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The game design of monarchies

Gating is one of the universal rhythms of games. Getting further towards your goal means getting beyond that door, but you can’t, unless …

… you can get to the door. You need to hit the precise jumps and handholds to make your way up a carving of an ancient god and reach the entrance at the top of the cavern. You must find the weapon that will shatter the crystals blocking the door. You have to find out how to use the portal gun to build up just enough momentum to jump to the door.

… you can unlock it. You have a lockpicking stat of 75 or higher, and you’re really good at the lockpicking minigame. You’re there between the in-game hours of eight and six, when this door is always open. You achieve the position of Archmage, which comes with a master key that opens all the locks in the Guild.

The architecture, whether it’s a cave or a spaceship or a lab, is tying your progression to the systems of the game. Access becomes a reward for your increasing mastery.

This is unfashionable in the modern world, but in the past, location and status were much more closely mapped. In the 1950s large offices were unashamed about embodying a progression to the executive floor, but now the power structure is obfuscated. When the majority of staff sit typing in an open plan office, you need to know more than just what room people are in to understand what they might be striving towards.

There are plenty of older architectures that aren’t embarrassed to reflect progression. For a lovely example you might look back a few hundred years, to when the power in European countries was largely vested in a single monarch. Earning their trust was a sure route to wealth, power, and having more houses than you could live in at once. In sixteenth to eighteenth century Europe people spent their lives striving to get further in to court, while their kings and queens advanced and retreated through series of rooms according to predetermined rules.

Say it’s 1700 and you’re in London, ready to try the game of court for the first time. King William III is on the throne at Hampton Court. The first thing you need to do is beg or borrow correct court dress. This is before the Great Male Renunciation, when mens fashion put aside bright colours and high heels, so both men and women dress in huge gold and silver brocade outfits. These cost many times more than most people make in a year, and they’re almost impossible to keep clean, so this is a real and present barrier. If you can achieve it, though, you’ll be able to breeze through the first few doors.

You’ll arrive in an inner courtyard and start by ascending the King’s Staircase. It’s designed to belittle you with its magnificence. The stair treads are half the height of modern stairs, so you can glide up in your six- foot- wide dress, but even in an outfit that large, you’re dwarfed by the murals. They’re spectacular, showing angels trailing clouds, heroes, gods and rainbows. Make it up to the first room, and the King’s guard— your first gatekeeper— will check whether you’re dressed suitably. Pass, and you’ll get through to the Presence Chamber. This is the outer limit of the king’s range, and here he’s most distant and magnificent. It’s an echoing, high-ceilinged room. It will be full of people keeping an eye open, greasing the wheels, keeping score. The king sits on a padded chair under an eighteen-foot-high silk canopy, receiving petitions and being asked to heal the scrofulous with his touch. Everyone else stands.

It’s designed to belittle you with its magnificence 

If it’s Thursday, you can go through to the public dining room and watch the king eat a meal from golden plates. It’s a popular day out. The roped-off dining table is surrounded by banked seating and it’s always crowded. But being here won’t help you get to know the king: after dinner he’ll go back through the door to the Privy Chamber, with his staff. If you haven’t caught anyone’s eye you will have wasted your trip, because only known courtiers are supposed to be allowed behind the Privy door.

You need someone to owe you a favour, that first time. But if you can find a way to prove yourself useful or amusing then someone will find a way to get you through. Above all, court is dull. The same people, elbowing for position, telling over the same gossip, not daring to stay away for long in case someone else steals what they consider theirs.

It’s a game-like system, complete with feedback. Every week there’s an event called the Withdrawing room, where the king and queen walk round the gathered courtiers and chat to those in favour, and ignore those who aren’t. Everyone can see their own standing and each other’s, and mentally rearrange their mental model of progress. Positions at court come with salaries attached, the kind that pay for your court clothes and your carriages. You spend time with the king, and this makes you worthy of attention from those who need to get through earlier doors.

you should be paying attention to the metagame 

Progression from here would be getting a position as one of the king’s personal servants. This allows you to go through to the Great Bedchamber, where there’s room for a scrum of people to ceremonially hand the king each garment as he rises from bed and dresses. It takes a couple of hours, there is much chat, and it’s a great time to ask favours, tell stories which show you in a good light, and bask in being at the centre of things. But beware— this is a single-sex event, and one of the biggest upsets of court is when the gender of the monarch changes, and all the top posts must be gender-swapped. Preserve the health of your monarch!

The Great Bed in the big draughty room is all for show, though. If you’re actually close to the king, rather than just a courtier, you might be invited to where he actually lives and sleeps, downstairs in a few cosy rooms. The ceilings are low enough they get properly warm in winter, and the dining room seats eight, no audience.  

It’s easy to forget when you’re in court, trying to get through that tantalising next door, that you should be paying attention to the metagame. This system was designed to engage the energies of everyone who might be tempted to rebel. A king’s ultimate win-state is to get his son or daughter on the throne after him. The people of the court need to be kept busy, given achievements and feedback, so they have no time to build their own freelance power structure.

Meanwhile, outside the palace walls there are other routes to success, which don’t involve engaging with this system. In the same period a culture is developing around drinking coffee, and people are finding value in gathering in a loose network of places to swap ideas and hear the news. There are no barriers to entry and anyone who has a penny to buy a cup of coffee can come in and be part of the conversation. A whole generation will grow up finding new routes to success, outside the patronage of the palace, and some of those business models and newspapers that start in the coffee houses still exist in the twenty-first century.

The organization of eighteenth century palaces has echoes in the design of medieval Japanese court buildings, in temple architectures, in VIP complexes in nightclubs. These buildings are game-like for good reasons—they are all experimenting with the universals of what we currently think of as quest design. People rediscover these forms again and again throughout history because their needs for control and reward are the same. Though the particulars of each instance are different, those underlying structures satisfy human motivations and help shape behaviour, and that is always useful to someone.

Header image via Wikipedia. Court image via Wikipedia, cafe image via Wikipedia