing functionality and art had been embedded in my mind. That was probably the greatest victory I felt, the compulsion and realisation of a solution to increase the awareness of art and cultural appreciation amongst the young. Just make it a game.
Tan Eng Jun is a participant in the CENDANA ARTS WRITING MASTERCLASS & MENTORSHIP PROGRAMME 2021
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