- The Futures of Game Studies
- Missing a Piece: (The Lack of) Board Game Scholarship in Media Studies
There’s a piece missing from media scholarship: the board game. even though board games are a mainstay in many households—from chess to Monopoly to Settlers of Catan—they are a remarkably understudied phenomenon within media studies. A search of online academic databases for “board game” finds few articles within media studies; a couple of academic, historical, and popular books; and a surprisingly large number of articles about business (the pun forming from “board” room).1 The articles that do exist often point to the relationship between board games and digital games,2 to issues of adaptation,3 or to board game use within education and pedagogy.4 There are very few articles that use media studies methodologies like ethnography, textual analysis, cultural studies, and industrial analysis to investigate board games as unique artifacts in and of themselves, as culturally significant, or as media entities.
This absence is particularly surprising given the rapid rise in the popularity of board games. A 2015 statistic from ICv2, a pop culture research and news organization, found that sales of hobby games (which include collectible games, hobby board games, card games, miniature games, role-playing games, and dice games) reached $1.19 billion in 2015.5 On their own, board game sales topped $250 million, the third highest selling game genre (collectible games, like Pokémon, Magic: The Gathering, and Star Wars Miniatures, came in first, with over $650 million in sales in 2015 alone).6 It is not uncommon to find hobby board game stores around the country, and even big box stores like Target and Barnes and Noble stock more complex and thematic games like Ticket to Ride and Mansions of Madness.
Beyond their ubiquity in our homes and stores, board games are an important artifact for reflecting on and analyzing cultural trends, historical antecedents, and thematic content in contemporary society. In Game Play I described the board game as “part of, and also apart from, the media environment” and looked specifically at the textual, structural, and paratextual relationships between board games and media texts.7 Board games are meant to be played, but they also make statements about leisure, about socialization, and about mediation. The absence of board game scholarship in media studies is striking, and I propose a new focus on board games in media studies moving forward. In this short provocation, I offer some reasons for this lacuna and some rationale for the importance of bringing board games into the academic conversation.
Perhaps the biggest question one faces when making an argument like this is, why? Why do board games belong in media studies? To begin to answer that question I think it’s helpful to look [End Page 57] at what media studies is and what media studies studies and then illustrate how board games fit into this paradigm.
Media studies, defined loosely, is the analysis and investigation of “that which mediates”—or, in other words, that which is a tool or outlet for storing and delivering information to others (“media” here as the plural of “medium,” or something that lies between and links two other things).8 It is a slightly tautological definition, of course, so diving a bit deeper, we can note that media studies is the analysis of a system of information transmission outside of interpersonal communication. Put very broadly, then, media studies investigates content in a variety of modes: the production of content (e.g., industry studies, political economy), the content itself (textual analysis), the delivery of content (technology studies), and the reception of content (audience studies) within a cultural setting (cultural studies). Media has been historically defined rather loosely in the field: in an introductory textbook, Julian McDougall argues that media studies is “the study of everyday life.”9 Media studies, then, finds its objects of analysis within multiple realms. Toby Miller notes that the media “have given rise to three related topics of scholarly inquiry”:
• technology, ownership, and control—their political economy;
• textuality—their meaning; and
• audience—their public.10
So how can board games be considered media...