Transcript of our podcast from 03 September 2008

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Gaming in Popular Culture PART III: Games played in reality

by Moritz Eggert

Let's come to another example of how gaming pervades popular culture, this time I am talking about an idea that has fascinated authors and filmmakers alike for ages, and that is the idea of a game not only played on a board but in reality.

Do you remember how cool you thought it was when in the original Star Wars C3PO played this kind of holo chess game with Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon and the pawns were actually fighting each other on the board? This was before Archon the computer game, remember! I recall that as a kid I wished to have a game like that, now that we have computer games in which we can watch creatures battle each other endlessly the Star Wars game actually seems quite lame in retrospect, but well, times are a'changin'. But I want to talk about the idea taken further: real people as pawns in a game.

The whole concept probably goes back to Lewis Carroll, who famously described a chess world with living pawns in "Alice in Wonderland". "For some minutes Alice stood without speaking, looking out in all directions over the country - and a most curious country it was. . . . 'I declare it's marked out just like a large chess-board!' Alice said at last. 'There ought to be some men moving about somewhere - and so there are!' she added in a tone of delight, and her heart began to beat quick with excitement as she went on. . . . 'Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn't mind being a pawn, if only I might join - though of course, I should like to be a queen best."

100 years later one of the best episodes of the famous British SF show "The Prisoner" had Patrick McGoohan and other residents of the mysterious "Village" compete in a live chess game that was nothing but a ploy of Number 2 to get to the secrets of Goohan as Number Six. This chess game is actually re-enacted by fans of the show every year in Portmeirion, the Welsh model village that was used as the scenic background in the series. The whole idea of Outdoor Chess is very similar to this as well. Tad Williams also used the Chess World from Alice in Wonderland as one of the many worlds his heroes travel through in "Otherland".

"The Avengers", another British Series, started with Emma Peel and John Steed drinking champagne on a huge chess board, and many episodes featured deadly mazes or games, like "The House That Jack Built" for example.

Of course the idea lends itself to special effects, so films like "Jumanji" and "Zathura" took the theme and feature extremely boring board games in which the protagonists roll dice and draw event cards only to have the events come to life and attack them. Similarly in the awful German TV production "Manatu - Only The Truth Can Save You" a family is given a magical boardgame that works as some kind of psychoanalyst, transporting them into a dangerous game world that they can only survive when telling each other the truth.

When Aliens play boardgames they love to have humans as pawns. In the episode "Move Along Home" of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Sisko, Dax, Kira and Bashir investigate a weird game played in Quark's bar with the alien Wadi, only to suddenly find themselves transported into it as miniature versions of themselves. They have to find out the rules of the game to escape.

This is a very similar situation to the wonderful SF film "Cube" by Vicenzo Natali, in which a group of people from various backgrounds find themselves in the eponymous "Cube" of the title, a deadly, ever-changing labyrinth filled with horrible traps that change in each room. After a while it becomes clear that each of the protagonists holds part of the key to a possible escape from the maze, clearly they are the pawns of somebody playing a game with them. The idea is further explored in "Cube 2" and "Cube 0", but the original film is the most interesting. The only survivor is an autistic man, which resonates with a recnet discussion on boardgamegeek in which some users confessed of having mild forms of autism and that this attracts them to games.

Also Scaramanga, the evil nemesis of James Bond in "The Man With The Golden Gun" loves labyrinths. His very own labyrinth is filled with copies of James Bond and deadly trappings, like an evil, cackling GM he controls the movement of the unlucky prisoners who end up there. Peter Ustinov as emperor Nero in "Quo Vadis" and has even created a giant model of Rome to play with.

The famous episode " A Taste of Armageddon" from the old Star Trek Series goes one step further and features a whole planet as a game board. Two planets are at war with each other, but have decided that mutual destruction will not be beneficial, so they play a simulated wargame in which computers calculate virtual attacks on the opposing planet along with casualties. The citizens who have become virtual casualties in this gigantic game are then forced to enter suicide cubes to be erased. Captain Kirk...doesn' it...a....bit. Imagine these kind of rules would be introduced at the BPA convention.

Of course there are also real-life games of threat, of which the most famous is the legendary roulette. The very impressive French film "Tzameti" features an advanced version of Russian roulette, in which hapless innocents are used as players by rich people who bet money on their survival. Apparently Tom Cruise has bought the film rights.

Stories featuring game-like organized manhunts have become so popular that they are now something of a cliché - remember "Running Man" after Richard Bachman/Stephen King? They all go back to a story written by the British SF author Robert Sheckley which was first filmed by Italian film studios as "The 10th Victim" starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, a cult film of it's time. A later German TV version called "Das Millionenspiel" first used the concept of manhunt as reality TV, and had the hero end up in the studio after his long flight, only to be shot at by the hunters and booed by the audience. The Roger Corman SF parody "Death Race 2000" turns the tables and has the players hunt the spectators in their deadly race cars, while they get bonus points for running over old people and children.

All these examples have one thing in common: the idea of a game as something that you play unwillingly and that you can't escape from. David Fincher has used this idea as the basis for his film "The Game" starring Michael Douglas, who is drawn into a huge world-spanning game that apparently ruins his real-world life, only to find that everything has been some kind of depression exorcism engineered by his brother. Or perhaps not? On a much darker note, the so far 4 SAW-Horror films feature extremely deadly games and the catch phrase "I wanna play a game with you" that is not exactly what you want to hear when you are trapped in some kind of metal iron maiden.

Going back to literature and the far future we encounter Iain M Banks wonderful novel "A Player of Games" in which the protagonist, a professional wargamer, is competing in a bizarrely complex game that involves hundreds of opponents from different planets, only to find out in the end that he has been nothing but a pawn of his own robot servant who secretly controls his own civilization. So does this mean that Boardgamegeek secretly controls us?

With this happy thought I leave you to your daily gaming and hope you have enjoyed this little guided tour through gaming in popular culture.

Moritz over and out...

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