Monday, July 09, 2012

Role Playing Games and Candyland

I've had many conversations with friends where I have posited that the best introductory role playing games for younger players -- ages 5 to 9 -- are The Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game by Bill Slavicsek and Stan!, A Faery's Tale by Patrick Sweeney, Sandy Antunes, Christina Stiles, Colin Chapman, and Robin D. Laws, and RPG Kids by Enrique Bertran aka NewbieDM.  Each of these games comes at introducing RPGs to younger players and their parents from a different perspective, and each is a wonderful addition to any gamer's collection.  These games aren't merely good introductory games, they are also fun games for gamers of any age.

Over the past year, I have added another game to this list and the game might surprise some hobby gamers.  The game is the much maligned Candy Land by Hasbro.  Most hobby gamers look at Candy Land as a boring exercise in which the players have no influence over the flow of play, and as a game completely devoid of any kind of play strategy.  Anyone who has played the game knows that the only actions a player takes are to draw a card and to move his/her pawn to the space signified by the drawn card.  This simple randomized movement "track" game is so disliked that it has a rating of 3.21 on BoardGame Geek.  A quick look at what a 3.2 rating means on BGG, let's us know that the BGG community thinks the game is Bad and not worth replaying.  Even adjusting for BGG's anti-children's game bias by adding a point or so doesn't put this game into recommendable territory for most gamers.

Last December I defended Candy Land as a board game, and a quick look through the internet demonstates that the game is a rich source for statistical analysis.  Dave Rusin of Northern Illinois University and Lou Scheffer a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (which I first heard about in Tim Hartford's book Adapt) have both written good analyses of the game from a statistical perspective, but it is the rigorous analysis at DataGenetics by Nick Berry which truly demonstrates just how deeply one can dig into the statistics of the game. When I defended the game back in December, I highlighted the pedagogical aspects of play in Candy Land.  It is a wonderful game for teaching young people how to play games, and also aids in educating young players that not all victories come from "being better" than your opponent which helps to teach good sportsmanship.

What I only briefly mentioned in that post, was that Candy Land is a great role playing game as well.  Back in December I stated that one of the joys of playing the game with my daughter's History and Mystery was that it engaged their imagination's in storytelling.  I'm quite surprised that I didn't associate this with role playing and role playing games in that article, even though I described the way my daughters play the game as follows:

Rather than the goal of the game being to "go home" as is written in the rules, Mystery and History are on a journey to have tea at Hello Kitty's house.  To add to the immersion, they have placed Lego Duplo "cat legos" on the board at both the home and peanut brittle house squares.  The home square represents Hello Kitty's house and the peanut brittle house is the domicile of Hello Kitty's apocryphal twin sister "Boxie." 

Re-reading the post made me realize how much like a role playing game session that sounds, but my daughters go even further than might be alluded to in the above description.  History and Mystery also engage in dialogue with the Duplo cats and have conversations with Hello Kitty and Boxie when they reach their destinations.  In fact, it is more important to Mystery that her "Ginger Man" reach the Peanut Brittle square than winning the game.  What's more is that they use the first person singular "I" when they refer to their gingerbread man pawn.  The girls are completely immersed in the fictional world of Candy Land.  Not only that, but they have expanded the fantasy world to include their own imaginary components.

As a parent it is a real joy to watch my daughters engage in this kind of imaginative play.  They also role play when they dress up in their Iron Man and Captain America costumes, when they play with their Legos and cars as well as with various stuffed animals and dolls.  They even do some role playing when they borrow my D&D and Star Wars miniatures.  It's quite magnificent to watch, and it's truly amazing to see how well Candy Land creates a Salen/Zimmerman/Huizinga "magic circle" as well.  It demonstrates it so well that like Zimmerman in his defense of the magic circle, I find criticisms like that by Darryl Woodford a little pendantic, overly literal, and odd.  What is most interesting in this demonstration is that I get to see how the "magic circle" of play that my daughters have created during a game of Candy Land extend beyond the spaces on the board itself, but that the imaginary land in which they are playing includes implied spaces in the illustrations and their own imagined Candy Land environment.  This imagining only extends until they stop playing the game.  Once the game stops, they are no longer in Candy Land and they have already had their tea parties.  They are ready to begin engaging with the real world and their foray's into "Elfland" (to borrow a phrase from Lord Dunsany) are finished and without the trauma or life changes that accompany most fictional representations of fantastic journeys.  The magic circle allows them to explore Wonderland without the risk of the Red Queen chopping off their heads.  It's a wonder to see.

I wish that I was the first person to describe Candy Land as a role playing game, but James Ernest in Family Games: The 100 Best -- and I'm sure countless others -- have beat me to it. As he described his play with his daughter Nora:

When I got "stuck on a gooey gumdrop," Nora would move her pawn back to that space and help me get unstuck.  This completely surprised me, because as a grown-up I assumed that a race game is unfriendly.  She would move back to her own space after helping me, but she always helped.  And she expected this kind of socially responsible behavior out of her parents as well....
Anyone who thinks he has seen all of Candy Land ought to play it again with a child.
Candy Land may not be the pinnacle of role playing game systems, but it seems clear to me that my own "maturity as a gamer" is what got in the way of my enjoyment of this game for many years.  Playing it with my daughters is a joy, and I will rue the day when Candy Land no longer creates a magic circle where my daughters are imagining a realistic milieu.  I hope that when that day comes, games like Pokemon Jr., A Faery's Tale, RPG Kids, and even D&D will be able to create one to replace the one that was lost.  There is a part of me that thinks it is a tragedy when adults believe that spending some time wandering the fields of Elfland is a waste of time or silly.
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