Playing with the Pieces: 'Hearthstone' and the Physical Pleasures of Play

Hearthstone concerns itself with the seemingly small, innocuous, and trivial elements of playing a game in a non-digital medium, and I admire the game for recognizing that these may not be details that are completely innocuous or unimportant in terms of why we take pleasure in the act of play.

I love poker chips. I especially love clay poker chips. They have a weight to them, making them feel significant, which seems to me like a good thing. After all, they represent something, money, the stakes that you're really willing to put at risk in what is otherwise a very abstract game.

A few months ago, I wrote an article concerning the physicality of some representation in video games (”We're Not Computers. We're Physical.”, PopMatters, 7 January 2014). More specifically, I focused on the physical actions required of the player of The Room, the iOS puzzle game that asks players to investigate puzzle boxes by manipulating them via touch screen. Like the weight of poker chips, The Room seems to create a physical interaction that through physical representation limits some of the abstraction and distance that games sometimes feature as a result of their focus on mechanics.

But there is something else that I love about poker chips, which is simply the fact that I can play with them while at a poker table. Rifling through them feels good, as does even tossing them into a pot or stacking and organizing them after winning a pot. In some sense they add a different sense of play to the game. They are something to do with my hands while I am thinking, a distraction, yes (and maybe at times unfortunately even a tell), but they give me something to play around with, an additional act of play that is less organized and rule driven than the actual game of poker itself.

And I continue to ponder the pleasure and interesting representational qualities of games as I play Blizzard's new free-to-play collectible card game Hearthstone. Hearthstone seems like a simple enough affair as far as video games go, a game that doesn't require a great deal of spectacle, glitz, and glamor. Indeed, as a video card game, it seems that it doesn't require much more representation than the classic Solitaire game traditionally packed into Windows or for that matter most online versions of Poker. Just represent the cards in front of the player, allow them to play them with a few clicks, and voila: a digital version of a card game.

However, online poker is a different game than actual poker in part because of what it is missing, playing with poker chips, shuffling cards, bending cards up to peek at them on a table, or rifling through a poker hand.

Interestingly, Hearthstone concerns itself with just these things, the seemingly small, innocuous, and trivial elements of playing a game in a non-digital medium, and I admire the game for recognizing that these may be less innocuous or unimportant details than they might seem to be -- at least in terms of what we take pleasure in in the act of play. For instance, the Hearthstone player will note that the hand of cards in front of him is not simply a set of static cards on the screen. Mousing over cards as you consider one to select actually causes them to move slightly, as if you are in fact sifting through a hand of cards.

Indeed, this representation of the physical act of sorting through cards extends to your opponent. His hand is represented across the table from you, but, of course, flipped over so you can only see the back of those cards. However, they will also ripple and move as he mouses over them and decides what to do. This is interesting because it often tells me a little something. Much as the way that a player doing the same thing with a poker hand might tell an opponent about the strength and weakness of their hand, I often get a sense of how strong or weak my opponent feels their hand is in Hearthstone by the way that the game is allowing me to see the way they are “playing with” their cards.

Beyond this somewhat practical benefit of watching how another player is physically manipulating the objects in his play area, Hearthstone also features some simple and less abstract ways of interfacing with its “board.” The game features a central board on which cards are moved when put into play, and the interesting thing about the board is that it has environmental features in each corner that represent a location where this otherwise abstract card game is taking place. In other words, there is a mild interest in suggesting a kind of battlefield location where this “duel” between two summoners takes place. For example, one battlefield contains a waterfall and jungle vegetation in one corner, as well as a Mayan or Aztec inspired idol in another, giving the player some sense of the “space” that this particular match is taking place in. Another battlefield includes a medieval castle gate in one corner and a similarly medieval looking catapult in another, again creating a different, though minimal sense of space and setting.

What is especially cool though about these board features, though, at least for someone like me that likes to keep their hands busy while pondering a move, is that you can click on and then manipulate these features. You can drag the medieval gate shut, you can drag and drop rocks lying next to the catapult onto the device and then fire them a short way across the board, and you can extract a ruby from the idol's eye at any time you wish. In other words, these features allow you to “play with” the board while waiting between turns or while pondering your own next move. These elements have no direct effect on the game itself. Firing a rock out of the catapult Is just a way to screw around (and indeed, your opponent will not see this on his own screen -- it would become a potentially annoying distraction if he did). However, that way of “screwing around” adds a level of authenticity to the experience -- and a very familiar and inviting one to fans of board and card games of a more physical nature.

These actions are a common part of the physical act of play in non-digital versions of game, like playing with the little wooden blocks of a Eurogame. I know many Eurogamers who love to stack, organize, and build with the little wooden pieces that represent their resources as a kind of side play during a game. These are inessential acts to the goals of the game, winning or losing, but they are also elements that add to the pleasure of games, which do not merely lie in strategizing and decision making but also in screwing off and playing around with “the toys” in front of you.

I guess that this is what I especially like in how Hearthstone adds elements that aren't merely in service to the play of the game itself. What I like is that Hearthstone recognizes that games aren't all serious business, all about victory and defeat. They are, simply put, about fun, and even as we like to talk about video games as more high minded, possibly even artistic objects, Hearthstone still reminds you that games are related to play, are related to toys, are related to horsing around, are related to removing one's self from the practical and just allowing us to play around in an unstructured way. Certainly, I care about the game's rule-bound outcome, but I also want to be reminded that not all of play is merely about the rules, some of it is about the pleasure created by play itself.

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