Call for contribution : Matters of play

Deadline: June the 30th, 2014

For a French version of the CfC, click here.
For a Spanish version of the CfC, click here.


This issue of the Tracés journal questions the relationships between play and games, on the one hand, and materiality, on the other – i.e. materials, objects, interfaces and infrastructures, as well as bodily aspects involved in play and games. Various forms of play and games can be studied in that perspective, such as gambling, board games, children’s games, role play and video games, among others. Contributors are invited to explore the role of materiality in play, to tackle the industrial, political, economic or legal dimensions of the materiality of games, their aesthetic or symbolic aspects, or to embrace the material aspects of “non playful” functions sometimes attached to games.


Studies devoted to play and games are increasingly visible in the humanities. This issue of Tracés aims at questioning this theme from an interdisciplinary perspective with a focus on materiality. It aims at probing the relationships between play, games and the physical and sensitive world.

Although materiality contributes to any experience of play to a significant extent, it has been little approached by game and play studies. Play and games have long been conceptualized separately from their relationship to materials, objects, technical interfaces and infrastructures, or to the body – presumably as a consequence to classic contributions which stressed normative or epistemological aspects of play and games (Huizinga, 1938; Wittgenstein 1953; Henriot, 1989). In the field of video games, such notions as the “virtual” and the “immaterial” have long prevented taking into account the material aspect of these games.

Play can be considered as an activity, framed by systems of rules or models for describing action, or simply bound to specific objects related to an activity or situation. This issue welcomes various definitions of games and play, to reflect on their relationship with materiality. Is materiality necessarily central to the study of games and play, and in what regard? Various types of games can be considered, such as traditional games (card games for instance), toys, digital games, role playing games, sport and all hybrid forms. Investigations can be based on various conceptualizations of games and play, in line with the paper’s research methodologies. We suggest four main interrogations to guide potential contributors.

1. Materiality and the framing of play

« Jeu de Senet, Egypte, vers 1550-1295 avant J-C – New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art »

This part explores the construction of a frame for play, which can entail formal, normative, symbolical and material dimensions. Relationships between the rules of the game and players’ practices can be explored, in so far as they rely on material elements in the game.

On the level of the interactions between individuals and the collective, play is characterized by the players’ commitment in an action governed by rules, and by a given attitude, a specific mindset: participants in a game mutually consider themselves as being “at play”. What is the role of materiality in the types of commitment present in a game and in the reflexivity that it implies?

From a sociological perspective, one could for instance focus on social coordination (Goffman, 1961): what is the role of material aspects in the game encounter, in tracing the boundaries of that activity, in the discussions that may take place when players disagree? Does that differentiate players according to certain hierarchies, more or less related to certain skills? Games involve various forms of intentionality for their conception as well as during their use by players. How do game designers create objects that can afford ludic actions? How do players react to these intentionalities? Do they trigger disagreements?

Certain theorizations of play and games, labelled as formalists, consider rules as a prerequisite. Others, like game theory in economy, use game as a metaphor to describe coordinated activities. How can such notions as strategy and balance, on which such conceptualizations of games rely, benefit from a reflection on the way economic agents relate to the material frame of their actions? In any case, how can a focus on materiality renew the reflection on the role of rules in games, or help examine certain conceptions of games as a theoretical model in a new light?

2. Materiality and the political, economic and legal implications of game industries

Materiality plays a part in the organization of cultural industries, in their political, historical, economic and legal dimensions. Focusing on game industries, the role of materiality in manufacturing, distributing and commercializing games can be explored, as well as its role in marketing and advertising.

The production of game and play objects can be approached, whether games are manufactured industrially or handmade – sometimes by the players themselves. The commercial failures that some games have met can be dealt with. The privatization and copyright issues related to games can also be interrogated, for instance in “copyrighted subcultures” (Dayan, 1986) or in licenced games.

From an institutional point of view, the study of the control of games is also relevant, for instance from a historical perspective. How does the legalization and illegalization of certain games participate in social control strategies? Examples could range from national lotteries to piracy in video games. What are the material links between the way a game industry is structured and the evolution of gaming practices? These questions could involve a study of deviant uses or of the counterfeiters of games owned by a state or private monopoly (Belmas, 2006).

Finally, what are the new forms of materiality implied in the games of the digital age? Are we switching from an economy of goods to an economy of services? These reflections eventually question the notion of immateriality and prompt us to redefine the conditions for which one can talk of materiality for digital objects.

3. Materiality, representations and game images

This part is devoted to cultural, visual and symbolical aspects of games in their material dimensions. Contributors are welcomed to explore the visual and aesthetic dimensions of games as well as the social and cultural representations they can convey. Relationships between the materiality of components and the meanings attached to games and play can be interrogated.

These relationships can be complex: in the case of video games, materiality implies “software” (the game software, the digital data on the player’s activity) and “hardware” (joystick, paddle, keyboard, processor, hard disk, screen…). How can one analyse the gap between interactive images and the material infrastructures that underlie them?

Some objects can also be represented in games, notably “virtual objects” in video games or money – from Monopoly bills to gold coins in Mario Bros or World of Warcraft: the implications of these representations can be explored.

From a sociocultural perspective, Clifford Geertz (1973) started a reflection on representations in games by studying symbolical aspects of cock fighting and their role in Balinese culture. Symbolical dimensions attached to play and games can thus be explored. It is also possible to question the role of material objects in “player communities”, for instance in sports, role playing games, fan groups and “virtual communities” (Rheingold, 1993) associated to video games, for example.

Finally, stories and narratives linked to representations in games can be dealt with. How do the material aspects of games contribute to the creation of a fictional world or of a narrative for the game – for instance in traditional or ritual games in various ethnographic fields, in role playing games or in children’s games of make-believe which may imply oral narration, or in video games?

4. Materiality and “non-playful” uses of games

Finally, this issue aims at dealing with situations where other aims than fun are devoted to games, for instance in ritual, educational, artistic or business environments. The values and roles of play and games in these contexts, and the amount of “seriousness” attached to them, can vary from one context to another. The limits and definitions of this activity are hence questioned in the light of its material dimensions.

In the case of archaeology, certain material traces or artefacts have led to varying interpretations, e.g. as a basis for play, rituals, topography. The interpretative approach to play based on material data in that context could fuel possible contributions.

In the art worlds, what is the difference between defining something as a work of art and defining it as a game? What forms of hybridity can lie between, for instance, a video art installation and a video game? How can one analyse the reference to play and games by many artists throughout history?

These issues are linked to the growing recognition of games as part of a national heritage (Davallon, 2000), with conservation policies in museums or libraries, for instance. What are the implications and methods of collecting and making available games in a museum environment? What specific questions does the preservation of video and digital games raise, for instance?

The “non playful” uses of games have also often been dealt with from an educational perspective (Sutton-Smith, 1997) and from the perspective of “gamification”, i.e. the instrumental use of games for certain purposes, other than pure fun. It is particularly the case in the business world, where games are used for marketing, management or training purposes, a series of practices which can also be approached in their material dimensions.


This bibliography only includes the references cited in the call for contributions, and is therefore in no way limitative.

Belmas É., 2006, Jouer autrefois : essai sur le jeu dans la France moderne (XVIe-XVIIIe s.). Champ Vallon, Paris.
Dayan D., 1986, “Review essay: Copyrighted subcultures”. The American Journal of Sociology, n°91, p. 1219-1228.
Davallon, J., 2000, L’exposition à l’œuvre : stratégies de communication et médiation symbolique. L’Harmattan, Paris.
Geertz, C., 1973, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, New York.
Goffman E., 1961, Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis.
Henriot J., 1989, Sous couleur de jouer. La métaphore ludique. José Corti, Paris.
Huizinga, J., 1949 [1938], Homo ludens, Taylor & Francis, London.
Rheingold H., 1993, The virtual community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Addison-Wesley, Reading.
Sutton-Smith B., 1997, The ambiguity of play. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Wittgenstein, L., 2009 [1953], Philosophical investigations (4th Ed.). Wiley-Blackwell, New York.

Submission instructions

Contributors can submit long papers (45 000 characters at the most) or shorter notes (30 000 characters at the most).
Papers are expected to consist in first-hand original research. Notes can consist in book reviews or critical remarks on ongoing controversies. Interviews can also be suggested to the editors.
Papers will be evaluated using a double-blind review process.

The deadline for contributions is June the 15th, 2014.

Contributions are to be sent electronically to the following address:
Contributors are invited to contact the editors of the issue as soon as they start working on their paper or note, with a short description of the paper project.


Natalia La Valle: natalialavalle (at)
Barbara Turquier: b.turquier (at)
Bruno Vétel: vetel (at)

Guillaume Calafat

Maître de conférences en histoire moderne (Université Paris 1). Membre du comité de rédaction de la revue Tracés.

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Guillaume Calafat

Maître de conférences en histoire moderne (Université Paris 1). Membre du comité de rédaction de la revue Tracés.

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