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Analog Game History

Notes for a Discipline in the Making

Marco Arnaudo (Indiana University)

Game studies is a relatively young discipline, and within that discipline the field of analog game studies is still virtually in its infancy. This makes sense since game studies truly blossomed in the early 2000s, and at that time analog games weren’t nearly as exciting and fast developing as video games. In fact, it could be said with little paradox that board games have evolved very little between the dawn of civilization and twenty years ago. David Parlett wrote in his 1999 History of Board Games that the modern game industry was still built on concepts that had been around for thousands of years. If the idea of playing a video game that’s five thousand years old seems ludicrous, until the 1990s the majority of all board games available were actually thinly disguised relics of the Bronze Age.

And yet, it is precisely at the time of Parlett’s assessment that analog game culture was starting to change at such a breathtaking speed that now, twenty years later, we are experiencing a true renaissance of board gaming. More analog games are being printed than ever before, generating unprecedented capital, and they are propagating innovative mechanics, majestic productions, and new ways for people to interact with each other. This leaves us with a spectacularly exciting, refreshing, creative environment of gamers and games, and one that is ripe for full academic consideration.

What could, and maybe should, then be part of a history of gaming that encompasses the recent turn in analog games?

Analog game history, as a discipline, should strongly emphasize the last twenty years, as this time span has brought the most dramatic changes to the field. It would also need to understand analog games as complex artifacts, not as simple embodiments of a design. Attention should be paid to context, paratexts, audience, publishers, and designers. After all, the very fact that we have famous designers of games now is a noteworthy innovation, especially compared to the anonymous creators of traditional board games or modern mass-market games. Moreover, an analog game history would need to focus on the specific affordances of games that mainly rely on physically tangible components. It would be a history that emphasizes the unique possibilities of the medium, without porting concepts from video gaming that do not necessarily apply.

An analog game history, however, would also need to be transectional and take into account the plethora of productive exchanges between the two modalities. From tabletop role-playing games that had an impact on video games, to recent board games that are enhanced by the use of apps, many gaming phenomena can be understood only by a mixed approach. This in turn requires that game scholars branch out of their specialized fields, with video-game scholars taking an interest in innovative board-game publishers like Fantasy Flight, Ares, Tasty Minstrel, Stronghold, or AEG, and analog-game scholars becoming familiar with video games beyond recollections of their Atari 2600. Of course, this is a demanding approach that takes time and energy. On the other hand, the subjects of the inquiry are so pleasurable!

A game history would also benefit from being transectional in other directions, such as cooperation between a humanistic approach and a scientific/computational one. Most analog and screen-based games are both systems of algorithms and themes; heuristics and characters; mathematical optimization and meaningful emotion. It might be unrealistic to expect every scholar to become fully accomplished in the methods of the humanities and hard ludology, and it is for this reason that game specialists need to start working more synergistically than they (we) currently are. And given that most game scholarship is produced in academia, it will be up to institutions of higher education to provide spaces and opportunities for many types of game scholars to come together.

A history of analog gaming will also need to be inclusive in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, and any other factor that has become the subject of systemic marginalization. Analog games have a less-than-spotless record in this regard, with plenty of all-white, all-male character casts—and chain-mail bikinis for the token amazon. A new history of analog gaming would need to pay attention to past representations to learn to identify them and to deconstruct the social systems that supported them. At the same time, it should acknowledge the revolutionary corrective steps that are being taken in the hobby, and that are pointing to a healthier, more inclusive game culture.