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.

BCM215 Game Media Industries: Discourse, History and Planning the Digital Artifact

In this lecture, I expand on the idea of discourse from the previous video and explore the history of video games in terms of the relationship between analogue and digital games. 

In the second part of the lecture, I focus on progressing the core learning assessment strategy for this subject and consider ways of planning a successful digital artifact.

Game Media Industries

Part one of my new video lecture series for BCM215 Game Media Industries is now fully edited and uploaded to YouTube. I’m learning new skills with Final Cut Pro and have access to better audio equipment this year so there is a good deal of improvement over previous video lectures. Part One of BCM215 is an introduction to the subject and an overview of the approach and learning assessment methods.

BCM215 Game Media (Industries) Week One

Week one of a new subject in the Digital and Social Media major in the Bachelor of Communication and Media at the University of Wollongong.

SUBJECT DESCRIPTION:

This subject investigates the emergence of digital game cultures as a key element of the global creative economy. We analyse games from the perspectives of both players and industries, situating them within a continuum of human play activities and examining the trajectory of the commercial games industry from early forms of console gaming to contemporary forms, such as apps, eSports, board games and live streaming. In addition to covering topical issues such as violence in video games and game censorship, students will acquire practical skills in game media production by collaborating on a digital artefact specific to the game industries.

Playing Lotus (2016)

This post is the first autoethnographic account in a research project for a future article to be titled ‘Cardboard Asia’.

Background
The lotus flower is a common element in Asian themed games where it is used to denote orientalism and mysticism. The flower, while often used to represent Chinese themes, also has a long history as the ‘sacred lotus’ in the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The lotus is, therefore, a polyvalent symbol and generic orientalist signifier. The lotus is featured in the German Der weiße Lotus (2000) that depicted territorial control in the middle ages and Flower of the Lotus (1996), which was republished under the title China Moon (1998). The German-only language version of Lotus (1998) is an award winning piece-stacking racing game with some strategical elements, which featured a red snake-like dragon on a grid layout that somewhat resembled a flowering lotus plant, a very stereotypical representation of Chineseness.

Lotus (2016) by Jordan and Mandy Goddard (Renegade Game Studios)

Lotus (2016)
The most recent Lotus boardgame first signals its ‘asianness’ representationally with the box cover that depicts a digital watercolour painting of a woman in traditional straight collar purple cheongsam with coiled buttons and green and gold embroidery, who appears to be levitating a glowing lotus flower. On the cover, the title ‘Lotus’ has a calligraphy-styled font, and the game’s designers are simply listed as ‘Jordan & Mandy’, while the back of the box has images of the game’s components. The back of the box signals the game’s Chineseness with a single hànzì character appearing next to the component list, which Google translates suggests is ‘lotus’. The game is illustrated by Anita Osburn and Chris Ostrowski, and made in China, but Lotus is published by Renegade Games studies, which is listed as a Californian company, who also publish two other popular Asian themed games Lanterns: The Harvest Festival and Honshu.

First encounter
As with most ‘boxed’ board games, the first game involves several commons experiences including the removal of shrink wrap, the ‘popping’ of cardboard tiles from the factory punched card stock and the learning of the rules. Our first game was a four player experience, with Harriet, my ten-year-old daughter, my partner Lucy, and our friend Jodie, who began reading the rule book while I search for a ‘how-to-play video on YouTube. The first game we played was an introduction to the game’s aesthetic experience that I described as ‘beautiful meanness’. Playing the game involves placing the individual flower cards on the table and completing the flower ‘sets’ of the flowers placed by others by adding the right number of cards/petals. Each of the flowers – Iris (3 petals), Primrose (4 petals), Cherry Blossom (5 petals), Lily (6 petals) and the Lotus (7 petals) – is a typical Chinese flower type. The font on the Guardian cards and points coins replicate the calligraphy style of the box cover, but the cards lack other overt symbols of ‘Chineseness’.

Each player gets two insect tokens – Yellow (Butterfly), Red (Ladybug), Blue (Dragonfly) and Green (Caterpillar), which evokes the connections to Japanese games media where bug collecting (Pokemon and Yokai Watch) is considered an honourable and worthwhile pursuit. In Lotus, the insects are ‘Guardians’, and when placed on the flower cards, they count as that player’s territory. To take a flower, the player must complete it, but to get the bonus points or special power tokens, the player with the most Guardians wins. This helped to offset the ‘meanness’ I felt in completing the flowers that other player’s put down. By building up the flowers, we emotionally invest in them, and it can feel mean when other players complete your carefully assembled Lilly or ambitiously planned Lotus. The beautiful meanness of the game became even more profound to me during our second game. In the first game, my strategy of completing flowers rather than investing Guardian tokens into them meant I won with a huge lead and prompted an immediate second game where I became the one to beat. Instead of focussing on taking the flowers in the second game I invested in achieving all the special powers, which gave me fewer points but it felt like I was experiencing more of the game than simply winning.

Final thoughts
Lotus is a game designed in the United States and made in China. It is a global product, one that is clear in its Asianness but also offering a contemporary feel to the concept. Lotus has a degree of ‘ludonarratological dissonance’ in which the gorgeous aesthetic, underlying spiritual and botanical motifs, contrasts sharply to the competitive element of traditional ‘trick-taking’ in Western card games like Bridge or 500. Board games, in general, suffer from this problem, and in the future, I’ll put together a blog post on those that work to overcome it (I’m thinking specifically of Netrunner).

Lotus is a game designed in the United States and made in China. It is a global product, one that is clear in its Asianness but also offering a contemporary feel to the concept. Lotus has a degree of ‘ludonarratological dissonance’ in which the gorgeous aesthetic, underlying spiritual and botanical motifs, contrasts sharply to the competitive element of traditional ‘trick-taking’ in Western card games like Bridge or 500. Board games, in general, suffer from this problem, and in the future, I’ll put together a blog post on those that work to overcome it (I’m thinking specifically of Netrunner).

course materials on games, design and culture

Two great games scholars and lecturers have made their course materials available online. I’ll be taking some inspiration from these and will add more as I find them.

Mia Consalvo – Critical Game Design and Analysis and From Gamer to Player

T.L Taylor – Introduction to Video Game Theory