Ben’s DiGRA Roundup

T’other week I was fortunate enough to attend the DiGRA conference with our Frebeluxian PhD student, Oliver. This is the 2-yearly conference of the DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association). I’ve fancied going for years, but combinations of timing and expense have made it difficult. This year I was fortunate enough to have two things accepted into the conference, and the faculty challenge fund award to send me to the Netherlands to participate.

My paper presentation was called “Social Architecture and the Emergence of Power Laws in Online Social Games“. This is a central part of my PhD thesis that argues that the social effects of game design decisions are measurable using a branch of graph theory called SNA (Social Network Analysis). It is more exciting than it sounds (really!), since it demonstrates social activity in games follows a power law. This means that about 10% of players are responsible for over 50% of the social interactions in games. This is a huge deal since games are usually designed (and studied) based on the way that 10% behave. My argument is that the quiet 90% are much more interesting and important.

The second event was a panel and keynote. This was the result of an evening’s discussion with José Zagal, during a conference in Finland, where we bemoaned the general lack of board game related work in game studies (with exceptions!). We decided to do something about it, and when the DiGRA deadline rolled around, we submitted an idea for a panel discussion between famous tabletop game designers. It was accepted, so then we had to pull out all the stops to make the best event we could.

We were ridiculously fortunate to have an amazing group of people accept our invitation to appear on the panel. The discussion itself was to a completely packed audience, and was rich and varied, talking about narrative and the nature of experience, ethics and aesthetics. We are assured there is a video of it which we will share when we can.

It included Chris Bateman, who designed several pen-and-paper RPGs, co-wrote the inspirational text book 21st Century Game Design and worked on many digital games including Discworld Noir, Barbie Horse Adventure, GhostMaster and Motorstorm Apocalypse.

James Wallis (from Spaaace) designed best-selling story games Once upon a Time and Baron Munchausen, and published countless fantastic pen-and-paper RPGs including Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Violence: The Game of Egregious and Repulsive Bloodshed.

Andrew Sheerin, from Terrorbull games, a group who are using board games as a medium of satire. Their most famous game War on Terror: The Boardgame has shocked and awed thousands with its cutting portrayal of modern politics as a game of bluster, betrayal and balaclavas. Their latest game, Crunch: the Game for Utter Bankers, allows players to experience the politics behind the global financial crisis. Andrew wrote up his experiences on the panel (and DiGRA generally) on his blog.

Douglas Wilson, from the Copenhagen Game Collective, studies folk games and the possibilities of the physical spaces between rules and cheating. His games, including B.U.T.T.O.N. and J.S. Joust are a joyous mix of play, mischief and violence.

Armand Serveas, from the Stichting Spelgroep Phoenix represented the local games community in the Netherlands, who are active in evangelising games as a hobby, and in addition translating games for the Dutch language.

Finally, we had Reiner Knizia. If the name is not familiar to you, it should be. He is simply the most successful game designer in history, having designed and published well over 500 titles in his career. Games like Lord of the Rings, Heck Meck, Lost Cities and Through the Desert have won countless awards and entertained millions of players all over the world.

The panel was preceded by a superb keynote by Reiner, who kindly shared his ethos of game design in a charming and funny way. He also kindly brought along several hundred copies of his classic dice game Heck Meck, which he gave away free to everyone at the conference.

The talk covered a range of topics about game design based on his oeuvre. He discussed how the desire to “fix” Monopoly lead to Through the Desert, and how Heck Meck was his attempt to create a better, more social version of Yahtzee for mass appeal. He also talked about convergence and the success of Wer War’s? as a digital cooperative family board game.

One of the most valuable insights for me was into his involvement with the recent LEGO board games. As he described it, you get to buy another Lego kit and basically get the game for free. Since Lego intrinsically allows the players to rebuild the model, the inclusion of a modifiable die purposely provokes the Lego player to break his rules and come up with their own games.

Reiner Knizia

Overall DiGRA was an experience to say the least – the organisers tried to capture the essence of play and bring it into the dry and sometimes boring conference experience, and at least for me, they succeeded. I was quite overwhelmed on the first day since I gave my paper presentation and had to organise the panel and introduce Reiner’s keynote, but once I settled into it I had an absolute blast. The whole event was peppered with joy. I got to play a ton of games I had wanted to try for a while, including B.U.T.T.O.N., J.S. Joust, Space Hulk: Death Angel and Nidhogg. I also discovered a bunch of exciting new games that I might not have seen otherwise.

Other standout moments for the conference were the keynotes from Bernie DeKoven, author of the seminal The Well Played Game, and the Skype keynote from Antanas Mockus Šivickas. This in particular was a truly inspirational keynote, from a man that was mayor of Bogotá and used playful means to create social change. From dressing in spandex as “Super Citizen”, to hiring hundreds of mime artists to poke fun at traffic violations, he really embodies the power of a playful nature.

I’ll finish with some random photos of games played during DiGRA, but the one thing you must watch first is the video of the opening party. I was going to write about it at length, but it was just such an odd thing for an academic conference that you probably had to be there. It somehow included an intimate set with scratch legend Kid Koala, Dutch pro-wrestling, Chicken races and pillow fights…

SUPERBUTTONKOALAPARTY from Utrecht School of the Arts on Vimeo.


J.S. Joust




Sexy iPad game "Fingle"
Oliver Playing a Chicken Racing Game 15 September 2011

(Photos by the Utrecht School of the Arts)

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