Carly A. Kocurek, PhD - Games, Scholarship, Media

Casual Thinking. Serious Gaming.

The Board Games at the End of the World

Category : board games, Gaming, Representations of Gaming Jul 13th, 2011

On Sunday, my fiance and I went to a “dystopic double feature” as part of the Paramount’s summer film series. The first of the two films, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, was one we both had seen before and love. The second, Robert Altman’s Quintet (1972), was something else entirely. Just to forewarn you, this post contains spoilers. However, they are spoilers of a terrible movie, so I don’t think I’m doing anyone much of a disservice here.

Essex and Vivia in Robert Altman's Quintet

Essex (Paul Newman) and his sweet-cheeked companion, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey)

For the purposes of this post, all you need to know about Quintet is that it takes place in a new ice age where

  • No children have been born in years.
  • Women still wear pink.
  • There is a roaming pack of 5 purebred dogs that feasts on dead people.
  • And, probably most importantly, the only thing people seem to take much pleasure in is playing a board game called “Quintet.”

The first, I assume, is intended to drive home that this is the end of civilization. The second is just sloppy, especially considering that the woman wearing pink is named Ambrosia. I am not making this up. Ambrosia. That’s a name in this movie. To be fair, the main character is named Essex. I don’t know at what point in the neo-ice age basic naming practices broke down entirely, but apparently they did. Maybe it really is the end of civilization as we know it.

The point I want to make about Quintet, other than that you probably shouldn’t watch it, is that it is part of a broader cultural context where gaming — board, video, and otherwise — is linked to various kinds of dystopic and apocalyptic scenarios. There are numerous films in which this is the case: Death Race 2000 (1975), Death Race (2008), and Gamer (2009) spring to mind, as do the multiple psychedelic gaming terrors of any version of Alice in Wonderland.

These representations of gaming seem to suggest that gaming of any kind always has violence just below the surface, waiting to bubble up. In Quintet, casinos have sprung up where people play in tournaments with their lives at stake. Both versions of Death Race cover a lethal car race that plays out as public spectacle. In Gamer, players operate human avatars who act out wargames, which are more real than play. These films all take place in dystopic futures, as if games are the thing we should all be really watching out for, because any minute, pandemonium may break out and we’ll be offing people over Apples to Apples.

It’s fun to crack jokes about party games turning to bloodshed, but while these films suggest games may become violent, history suggests, instead, that they may return to violence or already be violent. Given the violent Greek/Roman history of “games” (see also “gladiators”), this worry over game violence is a kind of return. In fact, war itself has operated as a game for a good chunk of recent history. U.S. Revolutionary gives an excellent example of war as game, since the British marched in neat lines wearing bright red coats, and got real huffy about the rebels running around all willy nilly. The British were engaging in proper — limited, game-like — warfare, while the rebels were just shooting at people. Additionally, chess, one of the most highly regarded and most widely played games, is a model of war which dates to the 15th century. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about how games might become violent so much as we should be thinking about why the acting out of simulated violence is such an enticing hobby — one that will likely be carried forward into the apocalypse, rather than just springing forth from the wreckage of civilization.