Brief Reviews

Frank Lantz – The Beauty of Games [Review]

The Beauty of GamesExploring Human Experience + Systems Thinking

A Review of

The Beauty of Games
Frank Lantz

Hardcover: MIT Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz

I approach a book titled The Beauty of Games with a deep, abiding love of all things that could be marginally called a “game.” I have adored games with cards, dice and cardboard for as long as I can remember, browbeating my parents and brothers into playing them with me from a very early age. As an adult with two of my own children, I have an egregiously-large board game collection, and search for any chance to play them with my friends and family. When the season of life permits (read: before I had kids), you could see me indulging in hours-long sessions playing video games, losing myself in their imaginative worlds. I can even remember inventing a game, at six years old, with a neighborhood friend, in which one of us would climb a tree while the other would throw sticks at him. I suppose it was an opportunity to practice our arboreal agility? I am not sure. I definitely lost.

All that to say, games have played an important part in my life, and I have always experienced a bit of a defensive tic when the legitimacy of games was called into question. So the opportunity to review a book that purports to offer a thoughtful, historically and philosophically-informed defense of “games” in our cultural moment was simply too intriguing to pass up. Thankfully, Lantz’s book follows through on this premise, primer through a delightful exploration of the “aesthetic” in human experience, as well as a pleasantly-surprising discussion of systems-thinking, ultimately arguing that games are a unique expression and combination of both.

 


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While “aesthetic” can be a notoriously-broad, and difficult-to-clarify concept, Lantz wisely defends the notion without wasting space and effort on a strict boundary or definition. So much of human experience and art can be categorized under “aesthetic,” and games, according to Lantz, certainly qualify as belonging to this category. “Which is to say they are something we do for their own sake, in search of beauty, pleasure, and meaning, a realm in which our subjective tastes and individual experiences are joined together into communities of critical judgment and overlapping but contested values” (11, emphasis added). While Lantz largely sidesteps overt discussions of theology, it seems to me that there is ample opportunity to build off his work in exploring the participatory, playful nature of games within an explicitly Christian theological framework. Surely the “very goodness” of humanity’s place in creation involves play, ingenuity, and delight, which come together in the form of games in a specific way.

An additional pillar of Lantz’s defense of games incorporates the concept of “systems” and systems-thinking. While initially surprised by this inclusion, it was utterly and immediately persuasive. Indeed, I was nearly embarrassed to realize I had not considered it before. “To look at the world, or part of the world, as a system is to see it as a collection of interlocking behaviors bounded by rules and properties which determine the overall space of possible actions… Games are not systems we examine and contemplate; they are systems that we enter into and explore” ( 29-30). Of course the layered and interlocking mechanics involved in creating the specific, participatory experience of a game could be approached through systems-thinking. In fact, it’s now difficult for me to come up with a clearer example of discrete “systems” in everyday human experience than games. But, again, maybe I’m biased.

And therein is the joy of reading Lantz’s work, even for a die-hard and experienced “gamer” like myself. I closed The Beauty of Games with a deeper appreciation of, and a greater ability to articulate the possibilities of, the games I love, as well as the potential for the community that can be built around them.

Joel Wentz

Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com

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