Julian Murdoch is standing next to the sink, the top of his bald head gleaming angelically from the mid-morning light streaming through the kitchen window. He is leaning over an odd contraption, pushing boiling water into a cup that has somehow — perhaps alchemically — been transmogrified into coffee. He is straining slightly with the effort of forcing the coffee, a study in Brownian motion within its pressure chamber, through the filter and into the cup.
Frankly, it looks like a lot of work. My question to him is simple: Why?
It’s not that I don’t understand that different brewing methods, like different cooking methods, create a different sensual experience. There’s clearly some fundamental difference between throwing a pot of Folgers together in a coffee maker you bought for ten dollars at Target, and doing whatever this air-press thing idoes with coffee beans you bought at a specialty shop and ground yourself. Yet there’s part of me that thinks it’s just a ceremonial experience and ultimately the end results taste basically indistinguishable.
This must be what JRPG players feel like when trying to explain anything to me.
Julian can’t explain to me why its better, but that’s not because he lacks the language capacity to do so. It’s because if he were to try to do so, it would be like trying to explain to a curious-looking dog why Game of Thrones is a better narrative than Two Broke Girls. The problem is the receiver of information lacks a necessary understanding to be able to appreciate the explanation.
As Julian valiantly tries to give the explanation a shot, I tilt my head like Nipper — the dog from the old RCA logo. Julian gives up and just assures me that it’s better.
I’ve now cleared the halfway point on my two-week vacation, and I can see the clubhouse turn approaching fast. For the bulk of the vacation, I and some of my closest friends have shared a house among the pines just outside of Lake Tahoe. We have consumed significant volumes of both fine foods and fine drinks. We have seen some sights, and even gathered around to throw a football at each other for a few hours, only to re-discover the many ways you can hurt another person by throwing something at them.
On the whole, however, we have conducted our vacation as you might expect gamers to do. We have challenged one another in a variety of contests, most of them the kinds of things you do sitting down.
What has been interesting to me, however, is being in a house of highly experienced board gamers of refined tastes, including at least one member of that cabal, Rob Daviau, who makes the things professionally. It’s not that I don’t understand, enjoy or occasionally dive into a meaty board game. It’s that I do so less as a connoisseur and more as a tourist. I show up to a board game of depth and complexity, and as my close friends are unlocking the sophisticated strategic potential, accessing a wealth of knowledge and experience amalgamated from functions of countless games played before, I comment on how much I like the artwork of the board or make crucial decisions about which color I want to play as.
In many cases, I watch from the outside looking in, not only because by doing so it probably results in better games for all, but also because I just like watching people who clearly know what they’re doing, enjoying the thing they do.
I am in a room, even as I write this, with people who will know the joy of a great board game in ways I never will. I look over, and there are four of my friends hunched over one of Rob’s prototypes for his upcoming game, Seafall. It’s an impressive spread across a table, a hexagonal representation of something like the colonization era Atlantic Ocean, and the players are trading, exploring, fighting and manipulating the world to their designs. Like Rob’s earlier game Risk Legacy, there is a constant dynamic of permanent change in the game and the players draw new islands on the board, open new previously locked decks and adjust to rules that change slightly but significantly as the broader game stretching over multiple play sessions advances. They are analyzing, constructing, deconstructing, pushing and pulling against each other and the changing landscape of rules. They are happy.
It’s oddly gratifying to watch people enjoy with great enthusiasm something you either don’t understand or don’t actually enjoy yourself. This is how I feel when I watch people play a video game genre I fundamentally don’t get, like a fighting game or JRPG. I see them manipulating systems that feel impenetrable to me, and getting a kind of pleasure out of that system.
Psychologists have a word called “naches,” which denotes the particular positive emotion felt as a form of pride in the accomplishments of someone you closely associate yourself with — traditionally your child. This isn’t naches. Yes, these are people I care about, but my appreciation comes from their passion and enjoyment, not their triumph.
A lot of conventional wisdom suggests that, were I to spend the time to get to the level of sophistication they are at, I would understand and appreciate as my friends do. This is the same logic my parents used to try to convince me that seafood was delicious. They would simply see my reproachful disappointment in another night of grilled fish as an indication that I just needed to eat a lot more fish in the hopes that I would suddenly flip that trigger that makes me say, “Oh, right. Now I see how delicious this is.”
The end result is that now, as an adult, I just really, really hate seafood.
The idea of playing a fighting game or a JRPG until I finally just “get it” isn’t just impossibly unappealing to me. I also doubt seriously that it would ever reach its intended result. Even if I were to play a fighting game until I got to the point that I thoroughly understood the characters and developed the dexterity to be good, I still suggest that on the whole I would not enjoy the experience of playing. Maybe I would move past active dislike, but there would always be a gap between me and someone who has a true passion for that thing.
Nuance, sophistication and genuine investment come from passion. Julian is spending the time and energy on his frou-frou, hippie coffee because he’s passionate about it. The guys at the table are spending fifteen honest-to-god minutes unpacking the impact of some obscure, as yet irrelevant, rule to their game because they have some passion. Hell, I can put 200 hours into a game like Europa Universalis IV or World of Warcraft because the fundamental mechanics are meaningful to me — underlying mechanics that only someone with a passion for the game would even notice.
There’s a kind of pleasure to be enjoyed in watching someone else engage their passion in something that will never appeal to you in exactly the same way. I kind of love watching people get their kicks out of doing something I just don’t enjoy. Seeing someone enjoy a great cup of coffee, a glorious lobster dinner or even some deep Atlus JRPG, makes me unexpectedly happy.
Just don’t ask me to join in.