Ten interesting dissertations on games, play, and meaning
December 20, 2023 9:03 PM   Subscribe

May-Ying Mary Ngai (2011), "From entertainment to enlightenment: a study on a cross-cultural religious board game with emphasis on the Table of Buddha Selection ...," highlighted in 2021 by George Pollard on Twitter / IA / Nitter: "around 830 C.E. a man named Li He ... invents a game named 採選 Cǎixuǎn, Selection with Dice, about promotion and demotion in the ranks of the state bureaucracy," giving rise to Shengguan Tu (pics: 陞官圖 / 升官图). Serina Laureen Patterson's (2017) "Game on: medieval players and their texts" discusses fortune games like "Chaunce of the Dyse" (see also), "Truth or Dare" / Q&A games with a chosen king/queen, e.g. "The King Who Does Not Lie" or "Le jeu du Roi et de la Reine," and more.

Lucy Harlow (2019), "The Discomposed Mind." This dissertation "explores literary texts which explicitly seek to unsettle the mind of the reader"--the riddles of The Exeter Book, the arcane allegory of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World, etc.--in terms that lead to an analogy with the games Myst and Riven: "Narrative, in the cases just described, is not motivated by the desires of individuals but rather is governed by the machinery of the logic puzzle or the game."

Madison Dickinson Hendren (2020), "Playing an Epic Game: Games and Genre in Boccaccio's Teseida delle Nozze d'Emilia." This dissertation considers Boccaccio's Teseida through the lens of game studies: "The hunt, the tournament, jousts, and funeral games punctuate the main narrative. The prominence of games, attested not only by the frequency with which they appear in the text, but also by the fact that an entire book is occupied in the narration of a game from start to finish, suggests that games are an important structuring feature of the work, and that to understand the work one must understand its games." Relatedly, Serina Patterson's dissertation notes that book IV of Boccaccio's Filocolo is given entirely to a Q&A game with a 'king' selected to lead it, excerpted as Thirteene Most Plesaunt and Delectable Questions.

Daniela D'Eugenio (2017), "Transferring Paremias. Cultural, Linguistic, and Literary Transitions of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases by Vincenzo Brusantino, Pompeo Sarnelli, and John Florio": As its starting point, this dissertation takes Renaissance games involving proverbs to illustrate a fundamental question about interpreting them--that is, if it's possible to make a game out of interpreting proverbs, in fact numerous games played over and over (with many more examples), then "The interpretation required by the participants of the social game in Bargagli's text highlights how the message ... cannot be taken for granted, despite the general belief that its meaning is generated and fixed by tradition. [They] are malleable, adapt to diverse situations and contexts, convey multiple meanings, and describe reality with a spectrum of references, images, and messages."

Jingyi Yuan (2021), "Blurring the Boundary between Play and Ritual: Sugoroku Boards as Portable Cosmos in Japanese Religion." This honors bachelor's thesis focuses in on Buddhist-themed variants of Sugoroku (pics: 盤双六 / 絵双六) that are also discussed in chapter 6 of Ngai (2011), which is cited several times: "Ban-sugoroku, a type of backgammon, is the oldest known board game in Japan ... E-sugoroku is a racing game similar to Snakes and Ladders. Originally designed with a Buddhist theme, e-sugoroku later developed to include popular themes such as kabuki actors and famous places ... I will use copies from the Edo period (1603–1868) for my discussion on e-sugoroku ... Based on the belief of escaping the six paths through rebirth in Amida Buddha's Western Pure Land, Pure Land sugoroku has the ultimate goal of rising to the Pure Land or specific deities on the game board."

Anne Beryl Wallen (2012), "The philosophic game: eighteenth-century masquerade in German and Danish literature and culture": "Just as masquerade's reputation today vacillates between seriousness and frivolity, so too did eighteenth-century attitudes towards it vacillate between approval and disapproval. In 1749 ... Ludvig Holberg wrote an epistle 'In Defense of Masquerades,' arguing against the ban in place against them. Holberg calls the practice itself 'en philosophisk Leeg,' a philosophic game, because of its ability to playfully remind participants both of their natural, God-given equality and of the artificiality of society's conventions ... [F]or its detractors, ... the very act of playing at being something other than what one 'really' was might inspire transgressions in everyday life, outside of the confines of the game."

Jiayao Wang (2020), "Games and Play of Dream of the Red Chamber." In addition to its discussions of games related to the novel (q.v.), this dissertation is also notable for its wide-ranging discussion of the history of drinking games and especially drinking games of lot-drawing: "Generally speaking, what can be called jiuling 酒令 involves all games played during social gatherings and parties. Some games involve a round of competition or challenge or improvisation composition; and some of them are games of chance. And drinking is required for whoever fails or receives the challenge ... The figures and quotations printed on the drinking lots comes from a wide range of textual and literary sources."

Sabrina Lorena Carletti (2019), "Xul Solar and the Argentinian Avant-Garde: Language, Body, Technology, Sociability." Note: this is a very large dissertation (685Mb!) thanks to many photos in an appendix. Chapter 3 "focuses on Panchess, a game Xul created at some point between the late 1930s and early 1940 that adapted the structure of chess ... Xul referred to the game interchangeably as Panchess, Pan-juego, or Ajedrez criollo. The basic objective of playing Panchess was to invite its players 'to combine colors as in a painting, compose words, make drawings, write poems, create musical chords, and solve mathematical equations.'" Photo of the game from the Museo Xul Solar, "Pan Game and Marionette I Ching" from MoMA, and Miriam Basilio (Hyperallergic, 07/16/2013), "What Did Jorge Luis Borges See in Xul Solar?"

Gabrielle Chou (2023), "Play Makes Perfect: An Exploration of Game and Play Elements in Composition and Performance": This dissertation calls to mind a recent Ask on playful classical music in its review of topics like J.P. Kirnberger's Musikalisches Würfelspiel (see "The Dice Game that Lets Anyone Be a Composer") and goes on to consider case studies of more recent experimental music compositions that are also game-like and thought-provoking--John Zorn's "Cobra," Aidan Gold's "For Whom do We 'Perform'," and Remy Siu's "Foxconn Frequency (no.2)" and "Foxconn Frequency (no.3)."

Some interesting game-adjacent dissertations previously.
posted by Wobbuffet (3 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Great stuff. the Harlow in particular caught my eye. thanks!

Worth looking at Carse's Finite and Infinite Games if this stuff is of interest to you
posted by chavenet at 2:40 AM on December 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

I think I've found my rabbit-hole for the holidays ...
posted by Quasirandom at 7:35 AM on December 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

Oh hey! I just realized looking at this post that it features Gabrielle Chou's dissertation, in which she talks about a piece I wrote called "Scrawl Etude" where performers write in changes on each other's parts. She also programmed it on her lecture recital. I can't find an ungated video of that recital (which was a cool program), but if anyone's interested, here's a performance of "Scrawl Etude", a very silly piece of music as you will see.
posted by daisystomper at 10:51 PM on December 22, 2023 [4 favorites]

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