Yann Arthus-Bertrand was not the first photographer to board hot air balloons and helicopters. But perhaps among the first to do it persistently, purposefully. To make it a project. And perhaps the importance of his project lies in its simple premise. Few series of photographs have had such a global impact—it was of course way before Google Earth. His aerial photographs of previously familiar landscapes contributed to deep changes in perception and ideas. Generated new attitudes. The subjects, as well as the medium, had not changed. But the view point was radically different. A few hundred meters of elevation, and a whole new landscape appeared. The connections that irrigate our world. The real place we occupy in it. The real impact we’re having on it. A few meters of elevation have completely transformed our vision.
I was listening to an interview with the inimitable Reiner Knizia. And I was struck when I heard him mention the relevance of a game.
In fact, I was dumbstruck—and by such a simple term.
Fit, justified, competent, meaningful, suitable, valuable, useful, unique—indispensable—relevant is saturated with meaning, and raises tons of questions. It’s an itchy term. A bit unsettling, even.
And, I think, a splendid qualifier for a game.
Because talking about relevant games revives the discourse, dwarfing the “elegant”, “thematic”, “innovative”, “fun” and other dead wood terms indiscriminately carried by the uninterrupted stream of board gaming commentary.
Because the more we talk about the relevance of games, the more we counter the widespread perception that games are mere benign and superficial pastimes with the sole purpose of escapism and entertainment; that they are, by definition, totally irrelevant.
Because the relevance of a game lies beyond the game itself. It is impossible to be relevant in a vacuum. Relevance is a relationship. A game never becomes relevant by itself, on the side, by accident, or over time. Its relevance cannot be bought, cannot be determined by the market, nor decreed by a jury. In fact, the most pertinent games are often the most impertinent—games that don’t try to seduce, or be the next mega-hit; games that dare challenge, even disrupt fashionable ideas or dogmas, as well as traditional ways of doing things.
The relevance of a game is the content, the scope of the dialogue it holds—with other games, its subject, its audience, its culture and its time.
So yes, saying that a game is relevant does carry some weight.
Still, what interests me more than any definition of a relevant game, what I find striking, is the altitude to which this word takes us. How it forces us to rise above the usual stuff. Production quality, graphic design, commercial success, the narcissistic racket of the echo chamber, and even the gameplay—become the sandbags we must throw overboard to reach an altitude at which we can begin to consider the relevance of a game.
Relevant can become the hot air balloon that elevates our point of view. Applying this term to games can be a simple but radical idea that affects our tiny world as profoundly as the photographic essays of Arthus-Bertrand.
Just ask yourself if your favorite games are relevant, and by how much. Shed a few sandbags. And soar.
How does your game collection look like, seen from above?