Book Review – The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata

13752I did not expect, when beginning this classic Japanese literary masterpiece, to think so much about video games while reading it. The book details, with diagrams, one single game of the Asian board game Go, between the peer-ordained Master and his greater challenger. It’s a book about a game, and that’s something I can relate to.

The game of Go is similar to chess in that two players sit across from each other and move pieces on a graph-like board. One side is white and one is black. The idea is to surround your opponents stones with your own, gaining points each time you do so, and the board is 19 x 19, so there are limitless possibilities for placing one’s stones. It creates an incredibly intricate and cerebral game, more complicated than chess and likely more difficult to grasp. The game is also singularly Japanese, despite coming to Japan from China. As it explains in the book, in perhaps a biased manner, the Japanese perfected the game, even making it into an art.

The two central themes to The Master of Go are that of obsession and purpose. The Master has one purpose in life, and that is to play Go. His death is described in the opening lines, so it’s no secret to say that he dies for this purpose, but the novel also makes it clear what an obsession Go becomes for him, and indeed for many of the novel’s characters (including the narrator). This book begs the questions: When does purpose end and obsession begin? Have they been one and the same the entire time?

This brings me back to thoughts of video games because Go is a game. It’s just a game. It’s a competition between two people to win a contest. The reward is nothing more than victory, which itself brings a national recognition due to the status of the game. In Japan, particularly the Japan of this novel which marks the end of the Meiji period, the game of Go is worthy of being one’s life purpose. The easiest analogy is chess, which people the world over play and which still stands as a worthy purpose to live one’s life by. When one is a Grandmaster at chess, he has the prestige and respect of the world.

Yet a large portion of society still looks at people who play video games as losers, claiming that they waste time. Are there video games as complicated and intricate as Go or Chess? I would argue that there are. The spirit of competition is every bit as fierce in video games as it is in any sport or other game. So why the disparity? Why is chess, and in Japan, Go, looked upon as a higher form of play, as an art even?

The board at the end of a game of Go. Complex doesn’t begin to describe this.

The novel doesn’t answer this question. The truth is, there is little difference. A Go board in a digital space is a Go board nonetheless. It may lack the ceremony and ritual of a traditional game of Go, and indeed much of the novel is a lament to the lost ritual and honor of the game, but the competition and tenants of victory are the same. It’s a game and contest of the mind, much like any video game that displays a competitive nature.

Could a novel about a single match of a video game be as successful as The Master of Go? Probably not, but maybe. The game of Go can take months to play. In the Master’s final match, a total of 40 hours is allotted both players to play the game. That’s a work week for most of the world, and when long breaks are added into the mix, sometimes week long breaks, a single game of Go can last six months. Sometimes more. A single move in the game can take hours! Writing a novel that details a six month period is not difficult, but every single word in The Master of Go is purposeful, like a play at the board. There are no wasted efforts.

About eight years ago, there were a lot of news articles on gaming sites around the world writing about a boss encounter in the popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, Final Fantasy XI, that took 18 hours to beat. The 40 hours allotted both players in The Master of Go is an exception rather than a rule, and according to the text most games take about half that. About half that would be similar to the 18 hours experienced by these MMORPG fanatics, some of who were vomiting and passing out by the end of the encounter. They did in 18 hours straight what some Go players take months to do. I would argue that their 18 hours was more a contest of endurance than one of intelligence, but the similarity is obvious. These players took their job very seriously, even if the rest of the world looked at them as though they were insane. They trained and did their homework and sacrificed in order to beat a digital creation. How is their effort any different from someone training and preparing to climb a Mt. Everest? I don’t see a difference.

The lesson here is that human beings have an innate need to play games and to overcome obstacles. Jane McGonigal, in her book Reality is Broken, claims that the real world has lost it’s value in many ways, and so we need games, and video games in particular, to reintegrate that value into our every day lives. She writes as though this were a current phenomenon, and for the majority of the population perhaps it is. There is a hint in The Master of Go that all the truly great players have privilege. None of the high ranking Go players need regular employment. They aren’t toiling in fields and hammering out horseshoes. They play Go, or other games like chess and mahjong and one called Renju, all day and night. Though it is never said, they are likely aristocracy who have the time to sit around day in and day out and master their art. Today, more people than ever have this leisure. There are certainly those who work 80 hours a week and have no time for games, but the majority of people are able to survive on much less, and have the time to be bored. Games fix that boredom. They have for thousands of years, but for some reason we see them as wildly different every time a new form of game pops into existence.

10r5kifVideo games are still in their infancy. 30 years is roughly how long we’ve been waggling joysticks and pressing plastic buttons. Already we have international competitions for games like DOTA and Starcraft. There are people making extremely successful livings playing games all day and night. The DOTA champion team this year won 18 million dollars, netting each player of the team a cool 6.6 million. That’s a lifetime salary won in less than a week. What will we be doing in 50 years? 100? Will there be a new form of game that people are looking down upon as kids stuff?

I doubt most people will read The Master of Go and see the connections as I have. The book is a masterpiece, and is allegedly a factual account of Honnimbō Shūsai playing his final game of Go (from what I’ve read the historical figure was slightly less honorable then depicted in the book). Kawabata’s ability to describe the beauty of simple Japanese rituals and landscapes is enchanting, but in this book his use of tension and time-measurement is equally masterful. This isn’t a book for anyone uninterested in Japan or games, but I’d highly recommend it if you are one of us few weirdos.

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