Board Games, Digital Media, and Public ‘Participation’

Has digital media innovation brought about a revolution in the board gaming industry? Has the crowdfunding site Kickstartr (previously called ‘Kickstarter’ until they forgot how to spell) fundamentally changed the way in which tabletop games are designed and produced? Has the distinction between ‘designers’ or ‘producers’ and the gamers who consume and play their products been obliterated?

These are some of the questions that I’ve been grappling with in a recent research project with Dr Deb Waterhouse-Watson, another Lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Of course, the changing relationship between designers and players is a broader issue than only something that relates to the impact of digital media culture, as episode 69 of The Game Design Round Table recently revealed in its excellent discussion of house rules, modding, and optional rules. But the seemingly ‘participatory’ nature of the online world is worth thinking through in relation to this debate too…

What follows is a conference video snapshot I put together while experimenting with iMovie for the iPad. Our presentation, ‘Playful Publics as “Game-Makers”?: Digital Media, Producers, and the (R)evolution of Board Gaming’, was delivered at the Contemporary Publics International Symposium, held at Deakin University, Melbourne, on 24 February 2014. I’ve included the abstract below, and we’re currently writing the full paper up for publication, but sadly, that’s a much slower process… so enjoy the teaser!



On first appearance, board games would seem to epitomise the ‘old’ media of yesteryear; however, the rise of digital media has seen an already substantial subculture undergo fundamental transformations. The impact of crowdfunding sites and online forums like those of boardgamegeek on the production, reception, and use of games reveals the internet to be at the very centre of the (r)evolution in board game culture. Distinctions between the categories of ‘designers’ and ‘players’ seem to be increasingly breaking down, with numerous crowdfunding projects increasingly involving direct appeals for contributions from online supporters. Significantly, game designer Justin Gary’s reflection on the initial anxiety about the future of board gaming, which many feared might dissipate with the rise of tablets and smartphones, notes that ‘the reverse has happened. Now board game sales are better than ever.’ This raises crucial questions: has gamers’ online engagement with designers resulted in a more ‘participatory’ process in which players are more deeply involved in the making of games before the products reach their table top? Has the digital arena – particularly the surge of board game projects on Kickstartr – afforded gamers the genuine power that is often implied or has it only ensured that, to use Gary’s turn of phrase, ‘sales are better than ever’? Through a close analysis of recent board game case studies, we examine the industrial logics, intertextualities, and user behaviours (re)forming through the intersection of the virtual and the non-virtual, thus contributing to ongoing debates over the relevance of the term ‘producer’ and the broader issue of digital media’s ‘democratising’ potential.



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