August 17, 2020

This has been the year of the boardgame. First came lockdown, then a long summer during which most of us are remaining in the UK. Both experiences demanding of something to do to fill those long, empty hours when staring at a screen becomes too much. Time to roll some dice and shuffle some cardboard.

When most people think of games played around a table, they probably think of the staples of childhood: Scrabble, Ludo, Monopoly.  Those, according to a scrape of Google data done by a sharp-eyed PR firm, are among the world’s top searches for boardgames online.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Monopoly as much as the next student of rentier capitalism, and its lessons are quite relevant to the era of permanent quantitative easing, asset-price inflation and a political class that refuses to address the resultant undercurrent of injustice and anger.

The others are fun too; Ludo, in particular, is delightfully spiteful: the German incarnation — mensch ärgere dich nicht (“Don’t get angry”) is a rather more useful name than the English. Scrabble is OK, but tends to encourage trade in the false coin of sesquipedalianism. Longer words aren’t a sign of cleverness, just proof that you don’t know how to communicate clearly. Short words are good. And can score higher.

Overall though, I’m afraid I can’t get excited about games where the dice have just six sides and you can actually see what’s happening on the table in front of you. Boardgames are OK, but they are not the game.

For the benefit of civilians, the game is Dungeons and Dragons, and it taught me everything I know about politics, government and journalism. Well, maybe not quite everything, but quite a lot. Enough to sustain a 20-year career in and around Westminster, anyway.

D&D — or AD&D, if you, prefer the Advanced version — is not a boardgame, in that there is no board. There isn’t really anything, in fact, beyond a shared story gradually told between friends over hours, days and months. And dice. Lots of dice, including some quite odd-looking ones.

The lack of physical stuff is arguably the most important, and interesting, thing about D&D and other pure role-playing games. All you have is the story, generally about a quest or adventure undertaken by the characters you imagine yourself to be in a world that exists only in the imagination. There are no screens, no sound effects. There aren’t even any little toy soldiers, painted or otherwise.

Those little toy soldiers are, these days, a big deal. Most of them are made by Games Workshop, a little British business now worth £3 billion and which first brought D&D to the UK. But don’t mistake Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K minifigure wargaming for something like AD&D. No matter what wannabes such as Tom Chivers might tell you, Wargamers aren’t true nerds, because they still cling to something physical in the real world, and often show some degree of physical aptitude by painting their figures quite nicely.

Real geeks have no truck with that sort of physical reality, and rubbish painting skills too. All we have is stories, stories that go on for months or even years.

What do you need to sustain interest in that shared narrative for long periods of time? Time, obviously, and often an absence of better alternatives. All those jokes in the Big Bang Theory and elsewhere about socially awkward males playing Dungeons and Dragons because they can’t talk to girls? All utterly accurate, at least in my late-1980s experience.

But more than that, to happily immerse yourself in a prolonged exercise in shared storytelling, you need language, a love of and respect for language and its power. You must understand how to construct a world solely through words, to use language to persuade other people to imagine and inhabit that world, accepting its rules, systems and ways.

Politics usually comes down to words too. Elections are generally won by the people who can tell the best story about the world — or about a world, one that does not yet exist. I wouldn’t want to take this too far, but it’s not hard to look at Brexit and see a national adventure into the unknown in search of undiscovered treasure, led by people who fancy their chances of rolling a 20-sided dice and getting the 20 they need to bring down a dragon in flight.  You may not be surprised to learn that one Michael Gove is a former D&D player.

Nor is he alone at Westminster in that. Some people, perhaps swayed by bad TV and films, sometimes have the idea that politics is dominated by heroic over-achievers, the sort of men and women who in school days were captain of a sports team, prefects, handsome, popular and all the rest of it. And while there are a few such paragons around SW1, they’re quite rare, largely  because the cool, pretty kids often grow up to live happy and fulfilled lives and have no need of the validation that politics can offer.

We nerds, however, know that Westminster is our place, the home of awkward, clever kids with something to prove, or just a need to put to use the skills we learned rolling funny dice and telling stories about heroes and monsters.

And be in no doubt, those skills are useful and relevant to many aspects of government and politics. The funny dice matter: once you understand the chances of repeatedly rolling 16 or higher to hit an armoured storm giant with your longsword, then a 7 or 8 on an eight-sided dice to do the thing real damage, then you find probability and statistics familiar, if not simple. I suspect that a fair few of the “superforecasters” venerated by a certain Dominic Cummings got their start playing the game.

Then there’s rules. An imagined world needs rules, lots of them. That may seem strange for an exercise in fantasy, but as with good fantasy and sci-fi writing, the fantasy of an RPG must have an internally consistent logic. If someone can just say “I transform into a helicopter and fly away”, there really is no point. So AD&D teaches players to know and understand — and usually follow — rules, because without those rules, the game makes no sense.

This, I and others have found, helps you understand political life both in terms of system and culture. Honestly, if you can absorb rules on character classes, combat, stealth, advancement through acquiring treasure and the process for making a magical axe, the Westminster processes that others find arcane (second reading, committee stage, report, third reading….) are perfectly straightforward.

Likewise the seemingly strange, unwritten rules of political life and death, the words you cannot say and the words you must say to survive. The idea that a “gaffe” based on a few choice phrases can have disastrous career consequences makes perfect sense if you’ve lived in an imagined world where saying the wrong thing to an 18th-level lich lord brings a rain of fire down on your head.

Westminster’s D&D community has been quiet for many years, not unreasonably ashamed of youthful misadventures with polyhedral dice and pretend paladins. But I am quietly confident that change is coming. The year of the boardgame and the relentless rise of Games Workshop are all part of a trend that will one day allow us to venture out of the dungeons and into the light. The geek shall inherit the earth.