Session 6b: Models, Metaphors, Meanings, cont. – University of Copenhagen

Board Game Studies Colloquium XX > Program > Session 6b: Models, Me...

Session 6b: Models, Metaphors, Meanings, cont.

The Semiotics of Boardgames

Fri 19 May, 10:30 - 11:00 (KUA3, Room 4A.1.60)

Mattia Thibault
PhD Fellow, University of Turin, Italy

According to a semiotic perspective, boardgames are modelling systems composed of a matrix of constraints (rules) and a repertory (meaningful objects used for playing). The processes of semiosis (or meaning generation) that happen while playing a boardgame are determined by the complex interaction between these two systems. Both systems are equally important in determining the final meaning of a game. It is possible to play chess using Harry Potter-shaped pieces: the matrix of constraints (the rules of chess) is always the same, but the pieces still influence the game experience. Similarly, we could use checkers pieces to play backgammon, exploiting the same repertory to play two very different games. However, the relationship between the two systems can be far more complex. On the one hand, the objects of the repertory can carry enough meaning to actually modify the rules: in some African mancala games the fact that the games are played with seeds contributed to the introduction of a rule about "not starving your opponent". On the other hand, the whole game can be recontextualised and thus resemantised: the Scandinavian game hnefatafl acquire new meaning when transposed as the dwarfish game Thud! in Terry Pratchett's novels. In this presentation, we will use the tools of cultural semiotics to delineate a typology of possible interaction between matrix and repertory, and in particular focus on the balance between the two systems and on the different meanings that they bestow on games.

Mattia Thibault is a PhD student at the University of Turin, currently about to defend his dissertation The Meaning of Play – A theory of playfulness, toys and games as cultural semiotic devices. He participates in SEMKNOW, the first pan-European doctoral program on semiotics, and has been visiting researcher at Tartu University (Estonia), The Strong Museum of Play (Rochester, NY, US) and Helsinki University (Finland). His research interests revolve around semiotics of play, ranging from toys to digital games and from the ludicisation of culture to the playful practices of the peripheries of the internet. He has presented and organized numerous talks, conferences and activities dedicated to these topics, and he has published several peer-reviewed articles and edited the book Gamification Urbana, letture e riscritture ludiche degli spazi cittadini.

Stories of Colonialism Retold Somewhat Lovingly

Fri 19 May, 11:00 - 11:30 (KUA3, Room 4A.1.60)

Dr Mikael Jakobsson
Research Scientist & Coordinator, Comparative Media Studies at MIT & MIT Game Lab, Cambridge, US

Colonialism themed board games like Puerto Rico and Settlers of Catan have played an important role in popularizing modern board games. As the hobby is growing rapidly in many parts of the world, this theme continues to be frequently represented among new titles. This presentation examines the reasons for this and discusses some related problems.

The presentation identifies a number of significant actors within the board game community of practice (designers, publishers, reviewers, other content providers, and players) and analyzes their roles in the persistence of the colonialism theme. While this by necessity involves a historical look at the emergence of modern board games, the focus of the presentation is on games from the last five years, and the reception of these titles.

Colonialism themed board games have received some critical attention from academia in recent years. Based on examinations of the games' formal and aesthetic properties, issues of representation and simulation have been exposed. This leaves a number of important problems to be addressed.

By bringing in the context of the games: the players and the spatial configuration of play; I offer an additional perspective. Instead of focusing on historical accuracy, I question the choices of which stories are being reenacted, and the casting of the players into colonialist roles. What does it mean to present these historical moments in such a lavish and pleasing form, to then have these artifacts serve as centerpieces to gather around for social interaction at board game cafes, meet-ups, and conventions?

Mikael Jakobsson is a Research Scientist at Comparative Media Studies, MIT and the Research Coordinator for MIT Game Lab. He conducts research and teaches classes on game design and game culture. His current research interests focus on different aspects of co-located collaborative games and design exploration of connections between interaction modes and experience outcomes. He also studies physical and mixed media games and other systems for playful and social interaction. Previous work includes studies of social interaction in virtual worlds and reward systems in games. His most recent publication is a chapter on Achievements in Debugging Game History. A Critical Lexicon edited by Henry Lowood and Raiford Guins and published by MIT Press, 2016. He is currently working on a book about EverQuest for the Landmark Video Games series.

How Hobbyists Value Boardgames

Fri 19 May, 11:30 - 12:00 (KUA3, Room 4A.1.60)

Melissa J. Rogerson (w/ Martin Gibbs & Wally Smith)
PhD Candidate, Microsoft Research Centre for Social NUI, University of Melbourne, Australia

This paper reports on an interview-based study of self-identified hobbyist boardgamers, describing the value that they place on boardgames. These people described the important roles that boardgames – and being a boardgame player – play in their lives. Our interviewees described spending large amounts of money on boardgames and associated material, travelling – sometimes internationally – to hobby events, acquiring new skills (e.g. in model-making) to support their boardgaming hobby, and even customizing or selecting their home to accommodate and display their boardgame collection. To these serious leisure practitioners [2], being a boardgamer means more than simply playing or owning games; the games have undergone a process of domestication [1] through which they are not merely appropriated and objectified but are incorporated into the hobbyist's life and home, and converted through their presentation to others. Through this process, the games acquire new meaning as a representation of the gamer and of their membership in a culture of boardgaming. Associated activities like travel and model-making strengthen that commitment to and identification with boardgaming, reinforcing the enjoyment that these hobbyists associate with the games.

[1] Silverstone, R., E. Hirsch, and D. Morley (1992) "Information and communication technologies and the moral economy of the household" in Consuming Technologies: Media and Information in Domestic Spaces. Routledge, London. Retrieved from
[2] Stebbins, R.A. (2012) The Idea of Leisure: First Principles. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Melissa Rogerson is a PhD candidate in the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her doctoral research examines the experience of playing board games in both physical and digital forms, as well as the characteristics and motivations of hobbyist board game players, designers, and developers. It applies techniques from human-computer interaction to the study of games and play.

Melissa is active in local and international boardgaming communities, is co-chair of Boardgames Australia, and is a member of the jury for the International Gamers' Awards. She has translated award-winning boardgames from German to English and has co-designed expansions for the popular game Agricola.

Select Publications
Rogerson, M. J., & M. Gibbs (forthcoming). Finding Time for Tabletop: Boardgame Play and Parenting. Games and Culture. DOI: 10.1177/1555412016656324. Available from

Rogerson, M. J., M. Gibbs & W. Smith (2016, May 07-12). "'I love all the bits': the materiality of boardgames". Paper presented at CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, USA. Available from

Rogerson, M. J., M. Gibbs & W. Smith (2015). "Digitising boardgames: Issues and tensions." Paper presented at the DiGRA 2015; Diversity of Play, Lüneburg, Germany. Available from