QuebecI study games and gamers at the Technoculture, Art and Games research centre at Concordia University, Montreal.I hate bowling. It's just multiplayer solitaire.
For the past few months I've been participating in a forum for doctoral students in the Joint Ph.D. in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. The word "joint" refers to the fact that this Ph.D. program is a combined effort between Concordia, L'Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and Université de Montréal (UdeM).
Part of this forum is periodically writing short (5 - 7 page) papers about how your work is progressing. Today I'm posting the second of these papers that I wrote (the first was primarily a condensation of the initial proposal, which I posted on this blog soon after I started it). This work will gradually be folded into a formal dissertation proposal over the next few weeks. As it stands it is quite obviously incomplete. The main stuff of interest here is regarding material culture and cultural memory.
(Apologies for the following wall of text - I've been meaning to post this for a long time and had some spare time today, but I don't have the time right now to dig out and deal with images. Besides, works can create pictures in your mind.)
This project seeks to understand the particular affinity between board games and the railroads. Board games are a particularly popular medium for representations of trains: at the time of this writing BoardGameGeek lists 814 games in the “trains” category, up from 660 at the end of 2011. This is particularly curious in light of the fact that there is no corresponding category for corresponding technologies: cars, boats, planes, rockets, none have nearly the degree of presence in board games, despite the fact that all of these are quite available (alongside trains) in miniature and as toys. How can this state of affairs be explained? What does it say about games as representational media, and the evolution of North American values and ideologies associated with the railroad?
For the purposes of this project, I mean “train games” to refer to any game that represents some aspect of the railroad, either through its rules or fiction. These terms I mean in the sense given to them by Juul: the rules of a game are how it works and what a player can do, while the fiction includes elements such as characters, settings, and narrative (2005). Rules function as representations via simulation, which Frasca defines as “to model a (source) system through a different system which maintains (for somebody) some of the behaviors of the original system” (2003, p. 233). The fiction of a game is representational in a semiotic sense and is conveyed through text, art, and the form of the pieces used in the game.
This study will consist of three parts. The first will be primary research in archives and museums, complemented by interviews with train game designers and developers. The second part will be a material culture analysis of the games themselves, with a focus on understanding how they relate to, and construct, the past. The final part will be a player study that aims to discover how players relate to these games and what they mean to them. This last part will be informed by my own conclusions from the second part.
Part 1: Archival Work
In this part I will seek to write a history of train games. Train-themed games have existed since at least 1830, shortly after the onset of commercial railroading—Wolmar cites 1830 as the year the Liverpool and Manchester line opened, notable for being powered “entirely by steam” and as the first line constructed to carry both passengers and freight (2009, 1). Despite this long heritage nothing has been written about train games specifically, and most board game histories only treat pre-industrial folk games (Bell 2008, Murray 1952, Parlett 1999), the exceptions being Peterson’s work on Dungeons & Dragons (2012) and Woods’ work on “eurogames” (2012).
I have already conducted significant archival work thanks to a fellowship at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, and this coming April I am scheduled to visit the personal archives of Darwin Bromley, a noted train game designer and founding member of the Train Gamer’s Association. My goal with the archival research has been to catalog and photograph as much information as possible, paying particular attention to how trains are represented in the game’s fiction. In this regard it is not only the components that are valuable sources of information, but the box and any other available paratexts (Genette 1980) such as magazine reviews or publisher catalogs. I also have been recording the rules of the game so I can go back to it and understand how it was meant to be played. This is particularly important for reasons discussed in the next section.
This work will be complemented by designer interviews. My goal with the interviews is to understand the designer’s interviews and where they see their work fitting in to the genre, thus adding an oral history element to the overall history. This work will also generate the material for the next part of the project.
Part 2: Material Culture and Making the Past
In addition to writing a history of train games I will analyze the games themselves with the aim of understanding how they reflect ideologies surrounding the railroad, and how they relate to and construct the past. To do so I will offer a refinement of Prown’s material culture method to make it more suitable for games.
My method for this analysis will be based on material culture which Prown defines as “the study through artifacts of the beliefs—values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions—of a particular community or a society at a given time,” and is based on “the proposition that artifacts are primary data” and therefore “can be used actively as evidence rather than passively as illustrations” (1982, 1). From this perspective train games can be seen as evidence for cultural attitudes towards, and ideologies surrounding, the railroad at the time of their design, and the archival work will enable me to chart changes in these over time. To date there is little work applying material culture to board games, although some scholars have applied the method to children’s toys. Norcia’s work connecting early British jigsaw puzzles to imperialism is a noteworthy example (2009). For Prown objects which were not made with the intention of expressing a viewpoint or idea (as opposed to artistic works) are particularly valuable for study: “in some ways artifacts that express culture unconsciously are more useful as objective cultural indexes” (1982, 2). From this perspective games are ideal subject matter. Material culture thus finds its theoretical grounding in structuralism and semiotics. It is structuralist in “its premise that the configurations or properties of an artifact correspond to patterns in the mind of the individual producer or producers and of the society of which he or they were a part” (6). Material culture treats its objects of study as signs that signify something about their original construction and use, and further, analyzes said objects as semiotically encoded themselves.
Because the range of potential objects that material culture could be applied to, Prown describes six classes of objects which range from the entirely aesthetic to the entirely utilitarian. Starting with the aesthetic, these are Art, followed by Diversions (which includes toys and games), and then Adornment, Landscape Modifications, Applied Arts, and lastly Devices (machines, vehicles, instruments) are the most utilitarian (3). Prown argues that each of these categories requires specific techniques and methodologies for analysis, and offers some insights into how to approach each category, with the exception of Diversions. About this category he merely writes: “These objects share the quality of giving pleasure, or entertainment to the mind and body, and the category has an affinity with, although separate from, art. This is a category in the process of definition and further discussion of it must be deferred” (13). With regards to games, the “process of definition” has been moved forward by game studies since the time of Prown’s writing, and so I propose to synthesize key theories from game studies with the methods of material culture to develop a method for studying board games as cultural artifacts.
It is a commonly held perspective in game studies that in order to properly analyze or critique a game the researcher or critic must play the game (Aarseth 2003, Leino 2012). As with theater, games have a performative element (Fernandez-Vara 2009) and merely reading the script does not give one sufficient understanding of how it works or how it is meant to be experienced. In order to be fruitfully applied to games, then, a material culture analysis needs to include how the game is played: what are the rules? What are players expected to do? Is the game trying to simulate something, and if so, how? As researchers such as Bogost (2006, 2007) and Frasca (2003) have shown, rules and processes can be expressive representations in the same way the art on the box or the board is. In the case of train games, these questions are salient because they point to what the key elements of the railroad were understood to be at the time of the game’s creation. For example, my archival research so far has shown that early railroad games, such as The Amusing Game of Innocence Abroad (Parker, 1888) and Across the Continent (1890) emphasize speed and travel, which as Schivelbusch has explored in detail were considered the most revolutionary aspects of the railroad early in its history (1986). This emphasis manifests in the rules of these games by requiring players to move their playing piece the greatest number of spaces in the least amount of time. These games deal with the railroad as a contemporary phenomenon: players could travel on the railroad in real life just as they do in the game. Train games set in the present continue until around 1980, after which point the games that have been the most influential in the genre, namely Empire Builder (Bromley 1980) and 1830: Railways and Robber Barons (Tresham 1986) (both set in the United States and Southern Canada) become set in the early-mid 1800s. These games emphasize aspects of the railroad that we tend to emphasize now: building track across the continent, unifying the country, transporting goods to market, and making key players fabulously wealthy. This trend has continued, as current train games are nearly always set in the same historical period of building and expansion. To examine these games as material culture, then, it is essential to consider this now ubiquitous element of engagement with the past.
What does it mean for a game to engage with the past? There are several theoretical frameworks for thinking about the role of media in representing and creating the past. Chapman has studied games specifically as a type of historiography that can represent the past in two different modes. “Realist simulations” attempt to depict the past accurately using a “realistic” style (whatever that means for a given culture and time period) and as a result tend to focus on the local (2013, 49). “Conceptual simulations,” on the other hand, operate at a higher level of abstraction and are focused on larger narratives of events on a bigger scale (56). However, these categories are not meant to describe board games and thus do not transfer over well: Chapman built this model on the kinds of historical videogames that have been produced so far, and the games Chapman uses as illustrations are heavily informed by market forces and genre conventions. Some train games fall into these categories relatively neatly, but many do not. The enormously successful Ticket to Ride (Moon, 2004), for example, does not simulate history in either of these modes (or at all). However it does situate itself historically through the art evocative of 19th century America on the box, rules, cards and board. Further, Chapman argues that “Creating a complex set of rules in a historical game entails creating a web of theories about how the past works and this is inevitably at least partially drawn from the overarching theoretical logics we apply to history every day, after all such logics are only rules for the past” (72). But as Ticket to Ride shows a game can have a historical setting via its rules but not its fiction.
Given that Chapman's framework was built around different kinds of artifacts than what I am studying here, I instead turn to Erll’s work on media as preserving (and creating) “cultural memory,” which she defines as “the interplay of present and past in socio-cultural contexts” (2008, 2). Building on the work of Jan Assmann, Erll notes that cultural memory “does therefore not describe all manifestations of ‘memory in culture’; rather it represents a subset of this: the societal construction of normative and formative versions of the past” (2011, 30). This construction depends on media: “Cultural memory is constituted by a host of different media, operating within various symbolic systems: religious texts, historical painting, historiography, TV documentaries, monuments, and commemorative rituals, for example. Each of these media has its specific way of remembering and will leave its trace on the memory it creates” (2008, 389), and further, “Whenever the past is remembered, the choice of media and forms has an effect on the kind of memory that is created” (2008, 390). This is not to set history and memory opposed to each other: “historiography is one medium of cultural memory alongside other media” (2011, 45) but rather to expand the possibilities for thinking about how the past is constructed in a cultural context. While many train games simulate history, many others do not but still contribute to cultural memory of the railroad. The question this raises, then, is what is the effect of train games and their associated materiality on cultural memory, as opposed to other media representations or simulations of the railroads, and how does this difference account for their continued popularity?
One possible answer lies with nostalgia. Lowenthal writes that what is actually pleasing about nostalgia is “not so much the past itself as its supposed aspirations, less the memory of what actually was than of what was once thought possible” (cited in Erll 2011, 52). The notion of past potential resonates with many train games, particularly those that focus on track building and economic growth. At this point pore research into nostalgia studies is required, however.
Lastly, one topic not discussed by Erll is how a media artifact’s relationship to the past changes over time. Appadurai has described how objects move from one state to another, and how the passage of time transforms them into historical objects (2006). Sontag has described a similar phenomenon with respect to photographs (1977). What role does a game from 150 years ago about the then-present play in constructing cultural memory, and how does that contribution differ from that of a game from 40 years ago about 175 years ago? Unpacking different modes and ways games engage with the past will be essential to this project.
3. Player Study
Lastly this project will include an online, qualitative player survey. The goal of this last part will be to learn more about how train gamers think about the objects they play with. Are they interested in the railroads outside of games? And more importantly, in what ways does a game’s engagement with the past matter to them? Train games may appear to contribute to collective memory in a variety of ways, but investigating how players think about this and to what extent it matters to them will shed additional insight on this process.
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