Watch what you (don't) say: Communication constraints in gaming

Curator's Note

One thing that’s easy to forget when you play a lot of analog games is the role of social engagement in gaming, which enticed you down that path in the first place. When experienced players try to introduce novice players to unfamiliar games, they must teach not only the formal rules, but also the norms of interaction that characterize the “ritual space” of the session. We’re of the belief that figuring out these patterns of face-to-face communication is what (usually) makes games fun. This opens players’ talk as another part of that space where adaptability and creativity can be tested. We are focused on games that constrain communication by compelling or forbidding certain kinds of talk; the example we consider here, Hanabi, is a cooperative game where all players are working together, rather than a competitive one.

As you can see in the video, the players did not interpret the directions for clues as the only communication allowed during the game, but merely limits to the information available for transfer during the speech act of “giving a clue.” While this might make achieving a high score slightly easier—though certainly with room for clues to be misinterpreted, people discarding when they should play and vice versa—things would be quite bleak without the meta-chitchat that surrounds those acts. It also serves the purpose of contextualizing the clues, tempering players’ mindsets and helping them co-create an ad hoc communication system. Each session gives rise to a temporary speech community whose appeal lies in the participatory nature of its elements. This idea touches on a few others in game studies.

Sørensen (2017) explores how constrained communication in games fosters creativity in open-ended work, while Berland and Lee (2011) describe the mindset in games like this as “computational thinking.” Janssen et al. (2014) consider how the “costliness” of communication affects collaborative work—especially relevant when even costly communication is a limited resource, as with Hanabi’s eight clue tokens. While we acknowledge these benefits from the mental exercise Hanabi and its ilk create, our interest here is ethnographic: How does the game create a momentary communicative culture? How do players navigate it, and how do they interpret it as “fun”? Is it the fact that the brain is stimulated to be creative in multiple dimensions that does the trick? These are the kinds of questions that necessitate comparative research between multiple games and groups, perhaps. So, if you need us, we’ll be back at the card table…

Further reading:

Berland, M., & Lee, V.R. (2011). Collaborative strategic board games as a site for distributed computational thinking. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 1(2): 65–81.

Janssen, M., Tyson, M., & Lee, A. (2014). The effect of constrained communication and limited information in governing a common resource. International Journal of the Commons, 8(2): 617–635.

Sørensen, J.K. (2017). Exploring Constrained Creative Communication: The Silent Game as Model for Studying Online Collaboration. International Journal of E-Services and Mobile Applications, 9(4): 1–23.

(Official Hanabi rules are available at  

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