Laying Eggs: Ludonarrative Resonance and the Birds of Wingspan

Very happy that the following abstract has been accepted as part of a book proposal on the representation of birds to be called Avian Aesthetics:

Wingspan is a board game that involves collecting food resources to play bird cards into appropriate habitats, where the animals can lay eggs and generate points for the player by meeting randomised goals. The game was designed by Elizabeth Hargraves and published in 2019 by Stonemair Games, and it features 170 pencil colour illustrations of North American birds by Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel. In the global niche industry of board games, Wingspan is a bestseller and award winner, achieving the best ‘connoisseur’ game of the year at the Kennerspiel des Jahres, the prestigious and influential annual industry awards in Germany. The game’s enormous success has grown to include the European and Oceania expansion sets that increased the number of birds to play with and changed its mechanical dynamics to match the different settings. 

The popularity of the game is such that it has an ecosystem of upgrades and additions that enable players to personalise their physical copies, including wooden ‘meeples’ of the birds and food resources. The digital version of the board game was released for Windows and macOS via the digital distribution platform, Steam in 2019 and a new book ‘Celebrating Birds: An Interactive Field Guide Featuring Art from Wingspan by Rojas and Martinez is due for publication in 2021. A few important factors contribute to the game’s success, including its high-quality production and its ‘euro’ style design that features a low degree of player competition but highly strategic gameplay. It is undeniable that the theme, art and attention to the birds and their environments captured the attention of board game fans worldwide, which introduced thousands of new players to the medium. Wingspan has helped revitalise attention to commonplace birds and introduce players to many species not previously encountered.

Hargraves says she was “sick of playing board games about castles and trains” (cited in Evans 2020) and wanted to make a game that featured something she cared about. The notion of care translated in the design to a correlation between the knowledge that humans have about birds and game mechanics that intrigue players to learn more. The Oceania expansion, which will be the focus of the analysis in this chapter, introduces players to the Australian ibis and its infamous reputation as a “bin chicken” that gives players the ability to select cards from the discard pile and the New Zealand pūkeko whose communally minded nest sharing gives the player ability to lay bird eggs on neighbouring birds. These mechanics suggest a way to analyse the ludic and thematic synthesis of birds’ representation in board games, through images and rules, in terms of what can be described as ludonarrative resonance.

The term ludonarrative dissonance was first used by Clint Hocking (2007) in a blog post that described the experience of detachment or “emersion” as the opposite of immersion that occurs in video games. Hocking’s concept has been used extensively in game studies to critique the gap between the ludic and narrative features. However, this chapter proposes to invert this concept to consider the affective resonance between representation and rules, and between theme and game mechanics, that works to invite players to invest interest and even care in avian species; if not on the birds’ terms and experiences, then through a system which causes the human player to enact a ‘frameshifting’. 

Frameshifting is a Brechtian theatre concept that Mizer (2016) uses to celebrate the way players of board games must cognitively move between the game world and reality, shifting attention between theme, narrative, and events, as well as game rules and requirements and ludic mechanics, and a range of social interactions. Frameshifting in Wingspan causes new types of attention to birds, not merely as objects, but as characters and materials in a complex algorithmic interaction across the porous boundaries of what constitutes play. Furthermore, there are two other useful concepts from recent contributions to board game analysis that triangulate an analytical framework for exploring the ludonarrative resonance of Wingspan. The first comes from Wilson’s (2016) use of the Foucauldian concept of the heterotopia to explain how ‘euro’ styles games operate as sites of “constituting ourselves by way of what we see (or do not see) in their virtual spaces.” (43). The second draws from Altice’s (2016) model for analysing board games as physical platforms, which understands play experiences as being designed in a process that is dictated by form. 

Wingspan’s heterotopic space is a distinctly utopian complex as the human [the player] is indirectly included in the representational game space into which birds are played. The human is inscribed in the representation of knowledge about birds through the Latin taxonomic names at the top of the cards and the bird trivia that includes folkloric and indigenous knowledges at the bottom of the cards. The human is framed as the knowledge that is connected but peripheral to the birds’ experience, which is occupied with food, habitat and their ‘bird powers’, that produce the strategic choices in the game. The human is present but decentred, as even the boards on which play occurs and represents diverse bird habitats have a portfolio print on their reverse. This works to frame what Begy (2017) calls the board games construction of cultural memory through materiality. By examining the five interleaved platform characteristics in Altice’s model – the planar, uniform, ordinal, spatial, and textural – we can better understand the representational elements of Wingspan and the heterotopic game space created by the relationship between the material, algorithmic and social experience of its play that requires the player – if only temporarily – to invest in the birds and their world. 

References

Altice, Nathan 2016 “The playing card platform” Analog Game Studies (Volume 1), Aaron Trammell, Evan Torner, Emma Leigh Waldron eds. Catnegie Mellon: ETC Press: Pittsburg, PA, Pp. 

Evans, Kate 2020 “The Board Game For Birds”. New Zealand Geographic. Issue 166 – Nov – Dec, https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/the-board-game-for-birders/ (accessed 25/02/2021).

Begy, Jason 2017. Board Games and the Construction of Cultural Memory, Games and Culture, Vol. 12(7-8), pp. 718 – 738.

Hocking, Clint 2007. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock: The problem of what game is about”. Click Nothing, TypePad. http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html (accessed 25/02/2021).

Mizer Nick 2016. “Fun in a Different Way”: Rhythms of Engagement and Non-Immersive Play Agendas, Aaron Trammell, Evan Torner, Emma Leigh Waldron eds. Catnegie Mellon: ETC Press: Pittsburg, PA, Pp. 9-14.

Wilson, Devin (2016) The Eurogame as Heterotopia, Analog Game Studies (Volume 2), Aaron Trammell, Evan Torner, Emma Leigh Waldron eds. Catnegie Mellon: ETC Press: Pittsburg, PA, Pp. 43-50.

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