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Game Studies: Physical Elements of Play

by James Kinch on 01/05/21 11:00:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Game Studies: Physical Elements of Play

Using examples, discuss the ways in which physical elements of play such as boards, miniatures and game pieces change modes of play in games. Counterpoise case studies with theoretical discussions of these aspects.


There are many versions of games that have been released over the decades. Monopoly (Parker Brothers, 1935) has had several thousands (World of Monopoly, 2019) of editions printed internationally over the last 80 years and still remains the top selling board game today (NPD Group, 2020). These versions have made a variety of changes by changing the theme, the mechanics and the tokens. Even if they are very different from the original, they all still use the name of the brand.

This essay will be covering a variety of game mediums and why different versions of games are released or encouraged to be played. This will be supported by a mixture of case studies and with theoretical discussions.

Board Games

Board games generally come with a variety of different physical elements to represent things that are related to the game in some form. These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Tokens that represent players.
  • A method of deciding how a player’s token is moved.
  • A physical way of counting points.
  • A rule book that is themed based on the game and its genre.
  • A designated place to play.
    (Zimmerman & Salen, 2003)

These physical elements are used to create structure, help establish a theme and to help players visually understand the game. For instance, a player could technically use their finger to represent a token to play the game. However, this would change the experience that the player has in the game. Not only would their finger/arm possibly begin to ache but part of the theme and a visual indicator as to how the piece can be interacted with has been removed from the game.

The pieces that are included in a classic Monopoly set could be considered iconic due to the popularity of the game, however, a lot of the pieces have been changed over time. This has changed how players interact with the game. Which character a player picks is an important aspect to the game. Two studies were published in the journal, ‘Media Psychology’ into how players became more like their character when playing a video game. Participants in one of these studies played a military-shooter game for 10 minutes and were observed to record reactions. After the experiment, they performed a Lexical Decision Task, a task that involves deciding whether a word is a real word or not based on one or two letters difference (i.e Morch – March). The words that the players were given were on warfare related words. The study found that “Findings from the Lexical Decision Task suggest that playing a soldier role indeed increases cognitive accessibility of soldier-related concepts.” ( Klimmt, et al., 2009).

This could mean that with different tokens, players may play the game differently, acting more like their perception of how that token could act. For instance, while a “Shoe” is an inanimate object, a player may interpret it as a laid back character. This has already been explored in multiple Monopoly games where tokens perform actions based on their appearance such as in Monopoly New Edition (Infrogrames, 2001) and Monopoly Party (Runecraft, 2002).

This idea is taken further in other Monopoly games by personifying the characters. These games make their own interpretations about the tokens and give them stereotypical-like personalities to fit them.

Figure 1- Horse, Dog, Wheelbarrow, Shoe, Battleship and Cannon personified in Monopoly Tycoon. (Deep Red Games, 2001)
Figure 2 – Shoe, Horse, Dog and Wheelbarrow personified in Monopoly Streets. (EA Salt Lake, 2011)

By having these distinctions visualised for players, some creativity could be lost in that the designers have created their own takes which could hamper a player’s experience as they cannot make their own interpretation. To some however, this may boost their connection as they are able to see what an interpretation of them is like. This could culminate in the player having a different experience when playing with a different line-up of characters that a player may perceive in different ways.

Players regularly create their own characters in games such as Dungeons & Dragons. (Gygax & Arneson, 1974) Their character is given a backstory, traits and equipment which makes them unique. This is all then visually portrayed via a character sheet that the player holds while a figurine is put onto the tabletop to show movement.

In the context of D&D, the character sheet is a very powerful tool when maintaining a character as it can contain everything about them. By editing a piece of information on the sheet, the dynamic of the group and even the game can change. Along with the Dungeon Master, this sheet puts self-imposed parameters or rules around the narrative that the player can take.

The game encourages them to create someone that will represent them in a game which they are “excited to play” (Wizards RPG Team, 2014).  The team believes that the character that a player creates as their avatar in the world is a very important part of the enjoyment of the game. Interestingly, a study done where 666 participants were asked to choose personality features for six different game scenarios reveals that people who are more satisfied with their lives would create characters for situations that are similar to themselves while others who were not as satisfied would create personalities that were less like them (Trepte & Reinecke, 2010). This suggests that the characters that people create are heavily inspired in some way by themselves whether positivity or negatively. Players seem to create characters around aspects that they like in some way.

In the same study, the participants also showed that “identification with the avatar was strongly related to game enjoyment” which appears to back-up the Wizards RPG Team’s point. This could explain the longevity of characters in the game as it allows for a player to completely design an avatar from the ground up with no limit besides what the DM asks for as opposed to other systems that only allow for a pre-determined amount of options, typically more often found in older video games such as World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) or WWF Smackdown! (Yuke’s, 2000).

Figure 3 – WWF Smackdown’s character creator.    
    Figure 4 – World of Warcraft’s character creator.

Role Play

Role play is a very broad genre of games as it can be found in many different forms of play. There are some games, as previously described, that incorporate it as a mechanic such as D&D. However, in some instances, there are few physical elements that drive role play forward and it is up to the players to drive the narrative.

This is the case especially in online roleplay sessions between two or more people in a chat room or instant messaging app. Due to the anonymity of the internet, players are able to create their own characters without needing to share personal details about themselves. As Mortensen writes, “Communicating by way of a computer provides a liberty to presenting yourself as realistically as you desire” (Mortensen, 2002) thus allowing players to create anything that they wish whether it be related to themselves or not.

Mortesen goes on to write that “the speed of the exchanges is closer to the real-time experience of conversation and makes for the intimacy of the physical encounter with the safety of distance. This creates an illusion of real-time interaction and introduces a high level of intimacy.” There are very few physical elements to this way of interacting, only requiring a computer, a method of input and a method of output. Voice communication can be disregarded and no elements are needed to keep “score” or ways to move.

This is dependent on the ‘rules’ of the roleplay which are generally determined before the creation and interaction of characters has begun. This is similar to significant cultural events where there are (in reference to Halloween) “rules or at least parameters” (Fullerton, et al., 2007) in which people participating can behave, dress or act. While there are laws that must be followed in a country, people can use the parameters of an event to express themselves in an alternative way to everyday life, similar to how a character is created/acted.

Players will sometimes break character in an attempt to ask a question about the rules or something unrelated to the game which is referred to as ‘Out of Character’ (OOC). Described as a “culture” by Mortesen, it is an important aspect of roleplay and may be needed throughout a session for multiple reasons. One of these reasons is to ensure that the story is continuing in the path that the players would like. This may be set out initially the ‘rules’ but it may be called upon to direct attention to an interaction that the players need to have in order to progress. Utilising this is important to have the continued interest in the roleplay and therefore the drive of the narrative.

Designated Playing Areas (Boards)

A board is generally the largest physical element to a game that features one. These can range from simple markings like the ones found in Chess or more detailed ones found in games such as Formula D (Randall & Lavaur, 1991).

Figure 5 – Starting Chess board layout.
Figure 6 – A Formula D track.

Both of these games rely on players moving their pieces around the board. In Chess, it is to take away the opponent’s pieces whereas in Formula D, it is to race around the track and to win the race. This means that the players spend a lot of time looking at the board attempting to make moves.

A chess player could quite easily recreate a chess grid on a piece of paper and use the figures to play out the game. In Formula D, while this technically could be possible, not only would it take a significant more amount of time due to the more advance track layout, lots of the detail that is present around the track would be lost unless it was drawn in. In the example above, for instance, by recreating it on paper, it is unlikely that it will be drawn at night. This could potentially change the perception that people have of the track and how much they enjoy playing it. The player may prefer races at night which may make this their favourite track in the game. Removing the uniqueness of the setting could change that player’s view.

As previously mentioned in the introduction, Monopoly has sold many different special editions over the years. The current world record holder of most Monopoly sets owned is held by Neil Scallan with 2249 sets (World of Monopoly, 2019). Some editions retain the classic token line-up but all editions change the board’s place names and iconography to match the theme in the edition. Is it evidence that these editions must either sell a lot of copies or the manufacturing costs are so low that there is no point in not making one. Unfortunately, the most complete list that has been created so far is that of Scallan’s collection and therefore it is difficult to accurately find information about the sales/manufacturing costs of Monopoly editions besides the standard versions.


The book, Rules of Play by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen uses an entire chapter to attempt to define what a game is. They discuss David Parlett’s definition of formal and informal games. Informal games refer to that of when something is created on the spot with little to no rules or structure. However, formal rules use a “twofold structure based on ends and means” (Zimmerman & Salen, 2003). ‘Ends’ refers to that there can be a winner and ‘means’ is how the players will get there. In this case what the rules are, equipment that can be used and how it can be used.  Taking this definition, a formal game has all the elements that can be applied to the games that this essay has previously covered from Monopoly to online roleplay sessions (unless a game is not finished, in which case there is no ‘winner’).

One of these components, the rules, physically state the way that the equipment should be played with thus taking the rules away or having poorly written ones could lead to a different game being altogether, especially over a prolonged used. This isn’t necessarily a negative, however. Games should be able to be interpreted in different ways, something that has happened with Monopoly (again) over the seven generations of people (Robinson, 2017) that it has been played with.

By encouraging people to use their own house rules, players have been able to create unique versions of the game that have taught others about wider issues. In a case study called, “Modified Monopoly”, Morten Ender describes a unique version of the game that he used to teach his cadets more about social and socio-economic inequality. All drawn randomly from a hat, cadets were given a family and roles within it. These formed 8 families with different “levels of social class” with some families starting with more money and a higher potential to earn more. The families were all asked to sit with equal access to a Monopoly board around a conference table. The way that Ender has written the study is for others to copy his example and potentially use it in a classroom setting. With this in mind, as a game progresses, he notes that “lower SES family players will be quieter, more withdrawn, and socially and physically distanced from the game.” Players even go so far to the point that they “stopped coming to class” (Ender, 2004) as they were not engaged with the game.

While this is a more extreme example of changing how Monopoly is played, it should not be understated how much a simple rule change can affect the game and the experience for others. For instance, let’s say that two households next to each other played Monopoly with two simple different house rules. Household 1 let’s players collect £500 for landing on ‘Free Parking’ while household 2 let’s players start with £2000. Each household will have a very different game to the other’s.

Household 1’s game will be more likely focused around landing on Free Parking as it would let a player regain a 1/3rd of their starting money without the need to land on a ‘Chance’, ‘Community Chest’ or by gaining a Monopoly whereas household 2’s game will see players buying up more property and not letting it go to auction, possibly reducing the amount of trading and player interaction.

In the event that these households were to play together, they would need to decide which ruleset they would want to play. By playing both rules, it is possible that the bank could run out of 500s due to the inflation of money or the game could last longer as players won’t run out of money as fast. By playing only one of the household’s rules, the other household would be at a disadvantage as they would have to adapt their strategy to the other’s. Alternatively, by playing by the original rules, both households would be at a disadvantage, however, it would level the playing field.

In these examples, the household’s rules are generally a verbal contract agreed upon before/during play for the first time. Over a prolonged time of playing, it would become normal for the players of the respective household to use their own rules, therefore not needing to discuss it regularly when playing. In these cases, it can be argued that the written rules are not needed as players know their own rules and therefore won’t refer back to the game’s original ruleset.


The physical elements to games make up a lot of the experience that the players have. This is generally found in themes of the game such as in the tokens or the board. However, in some cases, it should be noted that the experience can also be based upon the mental/verbal elements such as in parameters/unwritten rules and the players who participate in the game together rather than what is written down.


Klimmt, C., Hefner, D., Vorderer, P. & Blake, C., 2009. Identification With Video Game Characters as Automatic Shift of Self-Perceptions. Media Psychology, 13(4), pp. 323-338.

Blizzard Entertainment, 2004. World of Warcraft. Irvine: Activision Blizzard.

Deep Red Games, 2001. Monopoly Tycoon. Milton Keynes: Infogrames.

EA Salt Lake, 2011. Monopoly Streets. Salt Lake City: EA.

Ender, M. G., 2004. Modified Monopoly: Experiencing Social Class Inequality. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 8(2).

Fullerton, T., Fron, J., Morie, J. F. & Pearce, C., 2007. Playing Dress-Up: Costumes, roleplay and imagination, Modena and Reggio Emilia: University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

Gygax, G. & Arneson, D., 1974. Dungeons & Dragons. Renton: Wizards of the Coast.

Infrogrames, 2001. Monopoly New Edition. Sheffield: GSP.

Mortensen, T., 2002. Playing With Players – Potential Methodologies for MUDs. Game Studies, 2(1).

NPD Group, 2020. NPD Group. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 25 April 2020].

Parker Brothers, 1935. Monopoly. Atlantic City: Parker Brothers.

Randall, E. & Lavaur, L., 1991. Formula D. France: Asmodee.

Robinson, M. T., 2017. Career Planner – The Generations. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 28 04 2020].

Runecraft, 2002. Monopoly Party. Dewsbery: Infrogrames.

Trepte, S. & Reinecke, L., 2010. Avatar Creation and Video Game Enjoyment. Journal of Media Psychology, 22(4), pp. 171-184.
Available at:
[Accessed 25 04 2020].

Wizards RPG Team, 2014. Players Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons). 5th ed. Renton: Wizards of the Coast.

World of Monopoly, 2019. Neil Scallan’s World Record List of Official Monopoly Items. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 26 April 2020].

Yuke’s, 2000. WWF Smackdown!. Osaka: THQ.

Zimmerman, E. & Salen, K., 2003. Chapter 7 – Defining Games. In: Rules of Play. Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 86.


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