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February 25, 2020


Harvey O’Brien, Playing with Dead Things

by Conor Heffernan


In 1978, while you were playing Monopoly (or weren’t born yet, I guess), SPI (Simulations Publications Inc.) released a board game tied in to the release of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead designed by John H. Butterfield. It could be played as a team or solitaire, with players controlling Peter, Stephen, Roger, and Fran as they dashed around inside the zombie-infested mall trying first to lock the entrances then clear out the remaining zombies. Or you could be the zombies, an undifferentiated horde with a considerably larger team to control (well, slowly nudge around). The human characters had varying skills based on their capacity to move, shoot, and keep calm. They had to make a panic check (roll a dice) after each shot fired, and if they failed, they would be more vulnerable to nearby zombies. The human goal was to move and shoot and try to work around the slow moving zombies and be prepared for sudden ambushes from unseen ones. The zombie goal is not difficult to guess. Think you have it? Good.

The publishers’ name should give you a clue as to what the experience of playing the game was supposed to be: ‘simulation’. It was trying to replicate the most exciting and dynamic segment of the film, capturing both the thrill of survival and the promise of world building that comes with locking down the mall. Simulating the long ennui that followed that Pyrrhic victory in the film was something beyond the capacity of gaming at that time, and not necessarily something you’d seek out in the first place to ‘play’. Mind you, there is a board game This War of Mine (2017) designed by Michal Oracz and Jakub Wisniewski (based on the video game) in which the crushing minutiae of day to day survival in a war zone centred on non-combatants eking out a meagre life in the ruins of a collapsing society is fully simulated. You usually lose characters to low morale, that’s if they don’t starve or die of infection first. 

Since the 1980s, board gaming has undergone a significant revolution that you probably aren’t aware of; not if you’re asking if playing board games means playing Monopoly. Driven by European designers and independent publishing companies taking lessons learned from hard core hobbyist gaming such as tactical and strategic warfare simulations, board gaming evolved towards streamlined play mechanics and a greater emphasis on planning, strategy, and meaningful choices. Removing the element of chance (not entirely because that would be overly deterministic) increases the impact of decision making, making playing a game considerably less random, although still a challenge.

Modern board games use a range of mechanics including deck building, action point allocation, resource allocation, set collection, worker placement, hidden movement, co-operative play, social deduction, dexterity, and auction, to achieve goals including area control, tableau building, points victories, objective-based victories, and plain old fashioned player elimination to represent every kind of scenario from civilisation building to bird breeding (yes: Wingspan, designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, one of the hottest games of 2019). Dice are still involved sometimes, yes (usually custom or variant dice, not just your garden variety D6 (six sided dice, people)), but the days of ‘roll and move’ where your interaction with the game system is limited to merely rolling a dice and moving X number of spaces are long gone or confined to family games that act as a gateway to meatier stuff. The point of these new gaming systems and mechanics is immersion, if not necessarily always simulation, and a sense that your engagement in the game world is impactful. It’s a long story, and there’s such sights to show you if you really want to delve. Check out a web site called Board Game Geek (BGG), which is an excellent resource. But for the purposes of this inaugural Zombie Research Network blog, I want to talk to you a little about zombie games (that being kind of the point here, right?). What’s it like to immerse yourself in a zombie apocalypse, and what kind of impacts can you have in a game that isn’t just about pulling a virtual trigger to mow down the horde and look at the splatter on your monitor? Can a tabletop game really get you into the thick of it?

Theme and mechanic perform a veritably Yeatsian dance in modern board gaming, operating ideally in a dynamic that allows you to enjoy the impact of the mechanic on the theme and savour the theme as the mechanic challenges your capacity to affect the resolution. In gaming theory, a growing and active field with academic and practical components, ludology and narratology perform a similar dance. Analysis of theme operates much as analysis of any kind of storytelling text, and raises familiar cultural studies issues around the production and consumption of ideas. Ludological approaches emphasise the playing of games and the impacts and issues arising from the act of gaming, as well as having a practical component built around understanding mechanisms, systems, and interactivity. Behind the theory is an increasingly populous and profitable industry laterally integrated across multiple media forms. There are strata of business activity from mass production to DIY, and designers that work full time (very few) and part time (many, from various different walks of professional life), some of whom have become household names in the gaming community and whose work is anticipated like the latest novel or film by a favourite artist.

It’s still entirely possible to slap a licenced brand on an existing game design and make money, of course. That is what the bigger publishing companies still do, particularly Hasbro, which has been bringing you mass market board games for a century and is still bringing you the same ones with slightly different graphics. Monopoly Deadpool (2017) is a thing, or, to be more on point, Monopoly The Walking Dead (2013) and Risk The Walking Dead (2013) (this isn’t bad, actually, but I’ll come back to that). But ideally, if you’re playing a game built around a theme, you’d like to feel that the actions you take play out in that thematic world in ways that articulate that theme, that allow you to build the world and ‘play’ in it. I feel Deadpool isn’t that big on property investment, in fairness, and Cluedo Game of Thrones (2016) seems kind of redundant: everybody killed everyone else everywhere with everything. As to Monopoly Walking Dead… wait, is it a ‘zombie bank’? Ironically, the zombie theme might well be appropriate to Monopoly if considered as satire. You move endlessly and largely mindlessly around the board and instinctively acquire properties with vaguely zombie names, which could be seen as a critique of the unthinking greed of capital acquisition. This was, in fact, the point of the game when it was originally designed by Elisabeth Magie (and called The Landlord’s Game), before it was turned into a mass-market product by Parker Brothers, but that’s another story again.

To be continued…….

Author Bio

Harvey O’Brien teaches Film Studies at University College Dublin. He is the author of Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back (Columbia University Press, 2012), The Real Ireland: The Evolution of Ireland in Documentary Film (Manchester, 2004) and co-editor of Keeping it Real: Irish Film and Television (Wallflower, 2004). He the author of numerous articles and books chapters, in addition to having an extensive back catalogue of film and theatre reviews in print, online, and on radio. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Irish Film Institute from 2009-2018, former editor of the peer-reviewed journal Film and Film Culture, and a former Associate Director of the Boston Irish Film Festival. His current research projects include a series of books for Columbia University Press on Action and Adventure cinema. Harvey has taught at several educational institutions, including Dublin City University, the National College of Art and Design, the Irish Film Institute, Griffith College, Trinity College Dublin, and New York University, Dublin. He has served as an extern or consultant for other institutions including NUI Maynooth, Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, Dundalk Institute of Technology, and the Dublin Business School (the latter two serving in the capacity of a representative for HETAC – The Higher Education Training Awards Council). In addition, he has been an invitee or has given guest lectures in France, the UK, The Czech Republic, the Harvard Film Archive, and the John F. Kennedy Centre, Washington D.C. He was keynote speaker at the launch of the University of the West Indies’ film studies programme in Trinidad, where he also served as a consultant advisor.

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