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  • Game Studies: Physical Elements Of Play

    - James Kinch
  • Assignment: Using examples, discuss the ways in which physical elements of play such as boards, miniatures and game pieces change modes of play in games. Counterpoise case studies with theoretical discussions of these aspects.


    There are many versions of games that have been released over the decades. Monopoly (Parker Brothers, 1935) has had several thousands (World of Monopoly, 2019) of editions printed internationally over the last 80 years and still remains the top selling board game today (NPD Group, 2020). These versions have made a variety of changes by changing the theme, the mechanics and the tokens. Even if they are very different from the original, they all still use the name of the brand.

    This essay will be covering a variety of game mediums and why different versions of games are released or encouraged to be played. This will be supported by a mixture of case studies and with theoretical discussions.

    Board Games

    Board games generally come with a variety of different physical elements to represent things that are related to the game in some form. These can include, but are not limited to:

    • Tokens that represent players.
    • A method of deciding how a player's token is moved.
    • A physical way of counting points.
    • A rule book that is themed based on the game and its genre.
    • A designated place to play.
      (Zimmerman & Salen, 2003)

    These physical elements are used to create structure, help establish a theme and to help players visually understand the game. For instance, a player could technically use their finger to represent a token to play the game. However, this would change the experience that the player has in the game. Not only would their finger/arm possibly begin to ache but part of the theme and a visual indicator as to how the piece can be interacted with has been removed from the game.

    The pieces that are included in a classic Monopoly set could be considered iconic due to the popularity of the game, however, a lot of the pieces have been changed over time. This has changed how players interact with the game. Which character a player picks is an important aspect to the game. Two studies were published in the journal, ‘Media Psychology' into how players became more like their character when playing a video game. Participants in one of these studies played a military-shooter game for 10 minutes and were observed to record reactions. After the experiment, they performed a Lexical Decision Task, a task that involves deciding whether a word is a real word or not based on one or two letters difference (i.e Morch - March). The words that the players were given were on warfare related words. The study found that "Findings from the Lexical Decision Task suggest that playing a soldier role indeed increases cognitive accessibility of soldier-related concepts." (Klimmt, et al., 2009).

    This could mean that with different tokens, players may play the game differently, acting more like their perception of how that token could act. For instance, while a "Shoe" is an inanimate object, a player may interpret it as a laid back character. This has already been explored in multiple Monopoly games where tokens perform actions based on their appearance such as in Monopoly New Edition (Infrogrames, 2001) and Monopoly Party (Runecraft, 2002).

    This idea is taken further in other Monopoly games by personifying the characters. These games make their own interpretations about the tokens and give them stereotypical-like personalities to fit them.

    Figure 1- Horse, Dog, Wheelbarrow, Shoe, Battleship and Cannon personified in Monopoly Tycoon. (Deep Red Games, 2001)

    Figure 2 - Shoe, Horse, Dog and Wheelbarrow personified in Monopoly Streets. (EA Salt Lake, 2011)

    By having these distinctions visualised for players, some creativity could be lost in that the designers have created their own takes which could hamper a player's experience as they cannot make their own interpretation. To some however, this may boost their connection as they are able to see what an interpretation of them is like. This could culminate in the player having a different experience when playing with a different line-up of characters that a player may perceive in different ways.

    Players regularly create their own characters in games such as Dungeons & Dragons. (Gygax & Arneson, 1974) Their character is given a backstory, traits and equipment which makes them unique. This is all then visually portrayed via a character sheet that the player holds while a figurine is put onto the tabletop to show movement.

    In the context of D&D, the character sheet is a very powerful tool when maintaining a character as it can contain everything about them. By editing a piece of information on the sheet, the dynamic of the group and even the game can change. Along with the Dungeon Master, this sheet puts self-imposed parameters or rules around the narrative that the player can take.

    The game encourages them to create someone that will represent them in a game which they are "excited to play" (Wizards RPG Team, 2014).  The team believes that the character that a player creates as their avatar in the world is a very important part of the enjoyment of the game. Interestingly, a study done where 666 participants were asked to choose personality features for six different game scenarios reveals that people who are more satisfied with their lives would create characters for situations that are similar to themselves while others who were not as satisfied would create personalities that were less like them (Trepte & Reinecke, 2010). This suggests that the characters that people create are heavily inspired in some way by themselves whether positivity or negatively. Players seem to create characters around aspects that they like in some way.

    In the same study, the participants also showed that "identification with the avatar was strongly related to game enjoyment" which appears to back-up the Wizards RPG Team's point. This could explain the longevity of characters in the game as it allows for a player to completely design an avatar from the ground up with no limit besides what the DM asks for as opposed to other systems that only allow for a pre-determined amount of options, typically more often found in older video games such as World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) or WWF Smackdown! (Yuke's, 2000).

    Figure 3 - WWF Smackdown's character creator.

    Figure 4 - World of Warcraft's character creator.


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