In defence of the box set binge: a global shared culture

Immersing ourselves in hours of television at a time isn't just a new way to absorb great art - it's the best way to keep up with our increasingly-global shared culture.

In David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest, a major conceit is a film so good it reduces any and all who see it into a quivering pulp, physically unable to stop watching, wasting away into utter uselessness in their own excrement, blabbering like babies.

As I tore through the entire season of Netflix’s incredible House of Cards this year, I recalled The Entertainment (as the film in Wallace’s book is called), and felt pangs of guilt. Yet I am an avid defender of popular culture. I renounce the Harold Blooms (he hates Wallace) who elevate some privileged canon above the rest of our culture. I regard it as a terrible mistake to disdain or elevate some part of our current culture above another. There are gems at nearly every level, and sure, there’s lots of dregs.

But of course I worry, queueing up the fourth episode in a row of Game of Thrones, that perhaps we are sliding into some sort of dystopia such as Wallace envisioned, consumed by our own entertainment, stifled, pacified, and ultimately useless. So how can we approach this brave new world of readily available, downloadable, easily consumable multi-season packs of our favorite shows without guilt, without falling prey to The Entertainment? Can we become responsible consumers of popular culture, acknowledge its value, and benefit from this emerging new form of entertainment consumption: the binge? I believe we can.

Accidents of history
It is accidents of history alone that cause us to elevate some culture above others. Is Chaucer high or low culture? Surely he is part of Bloom’s “western canon", but The Canterbury Tales abounds with fart jokes and low humour reminiscent of any episode of South Park. I agree with philosopher John Searle, who argues:

In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed ‘canon’; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised.

Chaucer, or Tom Jones (not the curly-headed singer, but the novel by Fielding – though maybe the singer too), and even Shakespeare mix culture both “high” and “low”, appealing to audiences at various levels of appreciation. It is likely, as in every age, that the vast majority of our popular culture, much of which now comes to us in our living rooms through television, will be forgotten. It will not become part of any canon for serious study in the future, nor will it affect broader culture in any lasting way. But there are surely exceptions. Some will. Some have.

Star Trek was conceived as “Wagon Train in space", an interstellar western that would serve as a vehicle for Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a hopeful future and his commentary on then-current events. It endures to this day, slightly darkened by J.J. Abrams, a current master of pop-cultural entertainment.

But Star Trek is now part of the canon. Spock and Kirk are as familiar as, or more so than, many historical heroes. Everyone everywhere now understands what you mean when you say “beam me up” or suggest moving at warp speed. And this is the most hopeful point. The pop-cultural canon is no longer “western”. Spock and Kirk are known in Asia, and Godzilla and Pokemon are known in Kirk’s home state of Iowa. Popular culture now moves effortlessly across borders, suffusing us with icons and vocabularies that are now common everywhere. This is a great thing. It is a New Canon.

I live and work in a multi-cultural milieu, teaching and living part of the year in The Netherlands, at an international university, surrounded by people from nearly every corner of the world – mostly students. I live the rest of the year in Mexico. Yet everywhere I travel and teach, I can slip in a “they killed Kenny!” reference, or allude to Walter White or Dexter in my discussions of ethics, and everyone (nearly) gets the point - they catch the reference. It is mainly through the popular culture that people of every class and background are able to form some common frame of reference, a vocabulary that can overcome local knowledge and prejudice, and allow ideas to be conveyed more meaningfully and successfully.

Of course, much popular culture still comes from the US, but this is so far mainly because that’s where much of the wealth and tools of production (and intellectual property protection) are. This won’t always be the case. Media production is being democratised by new tools, cheaper HD cameras, and readily available editing suites on PCs. These new technologies are making it possible to enter the popular culture with lower overhead.

In Japan, China, and India, this is already becoming the case and we are already seeing some of these sources of entertainment entering a broader market. The rest of the world will follow. We are all quite addicted to media, everywhere, and the internet now both satisfies and increases demand. This will lead us back to binging, and close up the loop in my argument for responsibly doing so this holiday season.

Saved by the internet
The internet is the medium for our entertainment salvation. Looming as a spectre to the media empires of America’s left coast, it promises to break down the final barriers to the great liberator that popular culture can be, if we let it. Time was, isolated from my ancestral land of 500 cable channels and abundant Walmarts, my access to English language popular culture would have been severely limited. In general, only the blockbusters get to cinema in The Netherlands, and television tends to be limited in its supply of current American shows.

Luckily, downloading a torrent of a season of Weeds in The Netherlands is legal (or tolerated), for personal use … much like the plant after which the show is named. People are able to catch up on shows right up to the present episode, no matter where they are, as long as they have access to the internet. Popular culture has truly been liberated.

Even authors and producers of shows that are frequently pirated realise, as Wilde might have put it, that is it better to be seen than to not be seen, regardless of the “legitimacy” of the avenue of consumption. George R. R. Martin, the author of the books on which the show Game of Thrones is based, has said, “I have nothing against piracy, [the] majority of those people wouldn’t buy it anyway. And there are many pirates who will end up buying Blu-ray release because they want to support us.” His is the most pirated show on earth.

After House of Cards, it was Game of Thrones I devoured, catching up on three seasons, prodded by friends and a peculiar article in The Atlantic. That article noted that the U.S. White House had employed a trick to catch a leaker (@natsecwonk on Twitter), and said trick was the one used by Tyrion Lannister. I was sick of being out of the loop, as most of my friends were already fans of Game of Thrones, and now with the imprimatur of The Atlantic, I had to catch up, and fast. And I could. I exercised my legal prerogative of downloaded all three seasons and binged. I am glad I did.

While in the past, I might have felt trapped by having missed the first three seasons, unlikely to try to lock into the next and begin mid-story, I could quickly come up to speed with something that is clearly now an important part of our culture. The New Canon is both unhindered by geography and unrestrained by time. Binging is a legitimate and sometimes necessary way for us to join the broader culture, engage with fans around the world, and perform a new form of communion.

So as the holidays approach, and going to the cinema becomes too expensive for some families, take solace that your binge-viewing of Arrested Development, or whatever part of the New Canon you want to catch up on, is doing great good. You are building your cultural vocabulary, and joining a larger community bound together by characters, themes, and stories both small and epic, lowbrow and high-concept. We can responsibly consume The Entertainment, and put it to good ends, rather than let it consume us.

David Koepsell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

A Game of Thrones box set. (Photo: Idhren/Flickr)
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era