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Paratextual Board Games and the Contemporary Media Environment

On Jan. 29, the College of Communication hosted Dimensions of Communication​, an opportunity for faculty members to share their latest research in an engaging manner. The event was “powered by PechaKucha​” (say pe-chahk’-cha), a presentation style created in 2003 by a group of Tokyo architectural designers as a concise way to showcase work among peers. During a PechaKucha event, presenters speak on a particular subject while showing 20 images for 20 seconds each.

Five faculty members entertained the audience as they discussed their research subjects and interest areas. Paul Booth​, a professor in the Media and Cinema Studies program and a specialist in fan studies, gave a unique look at the genre of board games based on film, television, literature and other media properties. Booth’s research on the subject will be published in the book Game Play​, coming from Bloomsbury Publishing in April. His work was partially funded by a grant from the DePaul University Research Council​.

In this talk, I’m arguing that we are in the midst of a board game renaissance, and this resurgence reflects our complex media environment. Board games are more popular than ever.

I want to concentrate on board games that are based on other media properties – television programs, movies, books, and graphic novels. Today, our “media life” is becoming inundated with multiple media outlets. Board games reflect this experience. Although not a new phenomenon — the earliest I could find was Sir John Tenniel’s 1882 Game of Alice in Wonderland— the licensing of board games today reveals a heightened complexity in the media environment.

Licensed board games are often relegated to the “closet” of the academy. What has been written about games based on other media products is quite negative (David Partlett​, the author of The Oxford History of Board Games​ writes: “essentially trivial, ephemeral, mind-numbing, and ultimately [a] soul-destroying degree of worthlessness.”) But licensed games are not worthless – they tell us how people interpret and “play” with their media. 

And they’re not worthless because they are economically viable as well. Board games are more popular than ever: sales have increased more than 20% over the last five years, and in 2013 annual board game sales increased by $60 million. On Amazon, board game sales increased by a double-digit percentage from 2012 to 2013. 

In 2013, the amount of money crowdfunded for board games exceeded the amount raised for video games by almost $10 million. Perhaps this turn to board games represents a reaction to our digital culture. As electronic games become more demanding, the relative simplicity of board games recalls a type of pre-digital ludism where we all circle around the “campfire” of the game board.

But beyond their popularity, board games have also increased in complexity. These complex board games involve more strategy than luck and deeper player investment in the game’s mechanics, narratives, and rules. The board game’s continued perseverance even in a flagging economy highlights its importance to our complex media environment.
new complex board games are also more expensive than their mass-market cousins. A game like Star Trek: Fleet Captains goes list price for eighty dollars. Almost all these games also come with expansion packs—additional boards, pieces, rules, and missions—that can easily run 40 or 50 dollars.

Star Trek has had over 55 different games based on the all the series and films. Some might call this “transmediation” or the expansion of a narrative across multiple media products. Others might call this “adaptation” or the process of recasting a text into a new format. Still others might call this “franchising” of the addition of multiple media products under one brand.

Rather than transmedia, adaptation, franchise – or even “worthless” – I prefer the term “paratext,” which means “around the text.” A paratext is the product – film trailers, ads, promos, dvd cover art – that influences our interpretation of media. A DVD cover is both part of but also apart from the content inside the box. Paratext foregrounds the unique textuality of board games.

In my studies I examined the ways that paratextual board games “fit” into the media environment. For example, in Arkham Horror, a game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, players try to rid the town of Arkham of Cthulhu or other Ancient Ones. Lovecraft’s mythos establishes a sense of “unknowability” in the enemy – they are not evil, simply out of the realm of human understanding (we are but ants).

However, with over 700 pieces, a table-sized game board, and a 24-page rule book, the game Arkham Horror is notoriously complex. Even more so: the rules surrounding the cult world upon which the game is based determine such factors as the inhabitants, character relationships, fictional cultures, natural laws, and history of the world. Playing the game reveals this background.

Other paratextual games reveal different tensions. For example, by harnessing gaps within the cult narrative texts, moments between action scenes, games based on The Lord of the Rings present opportunities for players to become involved with the story. Knowing the ending is less important that adventuring with these characters that fans may love.

Paratextual board games generate player pathos by connecting with the media characters. In The Walking Dead graphic novel game, zombies chase players across the board. In the TV game, if a character dies, they become a zombie, forcing the player to abandon their goals and to get their character to eat their competition.

Games, like cult media, transport players, giving them a different “sense of time and space.” In the 1978 Battlestar Galactica game, players are thrust into the space of the game, attempting to capture a Cylon Raider. In the 2008 Battlestar Galactica game, players are instead thrust into a temporal experience, as one player will eventually betray their colleagues.

Of course, one of the pleasures of a board game lies in its pieces. In one Star Trek game, players create a new episode by playing as Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Uhura. In the other game, players assemble an armada of ships from across all the original Star Trek series, a “best-of ” the Star Trek universe acknowledges of the reach and influence of the series.

Two games based on The Hunger Games series reveal new ways that players can become fans and vice verse. Fans – people that form strong emotional bonds to a media product – are in some ways the most ideal audience for paratextual board games. Neither game has you actually playing the Hunger Games – rather, each approaches the Hunger Games as a way of cohering fan to game by “filling in the gaps.”

How do you represent what is one of the most complex television shows – and certainly one of the most complex book series – in a game? In these Game of Thrones games, players have to negotiate and use diplomacy to form alliances with others. This cooperation allows players to “capture the flavor of the intrigues, diplomatic actions, and military strikes found in the series.” 

It wouldn’t be a presentation by Paul Booth if it didn’t mention Doctor Who, and there are a number of games based on this popular British television series. Two of them are controlled by electronic boards which light up and either speak random instructions – such as, “a black hole is pulling us in!” — or change the board. Both games create a framework through which players become the Doctor – experiencing unknown adventures.

Doctor Who is not the only interactive game out there, and many games today use interactive media like DVDs to occasionally interrupt the flow of the play experience and instruct players on what they must do. These “interative” paratextual board games reflect a changing media culture as a hybrid form of game and media.

Paratextual board games allow us to see the media environment as constructed not by absolute delineations between one text and other, but as a series of shifting interpretations of media texts. The paratextual board game is a mediated performance, a connection between player, audience member, and text that can only be generated in the moment of play.