Friday, December 27, 2013

Bonus Dice: Designing Tabletop Games for Better Game Culture (Part II)

In Part I, game researcher Mark Chen takes a look at what might create better game culture, i.e. a community of consumers and creators who think critically and reflectively about games. In Part II, he argues that tabletop gaming should receive the same level of academic interest as digital gaming.

The High Fashion Phenomenon

And yet BGG is only a small part of tabletop gaming. It may seem that the tabletop community is pretty monolithic given how much a one-stop site BGG is, but, outside of the net, tabletop gaming is surprisingly scattered. I’m reminded of this every week as I attend meetings of a local board game Meetup group. The regular attendees come from all walks of life. Among others, there’s techie people (which could just be because we’re in Seattle, though there is an interesting intermingling between tech and board games), a lawyer, and a bunch of service industry folks. Very few are academics, and most of them don’t really know BGG exists.
Toshiyuki Hashitani’s wooden board by Wolfgangs SpeileParadies for Settlers of Catan
Still, I suspect the movements and fervor found on BGG trickles down. It’s like high fashion setting certain trends that eventually trickle down to Walmart shoppers. The games that become popular were popular on BGG first. Maybe another analogy is with digital gamers who buy AAA games and new hardware every season: They push (perhaps too uncritically) the industry in certain directions and generally make it grow, which then allows for a whole slew of other players to follow in their wake (who may not even know there’s a wake they’re following).

A Disconnect?

Most of these players also don’t know about the recent rise of games journalism, criticism, and activism (love Ligman's TWIVGB). For all the work we’ve seen in the last couple of years pushing for inclusivity in gaming and examining games deeply, none of it is hitting on-the-ground gamers… Wait. Is that true? Admittedly, most of the work being done is on the digital gaming front, so looking at local tabletop meetup groups and saying something about the work with digital games’ reach is probably not fair. Okay, so I’ll just say this: Tabletop criticism and journalism is massively threadbare, and I hope places like Shut Up & Sit Down herald a new trend in rectifying this. Hopefully, more academic research will also look to tabletop gaming.

Serious Leisure and DIY Gamers

Jared’s Magic Realm build using carthaginian’s redesign
One of the most fascinating pockets of community on BGG are the hobbyists (a huge “serious leisure” literature repository that everyone should learn about) who make their own versions of out-of-print games. Take a look at all the cool remakes of Magic Realm (MR), for example. It’s a game with a cult following for its intricate simulation of a fantasy setting and its detailed and nuanced combat system. What’s really cool about MR is that a BGG user, Karim “carthaginian” Chakroun, wanted to try the game but discovered that he’d have to make the game first. It turns out, he’s a graphic designer and he decided to produce a set of PDFs with new artwork that anyone can download to make their own copy of MR! (Game rules can’t be copyrighted, but artwork is protected, so, to recreate a game, players have to change up the art.) As it happens, carthaginian has made lots of custom artwork for out-of-print games *and* he’s moved onto professional graphic design for games, such as Alien Frontiers!

Alien Frontiers

Carthaginian and other BGG users who engage in this DIY practice represent an interesting intersection between tabletop gaming and crafting/making. They share tips and tricks and how-to guides, much like what you’d find on Instructables. There’s also a number of BGG users who are amateur designers, releasing their own “print and play” games through BGG as PDFs.

Use Tabletop Game Design to Understand Games Better  

This, then, represents a different way games scholars and critics can get into making games. Tabletop design can be a more approachable pathway for non-techie people. It’s easy to grab a deck of cards and think through new game mechanics or to grab a used game from a thrift store and mod the rules or write new rules using the same components. It becomes more important to think about the manual for a designed game (something which is often absent for digital games), and this forces a different kind of dialog between the designer and players. I believe this difference pushes the designer to think about the boundaries of the game and cohesiveness of theme to rules in a different way than what’s afforded by digital game design.

So, yeah, (if you’ll allow me to switch to 2nd person…) make your own games! Make both digital and tabletop games! And, yes, the first game will likely suck. Learning is most effective through failure. This is as true in designing games as in playing games.

[This article originally appeared on Critical Gaming Project’s new blog series, Better Game Culture]  

Mark Chen is an independent researcher of gaming culture and spare-time game designer. He also holds appointments at Pepperdine, UW Bothell, and UOIT, teaching a variety of online and offline courses on game studies and games for learning. He recently wrote a book, Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. Currently, Mark is making games to promote critical thinking and cooperation and researching the communication practices of users. 


Jason Begy said...

Nice post Mark. I will echo your call for more tabletop gaming research!

If you're interested in the DIY movement, the 18xx community is particularly prolific in this regard. There is even a super-niche cottage industry of semi-professional publishers and printers of 18xx games, including companies like Deep Thought Games and Double-O games. For several years Chris Lawson was selling "game kits," which were boxes full of stickers and printed sheets of components. It takes a few hours to cut-out and assemble these, and some of the bigger games I've done have taken upwards of 15 hours just to put together. Serious leisure indeed!

mark said...

Awesome Jason!

To tell the truth, I haven't played any of the 18xx games! and I fear looking into it since I've got so many time sinks already. :)

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