Game Talk

Yesterday was just another Thursday. Next week, though, it’s Board Game Thursday.

Every other week at the Palermo office, we get together to, well, play board games on a Thursday (Avaturians in Madrid also have a board game night, though I haven’t had a chance to participate yet). The name isn’t particularly creative, but it communicates what it has to. That’s kind of what this article is about.

Humans are made of language

I studied Linguistics (still am). One of my professors used to say that he was struck by how consistently the people most interested in language —and its (presumably) main function of enabling socialization— are also the least adept at using it for that purpose.

You see, I’m just as sociable as any other human—Okay, I can’t say that with a straight face, but I’m at least sociable enough to meet the minimum threshold for “functional human being.” I love interacting with other individuals and greatly enjoy conversation. I just have a limit for how many people I can interact with in one sitting (or for how long) before I feel a bit overwhelmed and have to step out for a minute. And maybe my limit is a tad lower than most.

Still, through my short bursts of limited social exposure, I’ve come to categorize what you can know about people in two basic ways: their “semantics” and their “syntax.” And this is the moment in which you realize just how right my professor was.

But follow me down this rabbit hole for a moment.

A person’s semantics are the contents of their personality: their opinions, their knowledge; the “data” they hold and share during a conversation. This encompasses the information they remember, their personal story, etc. A person’s syntax is a much richer, way more interesting thing to try to understand: the structure that supports the semantic elements. The semantics of a person are what they think and the syntax is how they think. From the way I’m describing them, it’s probably obvious to you, perceptive reader, that I value the latter much more highly.

Wasn’t this about games?

It’s easy to access a person’s semantics during a conversation. That’s literally what a conversation is: people expressing what they believe in, what they have seen, etc. Obviously, there’s a bit more to it than that, but let’s try to keep academic minutiae out of this. The point is accessing their syntax is a bit more complicated. You need a long time to decode the structure of their thoughts from just chatting. This kind of information is not often explicit, and it requires a bit more attention and a conscious effort to pick up.

Unless you find a way to put people in a safe environment, free to experiment with a plethora of choices, interacting with various set structures, with no fear of consequence…

Games are to syntax what conversation is to semantics: when you play, your personality is immediately put on display. It’s fascinating how quickly you can develop a rapport with somebody by playing a game with them. Intelligent animals basically use play time to practice survival skills, humans have —like we do with everything that has a physiological/psychological reward system attached— stripped the practical necessity from it and found a way to just have fun. And, in those moments of fun, we truly share our bare bones syntax.

I joined Avature not that long ago and attended only a few Board Game Thursday sessions, but I can guess with a high degree of certainty which of my game-mates will attempt the highest-value play. Which one will just do whatever they think will maximize fun. Who is the agent of chaos, and who wants to keep order. Some players get offended when somebody doesn’t take the most efficient route, some relish it, hoping it will create an unpredictable board state filled with possibilities. We’ve come to know each other pretty well through play.

When we get together, we have tons of fun: the games are great and our semantics-filled conversations are interesting, but I think the syntax-only interactions we have on the board are what keeps us coming back.