You’ve probably heard this one before: every authentic Navajo blanket (or “rug” as they’re frequently called but that’s not what they are) has a small imperfection — the ch’ihónít’i, “way out” or “spirit line,” depending — sewn deliberately into it. There are two explanations, both of which are true as I understand them, depending on context (1):
* An acknowledgement that only God is perfect, which also is an idea present around the world: Greek sculptures, Islamic art, Persian rugs, Orthodox Jewish houses, you name it.
* As a path for the weaver’s spirit, which they’ve imbued into the blanket during its creation, to leave the work so it isn’t sullied by the blanket’s sale and use.
I’ve been thinking about those ideas for a while now, especially related to some crippling perfectionist tendencies I bring to my own creative work — specifically, writing and running games.
Something I ran into when I was studying music history and theory in college, over and over again, was this thing where a technical imperfection in a work was the thing that took it from good to great. Later on, retroactively, theorists would just integrate the imperfection into their larger understanding of the form, and the next generation of creators would look for ways to violate the “rules.” The first time anyone heard a diminished 7th, I’m sure there were squints and cries of horror, right? Oh god that noise!
So my theory is this: it’s the imperfection that makes something great. It is, in a very real way, a “fruitful void” into which the players project themselves but beyond an at-the-table kind of way.
* For me, the big imperfection in Burning Wheel that’s also key to its greatness is the scripted conflicts. They’re slow, they’re fussy, they’re procedurally challenging to master, and they take you right out of your character’s experience. They’re also one of the game’s (many) killer apps. Whenever it comes time for us to stop and script something, it creates this hiccup in our flow. It is a technical imperfection and the game wouldn’t be what it is without it. So we stop, we talk about the scripting, we move our heads into a different space. We accommodate the imperfection and therefore take a different level of ownership in it.
Maybe this is just a form of cognitive dissonance! Like, we already like this game, but there’s this part of it that’s hard/different/weird/disjointed, but we wouldn’t like a hard/different/weird/disjointed game so therefore…. and so on.
* Apocalypse World 1E’s “seize by force.” Oh lordy was that hard to grasp. It was a huge glaring hole in the expected “this is how you hit and these are the consequences” school of violent conflict rules. So we had to adapt to it, right? Either we had to make this new weird thing fit into our head orrr, unfortunately, “fix” it via 2E’s various battle move solutions. (I’m in the minority here, I think, in that I really loved 1E’s difficulty, because it created a new space into which we could talk about what violence is really “for.”)
“Scene” long effects in games that make no effort to define a scene.
Murphy’s Rules-style math exploits that demand fictional positioning actually matter.
Per-session economic refreshes in games that don’t tell you how long a session is or how often you’ll need to engage with a reward cycle.
All imperfections. All the source of what makes a game great and not merely good.
I can’t think of a single technically “perfect” game out there, of course. Some are more airtight than others. But I think nailing down the imperfection in a game is a key toward figuring out what makes it great.
I’ve also been thinking about the deliberate imperfection as an out for the creator. I’ve been so obsessed with trying to achieve technical perfection in my work that I’ve also set myself up for a very unhealthy over-investment in the work after it’s gone out into the world. I very much will need a way for my soul to exit my blanket once someone buys it and inevitably misuses it.
What are some ch’ihónít’i you’ve seen in your favorite games?
(1) https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/mar/article/view/1033/2037 if you’re interested in reading some hardcore academic talk on this topic