Why We Play Games With Trains

A research blog for my Ph.D. dissertation on train gaming. Posts will be brainstorms, article and chapter drafts, and whatever relevant ideas are floating around in my head.
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The Research Proposal

Jason B
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This is a modified form of the research proposal I submitted to Concordia University with my application. I've cut out some of the stuff that is unimportant to readers here, to focus on the stuff that will be of the most interest. Do note that this was originally written for a lay, non-train-gamer audience.


"It was the world's first global news story: in September 1830, just fifteen years after the Battle of Waterloo, the inaugural train chugged along the tracks at the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester railway. This sumptuous event, attended by the victor at Waterloo—the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington—and a host of notables, attracted hundreds of thousands of onlookers. Memorabilia, ranging from penny handkerchiefs, and snuff boxes, to dinner sets and framed artists' impressions, were on sale, and the whole world seemed to be watching."

-Christian Wolmar, Blood, Iron and Gold, 1.

The opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was one of the most important technological events in the history of Western culture. The railroad, both as a product of, and a driving force for, the industrial revolution permanently changed our culture, society, and economic systems, thereby paving the way for the modern era. As Wolmar’s description shows, the enormity of this event was realized even at the time, although a full appreciation of the railroad’s extensive impact would take decades (Schivelbush 1986). After the pioneering efforts of the British, railroads soon opened across the continent and the Americas, becoming both a tool and a symbol of progress, optimism and hope.

Wolmar eloquently captures this mood in the introduction to his book Blood, Iron and Gold. However, while histories of the railroad abound, he also hints at another phenomenon: the proliferation of train-themed consumer goods. In this regard, the train is ubiquitous in modern American culture. Books such as The Little Engine That Could (Piper 1978) and Freight Train (Crews 1993) are staples of elementary school libraries, whose patrons can then go home to watch Thomas the Tank Engine. Model railroad displays are ubiquitous come Christmas, and entire stores are dedicated to the hobby year-round.

Train culture extends to games as well. Board games about various aspects of the railroad range from simple children's games (Rivers, Roads, and Rails), to mass-market family games (Ticket to Ride), to complex recreations of public rail companies (1830: Railways and Robber Barons), and to large-scale historical simulations (Silverton). On the shorter side these games might last for fifteen minutes, and on the longer upwards of ten hours. At the time of this writing, BoardGameGeek.com, a crowd-sourced board game database that is likely the most complete in the world, lists some 660 games featuring trains. Video games are easily as plentiful and cover a similar range of complexity. Technologically simple shunting puzzles, which require players to rearrange train cars on a limited set of track, cover a wide range of difficulty. Other games leverage the power of computational media to create graphically and programmatically complex simulations of rail networks (Open TTD, A-Train), historical moments in railroad development (Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier’s Railroads!), and even recreations of actual train engines and cars (Railworks, Trainz Simulator). Websites such as railserve.com and freetraingames.org link to numerous free computer train games, while trainsimmer.org is a community and news site dedicated to high-fidelity train simulations.

However, this ubiquity is curious in light of the current state of the modern American railroad system: trains simply do not figure-in to everyday life in the way that cars, busses and planes do. Yet they persist in our cultural consciousness, and this consciousness has found rich expression in games. This project will explore that expression comparatively across video games and board games to investigate the aesthetics of train games, the people who play them, and how these games engage with history. Thus this project seeks to provide insight into the myriad reasons why people play games with trains.

Proposed Research and Expected Outcomes

This proposed project will investigate the phenomenon of board games and video games featuring trains and railroading. I will be using the term “train game” throughout, by which I mean a game that represents some aspects of trains or railroads, either through its fiction or rules (Juul 2005). This project will cover three general areas of research: players of train games, train games as representations of historical moments and processes, and train games as artifacts. In doing so, it seeks to answer the following research questions:

1. Who plays train games, and why do they play? What are the aesthetics of train games as expressed by the player community? Where do train gamers come from?

At the time of this writing, a quick look at the Board Game Geek (BGG) community reveals 367 users who self-identify as “train gamers.” Amongst BGG users “train gamer” refers to a person with a preference for train-themed games, sometimes to the exclusion of other types of games. However, this sample is likely a gross underestimation of the number of dedicated board game players who enjoy, or even actively seek out, train games. That the idea of a “train gamer” exists is in itself a provocation to the questions of who train gamers are, why they consider themselves as such, and why they prefer these kinds of games. Also of importance are their play backgrounds: do they come to train games as fans of trains, of other kinds of games, or for different reasons entirely?

Similar questions need to be addressed with regards to “train video gamers.” That such players exist seems probable, given the myriad communities specific to train video games. For example, Banks has studied players of the railroad simulation Trainz (2003), and web-based player communities exist for specific games such as OpenTTD and Microsoft Train Simulator.

This part of the study will be complemented by research into the aesthetics of train games. Understanding what players find appealing about train games will provide further insight into why they play these games, and will also inform research into questions 2 and 3 (see below). This question is also important to game studies generally. As the field is still growing, broadening the work done is critically important. To-date player studies have addressed players of various massively multiplayer online games (Pearce 2009; Begy and Consalvo 2011; Taylor 2006), the fighting game community (Harper 2010), LAN party attendees (Taylor and Witkowski 2010), and casual games (Juul 2009; Consalvo 2009), among many other topics, but there is a lack of such studies addressing train gamers; Banks’ study (2003) being a rare exception.

To answer these questions I will conduct a mix of player surveys and interviews, with the aim of understanding players’ “play biographies” (Mitgutsch 2011): the story of how their personal tastes and interests in games came about. I will also endeavor to interview train game designers. Because of the enormous wealth of train games, this study will likely be narrowed-down to players of more specific groups. A key contribution of this part of the study will be the comparative analysis between players of games in both mediums, and as such one of my early priorities will be a scaling-down on both sides.

2. How do train games represent historical events, moments, processes, and objects? How can this understanding be applied to games with historical content generally?

Board games and video games that represent some aspect of history are common, and draw academic attention in a variety of ways. Uricchio has interrogated the seemingly inherent postmodern nature of historical games (2005). Squire has studied the pedagogical potential of Sid Meier’s Civilization III (2004), while Friedman has critiqued the ideology underlying Sid Meier’s Civilization II (1998). Building off of Uricchio’s work, Fogu asks by what criteria we might even claim that a game is “historical” (2009).

This project will address Fogu’s question through an analysis of a variety of train board and video games. First, by building off of the work done relating games to the postmodern turn in history, it will investigate how train games recreate and represent the history of the railroads. Many train games position themselves as being undoubtedly historical through a mix of their rules and fiction (Juul 2005) and paratexts (Genette 1997). For example, 1856 is a board game wherein players act as investors in railroad companies that existed in Upper Canada, during the timeframe indicated by the title. One of the game’s goals is to keep your companies profitable, and thus avoid being swallowed-up by the nationalization of the Canadian railroad system through the Canadian Government Railway. In addition to the title, the game’s rule book devotes considerable space to historically locating the game: the introduction describes the history of the Canadian Government Railway, and also notes when and where the various other companies were founded. Uricchio notes that historical computer games fall on a spectrum, with recreation of a specific event at one end, and recreation of historical process at the other (2005). This brief description of 1856 shows how these competing forces can work in board games as well.

In fact, train games that do not directly address history seem to be in the minority, and based on their attention to historical detail I hypothesize that the proposed player study will shed light on the role history plays in train game aesthetics.

Addressing the question of how train games represent history will also involve a study of railroad history in conjunction with a representative sample of games. Work on the history of the railroad is abundant: a short survey of the literature has uncovered work on the social and cultural history of trains (Schivelbusch 1986); global technical development (Wolmar 2010); the railroad’s redefinition of American geography from 1880 to 1935 (Stilgoe 1983); the American transcontinental railroad companies (Bain 2000; White 2011); and the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways (Murray 2011). Matching such work to specific games will be another early goal of this project, so that I can begin analyzing how these games engage with history.
This portion of the proposed project will be of benefit to historiography and to game studies, as both fields will benefit from a more nuanced understanding of how games can engage with history. Game studies in particular still lacks a coherent theoretical framework accounting for the ways in which games can function as representations, a shortcoming much of my own prior work has sought to address (Begy 2010a, 2010b, 2011). This project will contribute to our overall understanding in this area by shedding light on how games can represent historical moments, events, objects and processes.

3. Why do train games happen? Is there a particular resonance between games as a medium and trains as a topic? How and why do train video and board games differ from each other?

This final line of inquiry seeks to understand how and why train games came about. Amongst modern board games train games are very popular and represent some of the best work done in the medium: in the BoardGameGeek rankings, Brass sits at number 7, Steam at 17, and Age of Steam at 21 (out of 55,682 games in the database). While video games currently do not have a comprehensive database on the scale of Board Game Geek, it is worth noting that on Wikipedia’s list of best-selling PC games, the highest-ranked train game is Railroad Tycoon, which comes in at 98th. On Metacritic’s list of the highest-ranked PC games, the first train game is Railroad Tycoon II¸ with an overall score of 89/100 and ranked 127th. While some of this disparity is likely explained by the fact that many more video games are made each year than board games, the fact that trains are so predominant in board games, and have persisted into digital games is extremely interesting. What factors sustain the continued interest in an outdated mode of transportation? Why are trains still a significant genre in games, but less so in other media?

Answering these questions will bring together the first two lines of research and combine them with game-specific analyses. There do seem to be compelling resonances between railroad networks and the strengths of games as media, one of which is simulating complex systems. The idea of the railroad as a unified system, a large mechanical whole, appeared almost immediately: “all early definitions of the railroad unanimously described it as a machine consisting of the rails and of the vehicles running on them” (Schivelbusch 1986, 17). Games are able to recreate these systems and their inner workings in ways other media would struggle with.

In writing on Sid Meier’s Civilization II, Friedman argues that “Unlike most of the stories we're used to hearing, a simulation doesn't have characters or a plot in the conventional sense. Instead, its primary narrative agent is geography. Simulation games tell a story few other media can: the drama of a map changing over time” (1998, 139). It is from this point that most train games begin. Train board games on the simplest end of the spectrum, such as Transamerica or Ticket to Ride, are often little more than laying track on a map, and more complex games such as 1856 and Age of Steam retain the track-laying element. Computer games such as OpenTTD and Sid Meier’s Railroads! feature extensive track-laying mechanics, allowing for the creation of complex rail networks. By allowing players to create such networks, train games heavily leverage their rules (Juul 2005) to represent the development of the railroad, and hence tell the story of the map on which they are played.

Indeed, one thing many train games have in common is their beginning: an empty landscape that players will transform into a developed, industrial network. In The Evolution of Large Technological systems, Hughes notes that these systems are often concerned with “reordering the physical world in ways considered useful or desirable” (2000, 53), which is exactly the point of many train games. This description is particularly appropriate for board games, where the physicality of the board and components is a key element: players are literally changing a physical space by laying tiles or wooden pieces onto a board. It seems that because the railroad is so easily understood as a unified system (Hughes does not mention the railroad specifically despite it being a perfect example), as opposed to more abstract notions such as a journey, or a character experiencing a world, games are uniquely positioned to function as representations of the railroad, via simulation: the rules of the game recreate the forces driving the expansion of the railroad. This line of thinking raises questions such as: to what extent can games themselves be technological systems? Is it sufficient to say that a train game simulates the railroad, or is the interplay of rules and forces across systems more nuanced? Where is the line between representation (simulation) and re-creation?

Building on these questions, I plan to undertake a comparative analysis of train board games and video games. Doing so may help explain the appeal of train games, as it will allow me to look for correlations between a given media and the kinds of train games that tend to be present. While game studies often seeks to understand and theorize about games in ways that cross media, I know of no specific comparison of the type I am proposing here. Linderoth has very recently presented a promising framework on game affordances that offers a cross-media methodology for analyzing games, but to my knowledge it has not been applied anywhere outside the paper he formulates it in (2011). However, I believe it will be an excellent tool for my purposes here.

Furthermore, as Woods notes (2009), very little academic attention has been directed towards modern board games and their players. While his own work is exemplary, he devotes little space specifically to train games and their players (understandably so, given the scope of the study). In this way as well my proposed project will fill a gap in the research by contributing to our understanding of modern board games, which all-too-often go unnoticed in game studies, as do train games generally. The railroad was a defining force in shaping modern Western culture, and its persistence through games specifically—despite its much smaller role in modern industry and commerce—is a fascinating phenomenon that raises many questions about why we enjoy games, what they are capable of, and how we conceptualize our own history and culture.

Closing Thoughts

Investigating these research questions will further our overall understanding of games in several ways. Studying train gamers will augment our general understanding of why people play games and what they find appealing. Trains are also interesting from this respect as the culture of train fandom likely pre-dates video game technology, and as such this study will show one instance of how games can accommodate pre-existing fan cultures.

Secondly, analyzing how train games intersect with history, and how they can be “historical,” will provide insight into historical games generally. While the development of the railroad was a distinct process, games presumably only have so many potential methods of representation. Thus I hypothesize that the factors enabling a train game to be more or less historical are similar to the factors in games addressing other historical topics as well. This will be useful to scholars studying the pedagogical uses of games in classroom settings (Squire 2004).

Lastly, the type of comparative analysis between train board games and video games I am proposing is uncommon in game studies research. Game studies often attempts to theorize about games across different media simultaneously, which may or may not be the most fruitful approach. Undertaking such a comparative analysis will reveal some of the strengths and weaknesses of that mode of inquiry.

Works Cited
Available on request
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