Platforming Inclusivity: Blaseball and an inclusive vision of browser games

Abstract (in English): 

Blaseball, a fantasy baseball simulator developed by The Game Band, took 2020 by storm, quickly developing from a niche web game to an legitimate cultural phenomenon, including a whole catalogue of fan-created merchandise, more than a dozen albums of music, including a musical, and a dedicated following of players from around the world. Much of the attraction of the game comes from the passionate involvement of the fans and the openness The Game Band have shown to players making the game their own.

In this paper, I demonstrate how The Game Band and players make use of the affordances of web browsers as a platform to create an inclusive space for play where each player can enjoy the game in their own way without precluding or diminishing other ways of playing Blaseball. The specific examples I examine are the use of a minimalist, text-forward approach to the game in a way that gives players licence to imagine a diverse, inclusive league of Blaseball characters; the development of "forbidden knowledge" as a way to include players with an interest in spoilers without alienating those who wish to avoid this information; and the player-led creation of a wiki that supports simultaneous-yet-mutually-exclusive descriptions of characters and events in the game, which allows the community of fans to enjoy a variety of interpretations of the minimalist events of the game without excluding any other faction of the fanbase.

In using a minimalist, text-forward approach to game development, The Game Band not only created a low-cost, quick-to-iterate game by excluding the time- and labour intensive components of visual art, video, and audio elements; they also created an opportunity for fans to develop their own visions of the in-game characters and events without being limited by canonical race, gender, or sexual orientation. This seemingly-practical choice for a project from a small team is in fact pivotal to the game’s inclusiveness.

Given the easy access to the game's code that web browsers offer, it was inevitable that players would explore and try to divine how the game works. While such behaviour could be seen as cheating, in Blaseball the interaction with the game’s code and data is part of the experience. In response to the grey area such interactions exist in, The Game Band and players developed the idea of "forbidden knowledge"— knowledge players had back-door access to but hadn't been made public by the game itself. I examine the concept of forbidden knowledge within the context of traditional methods of cheating, as studied by Mia Consalvo, and demonstrate how forbidden knowledge, as a social practice, is an inclusive response.

Finally, I demonstrate how players make use of the mutability of web content to allow multiple visions of the same game to coexist in the form of the Blaseball wiki. This wiki loads random fan-generated player backstories every time the page refreshes so that no single vision of the game dominates all others.

(Source: Author's own abstract)

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Lene Tøftestuen