On Jan 14, 2021, my book Board Games as Media will be published by Bloomsbury Press. It’s the culmination of a multi-year research project (partly funded by DePaul University, where I’m a Professor of Media and Cinema Studies) that examined the board gaming hobby, the rise in popularity of board games generally, and the messages that board games are communicating to their players. You may have seen my post back in August 2019 that reports on the results of a huge survey I ran about board game players…and you may have even participated!
What I learned astounded me – about the breadth and depth of gaming, the community of players, and the importance of board gaming to so many people around the world. Here are the six most surprising things I learned while writing my book.
1. Board games exist in between text and activity
I originally proposed the book because, as an avid board gamer and as an academic who studies the media, I was struck by the fact that we didn’t have a good system for understanding how board games can act like media texts. This may seem like an esoteric question, but it actually gets at the heart of some of the issues of media studies: how do entertainment products influence us? How do we interpret the meanings of film or television? How do creators get their messages across?
When I sit down to watch, say, The Queen’s Gambit, I assume that there will be some messages communicated by Scott Frank and Allan Scott (the creators) that I’ll interpret. But if I played a game of Scythe, Terraforming Mars, and Gloomhaven (which take about the same amount of time), why would we assume that nothing gets communicated?
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, viewers tend to predominantly focus on screens (e.g., movies, television, and digital technology) as media. That’s why there are tons of books written about video games, but relatively few written about board games.
Second, the game itself, as a tangible object, does not come into being without the addition of a player, which is significantly different from a film or television series. What I mean by this is, a board game is just a bunch of cardboard, wood, and plastic until it is actually played. It’s a game when it’s made, but it isn’t a text until players are added. A film or a television show is interpreted, yes, but even if we didn’t watch it, it would still exist as a text.
Finally, we can’t know what a game is “saying” without actually playing it. This is because every time a board game is played, the game will be different: literally, the text itself will change. I can ask other players about what their experience is like, but by definition my own will be different—different cards, die rolls, spaces, and character actions.
2. Game designers are not (necessarily) authors
The realization that the text of a board game exists between creator and player leads to all sorts of interesting discoveries. The most significant for me, as a media studies academic, was that we couldn’t use the traditional methods of media studies analyses for games, because they were too focused on examining the text at the expense of the audience.
One of these traditional methods is the auteur theory, which is one of the most significant media theories of the past seventy years. In the auteur theory, the creator of a text (a director, a showrunner, an author) is seen as the true creative force behind the text: Wes Anderson is an auteur; David Lynch is an auteur; Stephen King is an auteur. (Note, of course, that these are all white men – one apt criticism of the auteur theory is that it’s biased towards white, male creators.)
But what about board games? Are there board game auteurs?
On the surface, it sure seems like it. Designers like Reiner Knizia or Vlaada Chvátil are prolific and offer the appearance of authorship on their games, even if all their games look very different from one another. In my book, I also focused on Ryan Laukat as a designer who has a unique style.
But I argued that these designers—all excellent in their own ways!—aren’t auteurs in the traditional way media studies has conceptualized the term. It’s not because they aren’t talented, or don’t have visions behind their games, but rather because of that player/game interactivity. If a text doesn’t come into being without a player, then that player has to be part of the authorship of the game.
And think about how powerful that is! When we sit down to play a game, we are literally writing that game as we play.
But this means a game designer isn’t an auteur: they’re a créateur, someone who creates the opportunity for authorship to happen. And that’s perhaps even more important than just authoring something.
3. Board games help your mental health
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but one surprising thing to pop up in my research was how board game players used board games to support their mental health. And although my book was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, this lesson is even more crucial while we are in the midst of it.
I surveyed over 900 people to find out why they loved board games. People in my survey described how board games have given them opportunities to overcome anxiety issues. One participant noted that, “Games are a useful tool to teach and practice social skills, especially for those on the autism spectrum.” Another said that, “Board games are one of the few things that help alleviate [my] anxiety.”
How do board games do this?
First, board games give players surmountable challenges. We feel better when we are able to accomplish a task (it’s why lockdown can be so difficult: the challenges of the world seem too difficult/impossible to tackle). Board games offer challenges that are eminently solvable, which empowers players.
Second, board games are social. Yes, there are solo board game/gamers out there, but the vast majority of board games require socialization to play, whether cooperative, competitive, or in-between. Being social is good for mental health, but board games provide even more: they give us something to talk about. We can be social without small talk (which can be stressful in and of itself).
Finally, thematic board games can transport players elsewhere. If we look at board games as media texts, then like our best films and television shows, they can take us to strange, new worlds, on exciting adventures, or back in time. This allows players to experience life from a different perspective.
4. The community will (helpfully!) affect what you write
For Board Games as Media, I didn’t just survey 900 players of games; I also conducted over forty long-form interviews with game designers and online content creators (blogs, videos, and podcasts) about their experiences in the board game hobby, and followed up with about seventy survey-takers to ask them more in depth questions.
The method I used for these interviews is called an “ethnographic interview,” in which a researcher engages in a guided discussion (or a “friendly conversation,” according to Dr. James P. Spradley) that can change as it develops. This means that, rather than have a prescriptive set of questions I asked everyone, I allowed the conversation to dictate the topic.
What I found out was that almost everyone was interested in talking about diversity in the board game industry.
In almost every interview, the subject wanted to talk about the way the board game industry has traditionally been dominated by white, male game designers. This is an incredibly important topic (as I talk about next) and actually led to a whole new chapter of my book that focused specifically on diversity and inclusion.
Letting the community guide my content helped the book be more relevant to readers, and (hopefully) more meaningful to a greater number of board gamers. Listening to the community and giving them the opportunity to have a voice in the book’s content greatly enhanced the topic.
Just as board games are the combination of creator and player, so too is Board Games as Media the combination of writer and reader.
5. Diversifying the board game industry is a necessity for the survival of the hobby
One of the most important things I learned in the research for this book was the importance of diversifying the board game industry.
By this, I mean that board gaming (the hobby, the community, and the industry) needs to open up the types of games that are produced, the people producing games, and the people playing games to different identities, including (but not limited to) racial identities, gender identities, sexual orientations, physical/mental abilities, and national identities.
At the moment, the board game community is not as welcoming to women and players of color as it could be. This isn’t to say that any individual isn’t welcoming, but rather that the community as a whole has systemic barriers to entry. Some of these are cultural: not knowing the “social rules” of a particular community—what Gil Hova calls “invisible ropes”—can bar entry.
Many games are still made from a white, male perspective, and this includes the depictions of people on the box cover, on cards, or even in the rule book (how many rule books use a default “he” to refer to a player?) Including diverse representations in games helps people feel more included in a community. If people see themselves in the texts they play, it can lead to more positive social interactions and higher self-esteem among young people. In turn, this builds a stronger community.
The subject of games can also be a barrier to play. Take Eurogames – undoubtedly one of the most popular styles of board games. Some of the players I interviewed were clear that “just using terms such as ‘Euro-Style’ game gives the impression of a white Anglo-Saxon view of the industry.” Many Eurogames take colonization as a de facto play style. This is deeply problematic given the systemic injustice caused by centuries of colonization. The way that players are positioned within these types of games can have often unintended ideological consequences, as the game can force players to complete actions that make them feel complicit in culturally insensitive ways.
Board games are not separate from the culture in which they are; at the same time, board games can also be influential themselves, as they can convince players of particular points of view or inspire players in critical ways. The games we play can play a role in our understanding of the kind of world we want to live in.
6. There is an ecological impact of our gaming
Finally, and worryingly, the rising popularity of board games may be having a deleterious effect on the environment. Almost no research has been done on the ecological impact of board games. Board games are getting larger, taking more cards, and using more plastic components. All of this has an effect on the environment.
Take the Exit games, for example. Each game comes with around 90 cards (plastic coated, of course), plus the decoder, extraneous bits and bobs, and the packaging. Almost none of it is recyclable, and you can only play through the game once.
On the plus side, many other games are reusable, so the ecological impact is offset over time. But the initial construction of games – especially when those games are manufactured in a country without stringent environmental regulations – helps contribute to pollution and climate change. There are small solutions that can make a difference. Let’s package in recyclable materials. Let’s create two different versions of games, one for newbies and one that allows players to use their own pieces/pre-owned minis instead of printing millions more. We can come up with solutions – we’re gamers. That’s what we do.
Writing Board Games as Media gave me so much pleasure. I got to play hundreds of board games for research, expand the number of people I played with, and meet scores more in the industry. I learned that the board game community is one of the most generous groups out there.
I hope that readers of the book will find more things to surprise, excite, and challenge them.