Distinguishing Analog Games

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Evan Torner

What are analog games? This question turned out to be of burning importance to several of us game scholars at the beginning of the 2010s. At the time, I had submitted papers and panels on non-digital tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs)  and live-action role-playing games (larps) to academic conferences such as the Society of Cinema and Media Studies and the Modern Language Association, only    to find that work consistently sidelined in favor of digital video games. I was   puzzled by this, as were  communications  scholar  Aaron  Trammell  and performance scholar Emma Leigh Waldron. Together, we founded the journal  Analog Game Studies (AGS) in 2014 to legitimate and advance discussions around this at-the-time sorely neglected area of game studies.

When we created the journal, we defined analog games as “those products that are not always mediated through computer technologies, but which nevertheless exemplify contemporary cultural forms.” (Trammell, Waldron and Torner 2014). In retrospect, this definition stands out to me as particularly opaque. Perhaps this is because, as Jonathan Sterne (2014) points out, the term “analog” only describes a negative condition: not being digital. Everything else about the term is up for grabs, it would appear. Analog presupposes a digital world.

But as digital hybridity becomes the norm in analog design and implementation (Rogerson, Sparrow, and Gibbs 2021, Kankainen and Paavilainen 2019), even the simplicity of that negativity is confusing. In this short post, I’d like to muddle through the substance of this “analog game” term that now gains increasing prominence in both scholarly and game industry contexts. If nothing else, we should be aware of the caveats lurking within the terminology that weʼre pushing on other scholars.

An inelegant-yet-accurate way of describing analog games would be to focus on the brute materials required to play them and/or the physical contexts of play: board games, card games, dice games, TRPGs, and larps. This seems cut-and-dry until several contradictions make themselves known. When we say “card games,” for example, there is a glaring difference between classic playing card games such as euchre and modern collectible card games such as Yu-Gi-Oh (1999) or even deckbuilding games such as Dominion (2008) or card-based social party games such as Apples to Apples (1999). The fact that they all use cards as the primary game element seems to be the only characteristic that binds them together. King of Tokyo (2011), classified as a “board game,” relies on a Yahtzee-style dice mechanic coupled with cards and the board itself. “Board games” is then such a

capacious term that it mostly just describes the packaging: if the box is isomorphic to other board games, then ergo the product must be a board game. Edge cases creep into the picture. Marvel Super Heroes: Advanced Set (1986), Red Carnations on a Black Grave (2021), and Everway (1995) are all tabletop role- playing games that fit on the board-game shelf; Gloomhaven (2017) is a board game that feels a lot like a role-playing game to play. In fact, the gulf between games like Gloomhaven and Go or even Bohnanza (1997) seems quite large. And don’t get me started on the distinction between tabletop role-playing and live- action role-playing when a thing called “freeform” role-playing exists (Stark 2016).

Another way to approach analog games would be through their content, the distinction between what David Parlett (1999) calls “positional games such as Chess, Draughts or Backgammon,” and “theme games such as Monopoly, Cluedo, and Diplomacy” (6-7), or effectively the distinction between abstract and representational games. This largely emphasizes the gap between older intellectual-property and print cultures versus the modern era. But perhaps more useful is Parlett’s emphasis on who owns the content, namely the distinction between traditional games — which are open source and free to all — and proprietary games, which require an intellectual property rights holder to consent to the next printing of a particular title. This resembles modern distinctions between “indie” titles, in which the game’s creator is presumably the rights holder and nominally in charge of distribution and “corpo” titles, where those things are all managed by a larger conglomerate. Others measure that distinction simply judging the aggregate revenue and personnel of a given game company. Where do we begin, too, when the marker “hobby” or “hobbyist” gaming singles out specific proprietary, thematic, “corpo” titles from so-called “family” games which, next to puzzles, nevertheless overwhelmingly dominate the market and public conceptions of board gaming?

Analog games are thus a heterogenous group of game activities and products that somehow distinguish themselves from the digital, although these games’ digital origins and hybridity are almost a given nowadays (Trammell 2019). Tag is an analog game. So is the abstract blackbox larp White Death (Essendrop and Hansen 2012). Senet is an analog game. So is Micro Macro: Crime City (2020).

Hearthstone (2014) is a digital game with analog game tropes; Magic: The Gathering Arena (2018) is a long-time digital adaptation of an analog game. Slowly but surely, a clear picture forms of analog games as a type of game that requires

(A) humans to serve as the computational platform (Bellomy 2017) and (B) physical materials to perform the primary work of representation and game-state- tracking. The question of whether or not these games are abstract or representational, general domain or privately owned, played by hobbyists or with an all-ages demographic can make “analog games” all seem very different from each other. But the point is to articulate a shared genealogy and importance within

the realm of the non-digital, so that we might expand the conversation around “gaming” to include the modern renaissance of game design across all spheres.

Analog Game Studies is an open-access, freely accessible online journal that initially grew out of the community itself. We wrote and solicited academic essays that covered topics of direct interest to practitioners and designers: how to deal with the “blues” after a larp weekend (Bowman and Torner 2014), how to publish niche board games (Emigh 2014), how to design a character sheet (Morningstar 2014), how to write good game rules (Yucel 2014), and what the baseline of misogyny in RPGs looks like (Trammell 2014). These years were rough and transitional, as we published monthly or bimonthly and relied on a community ultimately suspicious of academic criticism for our journal content. As more young academics and academically curious designers got onboard, however, the heterogenous space that was a pain to build suddenly became an asset: Analog Game Studies was a place to have high-minded discussions of analog games as a platform (Svelch 2016), or simply get down to some real talk about day-to-day exclusionary practices in the gaming community (Jones 2016, Torner 2018). The journal was and is capacious and accepting. Both established and marginalized voices could be given equal space in print. By early 2016, we expanded our operations to include print-on-demand and open-access PDF through ETC Press at Carnegie Mellon University. More academic submissions poured in. Emma Leigh Waldron left the main editorial team and we took on Shelly Jones as a new editor. In 2018, we were finalists for a Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming, and in 2019 at Gen Con we started working with board-game giant Asmodee’s new academic arm, Game In Lab, to put on a larger analog games conference at Gen Con 2020. This conference, Generation Analog, received a flood of abstract submissions and interest… only to be postponed due to the cancelation of just about everything during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Game In Lab and AGS agreed that any 2021 Gen Con presence would have to be virtual, so we were able to plan a very successful and well-received Generation Analog online conference with 31 presenters, 3 keynotes, and 500 attendees from around the world.

Although we’d all love to meet in-person at Gen Con 2022, as planned, we strongly suspect that the online, global component of the conference will persist in some form. The AGS meanwhile churns along, putting out 3-4 issues a year. We continue to highlight lesser-heard voices and create a space where analog game culture can be both celebrated and critiqued by designers and scholars alike.

To close: My personal investment in this hard-to-define category of games is driven by emotion. As a film studies scholar, I am inundated with arguments about the pecularities and specificity of the film medium (Cavell 1971). I see similar moves made in video game studies (Backe 2008, Robson and Tavinor 2018). Why, then, do the emotions aroused by the complex interactions of a board game or tabletop RPG deserve less attention? Are these not also media (Zagal and

Deterding 2018, Booth 2020), complete with their own rhythms and logics? If experience is, according to John Dewey (1892) “simply what we do,” (154) then why should my own experiences as a game organizer and player be diminished in favor of some Bioshock (2007) player, especially when scholars of Bioshock such as Felan Parker (2018) definitely also value analog games as media? Why are some activities academically discussable, and others — especially in a less-profitable, less-visible industry — somehow off limits or unworthy? Doing justice to my corpus of experience in analog games and the innovation to be found there is reason indeed for me and my colleagues to pursue our “analog games” project, wherever it may lead us.


Backe 2008: H.J. Backe, Strukturen und Funktionen des Erzählens im Computerspiel. Eine typologische Einführung, Würzburg 2008.

Bellomy 2007: I. Bellomy, “What Counts: Configuring the Human in Platform Studies. “Analog Game Studies 4. https://analoggamestudies.org/2017/03/what-counts/

Booth 2020: P. Booth, Board Games as Media, New York 2020.

Bowman/ Torner 2014: Bowman, S.L. and Torner, E. 2014. “Post-Larp Depression.” Analog Game Studies 1. https://analoggamestudies.org/2014/08/post-larp-depression/

Cavell 1971: S. Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Cambridge 1971.

Dewey 1892: J. Dewey, “Syllabus: Introduction to Philosophy.” In: J.A. Boydston, Collected Works of John Dewey: Later Works. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press at Carbondale 1892.

Emigh 2014: W. Emigh, “Strategies for Publishing Transformative Board Games.” Analog Game Studies 1. 2014. URL: https://analoggamestudies.org/2014/09/strategies-for- publishing-transformative-board-games/, Stand: 15.10.2021.

Essendrop/ Hansen 2012: N.R. Essendrop/ S. Hansen, White Death, 2012. URL: https://alexandria.dk/en/data? scenarie=3784, Stand: 15.10.2021.

Jones 2016: K. Jones, “A Lonely Place: An Interview with Julia Bond Ellingboe.” Analog Game Studies 3. 2016, URL: https://analoggamestudies.org/2016/01/a-lonely-place-an- interview-with-julia-bond-ellingboe/, Stand: 15.10.2021.

Kankainen/ Paavilainen 2019: V. Kankainen/ J. Paavilainen, “Hybrid Board Game Design Guidelines.” DiGRA 2019, URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/ 336687318_Hybrid_Board_Game_Design_Guidelines, Stand: 15.10.2021.

Morningstar 2014: J. Morningstar, “Visual Design as Metaphor: The Evolution of a Characte Sheet.” Analog Game Studies 1. 2014, URL: https://analoggamestudies.org/2014/12/visual- design-as-metaphor-the-evolution-of-a-character-sheet/, Stand: 15.10.2021.

Parker 2018: F. Parker, Beyond the Sea: Navigating Bioshock, Kingston ed. 2018.

Parlett 1999: D. Parlett, The Oxford History of Board Games, Oxford 1999.

Robson, J. and Tavinor, G, eds. 2018. The Aesthetics of Video Games. New York: Routledge.

Rogerson, M.J., Sparrow, L.A. Gibbs, M.R. 2021. “Unpacking ‘Board Games with Apps.ʼ: The Hybrid Digital Boardgame Model.” CHI ʼ21, pages 1-17. https:// dl.acm.org/doi/fullHtml/10.1145/3411764.3445077

Stark 2016: L. Stark, Pocket Guide to American Freeform, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Sterne 2014: J. Stern, “Analog/Analogue: A Speculative History of the Not-Digital [DRAFT].” Culture Digitally 2014. URL: https://culturedigitally.org/2014/05/analog- draftdigitalkeywords/, Stand: 15.10.2021.

Torner 2018: E. Torner “Just (the Institution of Computer) Game Studies.” Analog Game Studies 5. 2018, URL: https://analoggamestudies.org/2018/06/just-the-institution-of- computer-game-studies/, Stand: 15.10.2021.

Trammell/ Waldron/ Torner 2014: A. Trammell/ E.L. Waldron/ E. Torner, “Reinventing Analog Game Studies.” Analog Game Studies 1, 2014. https://analoggamestudies.org/2014/08/reinventing- analog-game-studies/.

Trammell 2014: A. Trammell, “Misogyny and the Female Body in Dungeons and Dragons.” Analog Game Studies 1, 2014 https://analoggamestudies.org/2014/10/constructing-the- female-body-in-role-playing-games/.

Trammell 2019: A. Trammell, “Analog Games and the Digital Economy.” in: Analog Game Studies 6 2019. https://analoggamestudies.org/2019/03/analog-games-and-the-digital- economy/

Yucel 2014: I. Yucel, “Rules For Writing Rules: How Instructional Design Impacts Good Game Design.” Analog Game Studies 1 2014, URL:https://analoggamestudies.org/2014/10/the-rules-for-writing-rules-how-instructional-design-impacts-good-game-design/, stand: 16.10.2021.

Deterding/ Zagal 2018: Sebastian Deterding/ José Zagal Deterding, Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Foundation, New York 2018.


Apples to Apples. 1999. Beverly Enterprises, Inc.

Bioshock. 2007. 2K Games.

Bohnanza. 1997. Rio Grande Games.

Dominion. 2008. Rio Grande Games.

Everway. 1995. Wizards of the Coast. Gloomhaven. 2017. Cephalofair Games. Hearthstone. 2014. Blizzard Entertainment.

King of Tokyo. 2011. IELLO.

Magic: The Gathering: Arena. 2018. Wizards of the Coast.

Marvel Super Heroes: Advanced Set. 1986. TSR.

Micro Macro: Crime City. 2020. Edition Spielwiese.

Red Carnations on a Black Grave. 2021. Aviatrix Games.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game. 1999. Konami.

Dr. Evan Torner is Associate Professor of German Studies at the University of Cincinnati, where he also serves as Undergraduate Director of German Studies and Director of the UC Game Lab. He is co-founder and editor of Analog Game Studies.

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