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Young Choreographers’ “Game Theory”

Gurur Ertem: What made you interested in games, and why did you pick these particular ones?

Anne-Linn: It was Adrián who initially came with the idea of working with games. I have not really ever been a very active “player” myself, but I have for many years been working with task based improvisation and that is where my interest linked up with his. Dancing with other in this way often feels like a well-defined physical game.

Adrián: I’ve been interested in games all my life. I also studied game theory in a Master in Law and Economics in the University of Buenos Aires. The first times I was in Turkey I was very impressed with how people were playing backgammon, particularly the speed and the dynamics of the playing. The way that it is played transformed the game for me. I thought that would be interesting to study different games and the different approach to them by different people. We searched for three games that would present different challenges. In that sense we chose three games that are from three different continents. One is a card game, and the other two board games. They are all strategy games but only one of them doesn’t involve chance. Finally they are linked to me personally. Truco is a game that I played all my life, backgammon is a game that I knew how to play but in Turkey had to “learn again” and Xiangqi is a game that I learned from scratch and that process would prove to be quite challenging.

G.E.: It is commonly accepted that games are situations, structured plays with rules and goals, in which people make strategic choices in order to win. One problematic assumption I think game theorists make is that all players behave “rationally”.  What are some conclusions about the theory itself? Have your observations confirmed or reputed the arguments of game theory? 

Adrián: Well, all the games that we researched are sum zero games. Games that for someone to win 1 the other player has to loose 1. I would say that the normal behavior in this type of game is the rational behavior. They players do everything they can to win. And by everything I mean also trying to make the other player angry and act irrationally. In that way they’ll have higher chances to win the game.

Anne-Linn: There are different answers to this question. The higher the value of the social aspect surrounding the game, as spending time with others, drinking, eating and playing, the less winning the game in question is the primary goal. But the moment the game itself becomes the most important, people play more strategically and less empathetically.

G.E.: You’ve done quite an intensive research –very much like ethnographic research involving participant observation, fieldwork, and so on- about board games in different cultures in Argentina, Turkey and China. You must also have encountered quite diverse approaches to a single game in a given culture, but, still, I wonder what striking similarities and major differences you have observed in each different context. Could you detect a singular ethos, for example, of backgammon in Turkey? If yes, what do you think it comprises of? 

Anne-Linn: Linking up to the previous question, I think the biggest difference is the way in which people relate to the value of winning and loosing. In some contexts, just playing is enough, as the value of spending time together with friends and family, or even strangers, is the most important, and the game is just the setting that allows that to happen. In other contexts, the status gained by winning is the goal of playing. It was very clear for us that in China, the concept of “loosing face” is part of every game, and the social gain of being the “winner” is clearer.

In Turkey, our experience is that there is great value in knowledge of the game and experience, and yet, the social aspect always seems to be paramount. People enjoy spending time together and Backgammon is a traditional way to unwind, to sit and chat, without having to produce anything outside of the game situation.

Adrián: In Argentina is similar as in Turkey. The deck of cards is an excuse to hang out with friends sharing mate, empanadas or a glass of wine.

G.E.: How do people deal with losing? 

Adrián: I would say in general ok. All of these are games that are used as an excuse for a meeting between friends smoking a narghile or sharing a tea or red wine. In China is the strongest experience in relation to winning and loosing since the pride in winning in public (the game is played in the streets and parks of China) is essential. In Turkey as in Argentina there is a big factor of enjoinment with the “suffering” of the looser. In Turkey, especially when the looser looses with “mars” is much, much worse.

Anne-Linn: I would say very differently. If you play regularly, i think the loosing is taken more lightly, as you know that you win some and you loose some. If the game is more based on intellectual capacity, then of course it is harder for people to loose then when the game is more chance based. I think that is why Backgammon players take loosing more easily. However good you are, there is still a chance element involved.

Adrián: In that sense I have a different opinion than Anne-Linn. I don’t have any problems to accept that I lost when I’m in front of a better player. What is very difficult for me is to accept when you clearly loose because of chance reasons. If you don’t have good cards in truco you can still trick your opponent. In backgammon you can not disguise your bad luck. In Turkey I heard several times “If the dice are not there, they’re not there”. I’m learning that now.

G.E.: What are the characteristics of best players?

Adrián: The best players of these games are patient, cold, and most of the time they are older. Most of all, they don’t get angry and if they have the capacity to make the other player angry you can consider that an equally important skill.

Anne-Linn: Love of the game and dedication. A good player is the one who has gained their experience though the hard labor of loosing and winning and loosing again. There of course is intellectual capacity involved, but dedication of time and effort is as important. And of course, you need the drive to win in order to improve. Some people really just love the challenge, every time.

G.E.: Game is defined as an activity that is fun; separate (in time and space); uncertain; non-productive (non-utilitarian); governed by rules; and fictitious. Are they not also the very characteristics of art? Have you encountered any people or groups who did consider what they were doing as art and how did they justify that if they did? 

Anne-Linn: We didn´t encounter anyone who talked about their game as such, but for most people it is very clear that they are a part of a cultural tradition, that the games have existed before them and will exist when they are gone. They are continuing a tradition that is deeply rooted in the culture in which they exists.

From outside, as an observer, I can often be struck by the beauty of the situation. The grace of the movements of hands for example, a grace that only comes with endless practice. The natural and unaffected interaction that a game allows is also very nice to experience. Some kind of “anti-alienation” i would call it. Sometimes its also raw anger and passion. The whole spectrum of human emotion is in there.

Adrián: I didn’t have time to think about the beauty of the games while I was playing, because I was playing and mostly trying to win! I would say that in general, on the contrary., people were surprised that we were interested in the game that they were playing in order to involve them in an art context.

G.E.: Being a cultural anomaly since I don’t know how to play the backgammon, what would you recommend me? How could I learn it really fast and finally ‘pass as a native’?

Anne-Linn: Find someone who will have the patience to explain you the rules without pressuring you, then be willing to loose a couple of rounds. Observation, practice and patience. Here you can find a nice spot to look out over the Bosphorus, eat and drink something tasty and enjoy your time over the Tavla board.

Adrián: I am sure that you will learn the rules fast. Pass as a native in Turkey through backgammon is a more complicated task since you should through the dice extremely fast, play the stones even faster at the same time that you drink several liters of chai while sending smoke signs with a nargile. I would recommend to learn “Caballitos” (little horses), the game that I created that is a combination of the other three games. You only have to come to the performance on Friday and we will guide you in your journey.

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