Playing in licensed storyworlds : games, franchises, and fans




Bestor, Nicholas Charles Lyon

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Licensed games—analog or digital games that are made under contract using pre-existing intellectual properties—bring together the narrative trajectories of their storyworld, the production histories of their creation, the affective traces of their fandoms, and the interpersonal dynamics of their play. This dissertation examines the intersection of the industrial practices of licensing, the textual properties of transmediality, and the creative process of worldbuilding through the lens of licensed games. Licensed games have frequently been dismissed as derivative and overly commercial; my aim is to embrace the redundancies and contradictions of licensed games. Licensing, in which owners of intellectual property sell the rights for use of an IP for a limited period, provides the framework but not the boundaries of these ludic paratexts that stage a complex negotiation of popular storyworlds and fannish affect.

In this dissertation, I explore how three different popular storyworlds are built and shared, explored and negotiated, experienced and felt. The first chapter examines how games have contributed to the growth and continuation of the Star Wars universe. In the second chapter, I survey how the design of rules in games based on the A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones franchise inflects and influences engagement with Westeros. And in my final chapter, I explore what I call a post-licensed game, Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, and the frequently fraught communal process of supporting a card game once its licensing and production have ended.

These licensed games provide richly textured case studies of the negotiation between industrial stakeholders, texts, and fans. Utilizing a combination of textual analysis, participant observation and interviews with players, I argue that licensed games are a fertile medium through which popular brands, franchises, and storyworlds are productively transmediated. How these games draw upon the subjective and affective dimensions of our investment in popular storyworlds reveals much about game design, media franchising, and the creative processes of worldbuilding inherent to both. Licensed games allow us to play in a storyworld, and their modes of engagements foreground the playful ways we experience and understand the transmedially expansive franchises that dominate popular culture.


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