Theme – University of Copenhagen

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Board Game Studies Colloquium XX > Theme


Models, Metaphors, Meanings


In one of the most famous legends in board game history, an Indian king sends a chess set to the emperor of Persia, challenging him to explain the game. Much to the king's surprise, one of the emperor's ministers not only manages to explain the game, but also to device one of his own, thus returning the challenge to the king. When no one at the king's court is able to meet it, again the emperor's minister steps forth, this time explaining his own newly invented game of nard, or backgammon.

While the legend is of obvious importance for our understanding of the origins of chess and backgammon, what I want to draw attention to here is something else. For when the minister explains first chess and then backgammon, what exactly is it that he explains? One might expect him to give a detailed description of the rules of movement and capture, set forth the win conditions, or present examples of strategy, but instead he does something altogether different: He explains what the games mean.

Chess is not simply about moving variously shaped ebony and ivory pieces around on an 8x8 grid, it is about commanding an army on the battlefield. Similarly, backgammon is not just about moving your pieces from one end of the board to the other according to the roll of dice, it is about the fate of men as governed by the celestial bodies in the heavens above. And so we might continue the minister's master class on our own, extracting new layers of meaning from otherwise seemingly abstract or non-representational games.

This year, the organizers would like to call attention to the function of games as models or metaphors of meaning. While welcoming to all papers within the field of board game studies, we would especially like to welcome papers about not only what, but also why and how games represent.

This includes, but is not limited to, the expression of theme and narrative through various aspects of game design such as components, rules, and mechanics; the interface between the uses of games for secular and religious as well as educational and entertainment purposes; historical and regional changes in the function and meaning of games as the result of events and transmissions; and the role of games in asserting and propagating cultural values and political and religious ideologies.

Among the numerous examples that spring to mind is the suggestion by Timothy Kendall that the sudden disappearance of the ancient Egyptian game Mehen was directly related to the dangerous religious symbolism with which it had come to be associated. Or the story of how Ludo (c. 1896) accidentally robbed its Indian predecessor Pachisi of its central metaphor by reversing the direction of play, turning a counter-clockwise signification of cosmic involution into a clockwise signification of the opposite. Not to mention some of the more conscious attempts at signification demonstrated by suggestive game titles such as White Australia Game (1914), Juden Raus (1938), and Five Little Nigger Boys (1950).

For a slightly more developed example, I recommend the following 5-minute video from the Extra Credits Network: