Paper Computers:
Notes on a Tabletop
Gaming Course

Jentery Sayers | Dept. of English + CSPT
Connect U | University of Victoria | 22 May 2019
Slides Online:

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Image: laser-cut of Elizabeth Magie’s The Landlord’s Game
(US patent 748626A, 1904). Cut by Katherine Goertz.

Thanks to English 508

Work by the following UVic English students has informed
the design and development of "Paper Computers":
Camilla Arnold, Kate Baxter, Graham Boldt, Patrick Close,
Carly Cumpstone, Kaitlyn Fralick, Kailey Fukushima, Talia Greene,
Stefan Higgins, Ashley Howard, Ria Karve, Colin Keohane,
Donny Kimber, Jodi Litvin, Darren Paterson,
Mairi Richter, and Kim Shortreed

Image: Jonathan Swift’s "Literary Engine." Via Bethany Nowviskie. From Gulliver’s Travels (1726/1892).

Resources for This Talk

"What's in a Game?" (videogame course for undergrads in 2015)
"What's in a Game?" (videogame course for grads in 2017)
"DIY Video Games Inspired by English Lit" (UVic News in 2018)

"Paper Computers" (tabletop course for grads in 2018)
Vocabulary and Notes for "Paper Computers" (2018)
Reflection on "Paper Computers" (2018)
"Paper Computers" Handout for High School Students (2019)

Image: H. G. Wells playing Little Wars (1913), which he wrote.
Illustration by Samuel Begg first published in Illustrated London News (25 January 1913). Public domain.

Outline of My Talk Today

What Is "Paper Computers"?
What "Paper Computers" Is Not
Why Teach "Paper Computers"?
Prototyping the Past

Image: Sketch of the Ivanhoe game, based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel of the same name,
designed by Jerome McGann, Johanna Drucker, and Bethany Nowviskie, and remediated and further developed
by the Scholars’ Lab at UVa. Care of Bethany Nowviskie and the Scholars’ Lab. CC BY 3.0.
Ivanhoe is also a game by Reiner Knizia.

What's "Paper Computers"?

A term for tabletop games coined by Matthew Kirschenbaum (2009)
A graduate seminar on the politics + aesthetics of games (2018)
Asks students to move from -ism (1870-1970) to playable prototype
Also to research, to iterate, + to document process
---prototyping as inquiry---

Image: The Royal Game of Ur (2600BCE - 2400BCE). Made in present-day Iraq.
Care of the Trustees of the British Museum. Used with permission. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

What It Isn't

"Paper Computers" is not:
A digital humanities course
A programming course
A development or production course
A gamified learning course
A game theory course

Image: Suffragetto (1908), a board game where the Suffragettes aim to take the House of Commons
while protecting Albert Hall. Care of Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0. Original at Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
Prototyped by Renee M. Shelby, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Why Teach It?

Six reasons to teach "Paper Computers"

Image: Kriegspiel by Guy Debord. Fabricated in silver-plated copper (limited edition) in 1977.
Mass-produced in cardboard and wood in 1987. Documentation and rules published in Le Jeu de la Guerre (1987)
by Debord and Alice Becker-Ho. Photograph and historical context by Alexander Galloway
via the Radical Software Group, who are reinterpreting Kriegspiel as a computer game. Used with permission.

1. Develop Procedural Literacy

"the ability to reconfigure basic concepts and rules to understand
and solve problems, not just on the computer,
but in general" (Bogost 2005)

also the use of algorithmic or "uncreative" methods to
produce unexpected and illuminative results

infrastructural and processing components of
media, textual, and information literacies (Vee 2017)

Image: 62: A Model Kit (Modelo para armar), by Julio Cortázar (1968),
where each reader constructs a personal montage. Via Elizabeth Bruss. Care of Wikimedia. Fair dealing.

2. Experiment with
Low-Tech Methods

Bypass the need for learning complex game engines in English
Rely mostly on pencil, paper, and familiar software
Emphasis on core concepts and content of games
Also on embodied dynamics between aesthetics and mechanics
(Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek 2001-04)

Image: Milton Bradley’s US Patent 53561A (1866) for Social Game.
"The game, as here arranged, is called the checkered game of life, and, in addition to the amusement and
excitement of the game, it is intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles
of virtue and vice." Care of Google Patents. Public domain.

3. Engage History and
Culture of Media

Resist high/low culture split (e.g., lit vs. games)
Move between Special Collections and Digital Scholarship Commons
Examine histories of design in distribution of the sensible
(Rancière 2006)

Image: A Surrealist game. Cards from Le Jeu de Marseille published by Grimaud (Paris, 1983).
The designs were first published in VVV Magazine (New York, 1943).
Images courtesy of Barney Townshend. Used with permission

4. Understand Contexts
of Play and Use

Attend to how prototypes are received and manipulated
Revise based on what's learned in context
Test strategies for playtesting (Hammer et al.)

Image: "Kaninchen und Ente" from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter.
It’s a language-game of aspects according to Ludwig Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, 1953),
who made the rabbit-duck famous. Public domain.

5. Design Better Games

Play and imagine alternatives to themes and mechanics of
colonialism, capital accumulation, worker exploitation,
racism, and cis heteropatriarchy in games
(LaPensée 2016, Beltran 2015, Alder, Nahanee, Boss, Shelby,
Valens, Flanagan 2009, Rael 2015, and OMG)

Image: The Quiet Year, a game by Avery Alder. Art by Ariel Norris.
Formats: print and PDF. Used with permission.

6. Connect with a
Community of Practice

Meet and talk with people who are doing the work
Approach the work as a conversation,
not just a conference paper or product to be delivered

Image: An electronic quilt made by Daniela Rosner, Samantha Shorey, Helen Remick, and Brock Craft
that exhibits the work of core memory, an early form of computer information storage
woven manually by women. Project supported under NSF grant #1453329. Used with permission.

Prototype the Past

Speculating about the past through material experimentation
Bringing history into the present for embodied engagement
Assuming responsibility for the decisions made

Image: Margaret Konkol’s prototype of Mina Loy’s "The Alphabet that Builds Itself." PLA.
Designed and printed in 3D. Care of Konkol and Feminist Modernist Studies. Used with permission.

Thank You

Jentery Sayers | Dept. of English + CSPT
Connect U | University of Victoria | 22 May 2019

Some games from "Paper Computers" follow this slide

Image: Manual for the board game, Class Struggle, by Bertell Ollman (NYU) and
Class Struggle, Inc. (New York, 1978). Care of UVic English.


Eucrasia is a holistic game of herbalist lore (3-6 players, 90 minutes).
Your goal is to build a well-rounded nursery to treat ailments
and afflictions and to solidify your reputation as a
successful herbalist. By Camilla Arnold.


In Idolplay (2 players, 20-30 minutes), you live in the 1930s
and avidly follow the rise (and the fall) of contemporary celebrities.
You select a celebrity and aim to imitate them. Material drawn
from the magazine, Photoplay. By Carly Cumpstone.

For Art's Sake

For Art's Sake is a game (2+ players, 30-60 minutes) of free creation
and critique, inspired by Wilde's preface to The Picture of
Dorian Gray
. It invites players to enter into the roles of
Artist and Critic so that they may explore the dynamic
between the two that so consumed Wilde. By Darren Paterson.

Invocation of Zos

Invocation of Zos is a role-playing game (3-5 players, 3-4 hours)
inspired by the occult philosophy and art of Austin Osman Spare,
particularly his 1913 manifesto, The Book of Pleasure. Players
take on the personas of activist-artists struggling against the
machinery of an unnamed dystopian metropolis in the year 2021.
The success or failure of an action or spell is resolved through
interpretation of the included Tarot Engine based on
Spare's handmade 1907 "Lost Envoy" deck. By Colin Keohane.

The Situationist Game

The Situationist Game is a map-drawing game for 2+ players
(30-60 minutes). "See where the map takes you, or where you take the map," where maps are both situations and ways to construct stories.
This game is not intended to be fun. By Stefan Higgins.

Exquisite Creatures

Exquisite Creatures is a collaborative drawing game designed
for up to 8 players (4 teams of 2). Intrepid teams of two collaborate
to draw a menagerie of strange creatures. Players then sort,
or corral, their creatures into categories based on the
elemental habit to which each creatures appears best suited.
By Kim Shortreed.


Steppe is a board game based on the Mennonite settlement
and eviction from the Russian Steppes. 2-4 players. 125 minutes.
By Graham Boldt and Kathleen Baxter.