You see that little car up there on the Monopoly board? Yeah, that’s me.
That car has always been me for as long as I can remember. I have played my fair share of games of Monopoly, and I honestly don’t believe that I have ever played the game as anything other than the car. All of which is kind of weird when you come to think about it, since Monopoly has so much more variety in its playing pieces than many other classic family board games. There’s a car, a thimble, an iron, a little dog, a man on horseback, etc. A much different quality than, say, merely picking from the traditional red, blue, yellow, and green pieces that usually all look the same in most other games. Wouldn’t it then be neat to play as something different once in awhile?
Well, obviously for me the answer is “no” because any time a box of Monopoly has been opened in my presence, I immediately either reach for the car or simply declare, “I’m the car.” Somehow the car has become my identity within the context of a game of Monopoly.
Now, for anyone who plays a lot of board games (and I do, though I will note that Monopoly is hardly my game of choice these days), you may realize that there is a practical value for both yourself and other players that you play with regularly for maintaining some sort of stable, regular player token identity. For instance, when a board game is opened containing the standard four colors, again, blue, red, yellow, and green, I am blue. I’m always blue. A good friend of mine that I have played games with for over a decade, he’s yellow. My wife is red.
No one even declares colors around the table, we simply pass the appropriate colors to the appropriate players when the lid comes off a game box. If you are new to our gaming table, sorry, you’re green. That’s just the way it is. I don’t care if you’re blue. I am blue.
As I said, though, there is a practical value in this seemingly purely aesthetic choice. When I look at the board and am considering my own board position as well as the others’ board positions at the table, I know with no conscious thought who is where. Indeed, if you swap colors around on me, I often get briefly confused about who I might be contending with at some particular place on the board or who is in the lead. Indeed, I may not immediately recognize my own board position should you steal blue from me before the game begins because, well, I am blue. Or at least I should be.
As noted, I’m blue, my friend is yellow, and my wife is red. Growing up, I was blue, my brother was red, and my sister was green. I was the car, my brother was the man on horseback, and my sister was the little dog. I was Professor Plum, my brother was Colonel Mustard, and my sister was Mrs. White. These were stable identities, practical in the extreme, though based on some sort of initial aesthetic or symbolic choice (Note that while I have always been blue, my favorite color as a kid, I was not Mrs. Peacock in Clue. I didn’t want to be a girl, so I chose the male character that I most identified with, the bookish Professor Plum). Also, note that these stable identities are practical as identifiers, but made even more practical because these tokens don’t make any difference to the mechanics of the game. Blue functions exactly the same way as green in Parcheesi, just as Professor Plum can do no more in a game of clue than Mrs. White can. They exist symbolically merely as identifiers of the player, not of any peculiar mechanisms of the game. In other words, it isn’t like blue or Professor Plum have any special abilities that set their particular gameplay apart from green or Mrs. White.
Initially many video games followed this same sense of the function of the avatars in a game, as one purely necessary to create a clear sense of visual identification and nothing more. Mario and Luigi play no differently from one another in the 1983 arcade game Mario Bros., nor do they play any differently from one another in the original Super Mario Bros.. Jumping distances, movement speed, and the like is all identical for both characters. If you played a single player game of either of these titles, you would be playing Mario. If you played a two player game, then you had an aesthetic choice to make (red and blue outfit or green and white?) or possibly a symbolic one (I was Mario. My brother was Luigi. After all, I was the older brother.).
However, these questions grow more complex when mechanics are added that add additional layers of “personality” to game characters. Playing Ryu in Street Fighter II is distinctly different than playing Blanka, for example. Each character has different moves that may make more sense to one player or the other, and frankly, Street Fighter II is not an especially balanced fighting game either. In my opinion, whether you like Blanka’s move set or not, I would recommend learning Ryu if you want to win regularly. He is simply a stronger character with better abilities than Blanka.
All that being said, and while I justify my desire to stick to the same color in a board games for seemingly practical reasons, I find myself as a gamer more often driven by aesthetic interests than practical ones. In that sense my insistence on being blue, being the car, and being the Professor may be more a self identificatory one than anything else.
After all, I am of the opinion that both Ken and Ryu are the strongest characters in Street Fighter II, the characters that you are more likely to win with. That being said, I play Chun Li. Chun li was the first character that I ever played in Street Fighter because, well, she appealed to me more than two guys in karate gis, a hunched over green and orange monster guy, a big wrestler with a mohawk, or a sumo wrestler. I just thought she looked more graceful. I just thought she looked cooler than everyone else.
Unlike Monopoly or Clue where I stick to one identity exclusively, though, I have played around with all of the original characters in Street Fighter because, well, there is some value in doing so. They actually, of course, do different things than the other characters in the game, but I always come back to Chun Li, despite knowing that she isn’t the strongest character in the game. Nevertheless, I insisted on mastering her as much as possible because, well, I just thought she looked cooler than everybody else in the game.
I’ve had a similar experience playing League of Legends. The first character that I ever played in that game was Miss Fortune, not because I looked up what she could do or what her abilities were, but because a female pirate dual wielding match lock pistols seemed pretty baddass. My second character that I went out of my way to master was Orianna, a clockwork automaton ballerina. A graceful, steampunk styled robot girl simply appeals to me much more than a big insect looking monster, like Cho’Gath, or a super buff, rugged looking knight, like Garen.
As it turns out, Orianna is quite a strong mid laner in League of Legends and often a top choice in high level games. Miss Fortune, on the other hand, is a fine enough ADC (that is, attack damage carry, usually a ranged character), though certainly not a top tier pick by most League of Legends player’s estimation. In both cases, though, I continued to play them and master them despite the fact that I was well aware of other characters that dominated in the game that were also easier to learn, and I can only attribute my stubborness to a lack of practicality and instead on an insistence that I feel about aesthetic self identification. They might not be the champions that were the best choices in every situation or in every game, but they were what I wanted my champions to be, to look like, and that seemed to fall in line with my own aesthetic tastes and sense of self identification. I’d rather be a pirate than a knight, play as an elegant clockwork girl than as a hideous monster. Mechanics be damned.
As I noted earlier, somehow the car has become my identity in the context of the game of Monopoly, for whatever reason. And while I really am a very serious gamer that very much likes to win and consider the most efficacious ways of doing so, character design and self identification are sometimes the most powerful lure in gaming. Games are, of course, games, but they are also worlds, and to me at least, determining who I am or want be within that world is often times more important than being the best or playing the best. I am blue, after all.