Xu, Y., Barba, E., Radu, I., Gandy, M., & MacIntyre, B. (2011). Chores are fun: Understanding social play in board games for digital tabletop game design. In Think Design Play: The fifth international conference of the Digital Research Association (DIGRA) (Vol. 16).
When playing board games, players often have to undertake various tasks in regards to keeping the game in its correct state after making their own plays. These tasks are what this study looks at, in an attempt to understand the relevant social behaviours that might be born from such interactions. The outcome of this study, the nuances of several observed social behaviours, proves that tabletop game design can be further improved to better transmit the experience of playing a real board game and its social components.
The authors work on Tabletop Handheld Augmented Reality (THAR) games research. Their scope with this study was to understand what social behaviours or interactions emerge during play sessions of various board games, so that the game design decisions for games in other types of media, tabletop games for instance, can be taken in a more informed and conscious way. For this purpose, the study consisted of video recording several play sessions of four different board games (Puerto Rico, Heroscape, Flux, Ingenious), while also registering the social play that took place between the players. Five different interaction categories where identified: (i) Chores; (ii) Reflection on gameplay; (iii) Strategies; (iv) Out-of-game; (v) Game itself. The paper focused primarily in the Chores type of interaction, as it was the most promising and interesting result.
The study concludes by exemplifying how can THAR games be improved with the results that were gathered from this study, while making a parallelism with sociology theories to further reinforce the quality and applicability of the findings.
The paper begins with a brief Related Work section, perhaps because this research topic is yet to be thoroughly investigated. First, since the research group works deeply with technology-dependent games, an introduction to work in the field of tabletop games is made. Tabletop games draw a hefty chunk of inspiration from board games, both in their physicality, by gathering players around a virtual game board with virtual tokens, and in their sociability, leveraging players to interact with each other as if they were playing a regular board game (Mandryk and Maranan, 2002). Moreover, tabletop games have been developed with great resemblance to board games, allowing the same types of physical interactions, with the particular nuance that represented tokens might have a slightly different spatial representation (Baker et. al. 2007) due to the lack of a third dimension on a screen.
The authors also take a quick glance at how co-location is important for social play. The presence of all players around a common interaction device, a game board or a game controller, while watching someone else play is important because it increases the emergence of social interactions, be them speech, gestures or others. From these interactions, two categories can be derived: Internal or stimulated social interactions, which are the one which are directly tied to the gameplay, and external or natural social interactions, which relate to the existing world roles that people carry or project into their gameplay. In the particular case of this study, the internal interactions were studied and analysed using the Interaction Ritual theory (Collins, 2004) which looks at the ingredients and outcomes of successful social interactions, despite the platform of interaction (in this case, games).
Like described above, four different games were used to gather video recordings and personal notes on the social interactions of players. The study made sure that all the players played the different games, which raised the problem of identifying the same social reactions from different players in the same games, i.e., although two players might become frustrated, their frustration manifestations might look or feel different.
Upon analyzing the data, five different internal social interaction categories emerged: (i) Chores; (ii) Reflection on gameplay; (iii) Strategies; (iv) Out-of-game; (v) Game itself. Since the research group works with tabletop games and handheld games, they focused on the first interaction category.
Chores are all the tasks that players see as extremely boring while playing a game. These can be to replenish tokens, update score markers, clean-up the board, shuffling cards, reading cards, etc. They are basically all the game state maintenance actions that must be taken several times during a play session. Naturally, such tasks are identifiable as perfect candidates for automation, something which digital games excel at. That way, the game could became more fluid since it has the tedious tasks streamlined, removing the time where the player could feel bored. What is interesting to see is that, according to the findings of the authors, Chores is the category in which most of the social interactions take place. These tedious tasks slowed the pace of the game and created time that players wanted to fill with other activities, showing evidence of greater co-presence within the group, which in turn heightened the awareness of others’ actions.
For me, this is extremely interesting and fun to read as part of research results. As a board gamer myself, I find this dichotomy to be intriguing because, what happens during most of the play sessions is that, chores seem to make players deeply bored, even myself! But now, if I look into the past, perhaps some of the greatest jokes and laughs took place during this hiatus period of chores, often fitting external jokes about some of the players into the game world.
The authors then provide findings in four sub-interactions within Chores that can be: interactions around object maneuvering, rule enforcement through social agreement, interactions and communications when waiting for someone to take a turn and collaborative learning about the rules.
In the first two sub-interactions, the authors find that physical objects did (and do) facilitate interaction and tracking processes. Allowing the players to roll physical dice births exhagerated actions which create a higher level of shared mood within the group, like when purposefully toppling the king piece in a game of chess. Boardgames also created room for custom “house rules” because rule enforcement is not automatic. This leveraged players to agree to exceptions in the rules or to allow errors during play. Both these two sub-interactions externalize the tension among players and allow them to achieve the “synchronization of emotions” mentioned in the IR Theory, evidencing the success of the interaction facilitated by boardgames.
Another interesting finding was that players are either performers or spectators when playing turn-based games, something which is natural to board games. The main conversation generally occurred between two players, the performers, while all the others retreated to the role of spectators, who struggled to become the focus of attention. This very true in my experience, as I have played with many groups and there always seemed to be a segregation of smaller groups, specially if we are talking about acquaintances versus friends. What I also find frequent, and see reflected in the results found, is that one or two players are normally very pompous and really like to “be in the spotlight”, while others tend to be less expressive or make less ruckus. The consequence is that players often joke or discuss about the last plays, especially when taking a look at the last takes of the performer players. Being in the spotlight has its costs, reinforcing the co-location of players mentioned in the IR Theory.
The authors also found that board games promoted shared learning. The players who picked up the rules faster passed their understanding to other players while reinforcing their own learning. When there are other players around, who have bigger and deeper understanding of the rules, it is not needed to consult the manual from page one to one hundred. It was easier and more frequent for the players to just start playing and refer to the manual should they come across any strange situation or exception. This is also very true for me, and not just with board games. It is always more interactive and engaging to “piggy-back” on the knowledge of others when being co-located with them. I can think of the example of learning Dungeons and Dragons with my former dungeon master, as opposed to trying to learn it from the books themselves. Although the manuals might make a tremendous effort to detail and explain the rules clearly, it feels more rewarding to hear someone else guide you through the rules than reading a book for 2 hours and still not really getting all the details (this happened to me with a board game called Vinhos)!
The authors also talk about the other social interaction categories, but since they were not the focus of the discussion, they were not as detailed as the Chores category and drew smaller conclusions from them. Upon laying all the discoveries “on the table”, the authors frame their findings around the THAR games they develop, and how they could be specifically improved on some of their aspects. They account for the lack of physical tokens in tabletop games, the lack of room for social performance and dramatization that tabletop games do allow and stimulate, and the lack of flexibility for exceptions and house rules.
Since I have been a board gamer for quite some time, this read was quite captivating for me. I found that the reading was very light (no statistics) and, although it might have seemed as a “documentation of the obvious” about board games versus digital tabletop games, it is always important to publish this sort of findings. To quote one of my Professors in Portugal – “If no one publishes a paper about whether cars can have square wheels, there is no scientific documentation on such fact, thus being important to study this same fact and document it… even if it sounds silly.”.
The fact that Chores turned out to be the most socially relevant interaction in the whole study caught me by surprise, especially when it is backed by sociology theories that reinforce the importance of the interactions that take place during what is considered to be a boring period of play. As to the future of board games and/or digital tabletop games, I might have a biased opinion.
I love board games and, to me, board games will not be dethroned by digital tabletop games in regards to social interactions in a near future. I think that they will instead meld together into a hybrid sort of games, mostly like an augmented board game much like the False Prophets game (Mandryk and Maranan, 2002). That way you will still have room for the theatrical way that some one rolls dice and SCREAMS from the top of their lungs when they critically hit that colossal giant in his Achilles heel which makes it fall and perish or the look of pure sheer anger when your move completely destroys the plans of your friends. Once the full recreation of the physical and social experiencse of board games is achieved (like when you throw your dice and everything on the board gets messy and everyone laughs or complains), then is when digital games will finally surpass board games, because the advantages of having a digital board with improved animations and graphics will unlock further game designs and better gaming experiences, while leaving room for the equally important social aspect of co-located gaming.
- Mandryk, R. L., & Maranan, D. S. (2002, April). False prophets: exploring hybrid board/video games. In CHI’02 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 640-641). ACM.
- Bakker, S., Vorstenbosch, D., van den Hoven, E., Hollemans, G., & Bergman, T. (2007, June). Tangible interaction in tabletop games: studying iconic and symbolic play pieces. In Proceedings of the international conference on Advances in computer entertainment technology (pp. 163-170). ACM.
- Collins, R. (2004). Interaction ritual chains. Princeton university press.
- Nilsen, T., & Looser, J. (2005). Tankwar-Tabletop war gaming in augmented reality. In 2nd International Workshop on Pervasive Gaming Applications, PerGames (Vol. 5).