My thesis research has given me the opportunity to think a lot about how game objects - the things we use to play a game, be it board or digital - can be representational. Questions such as "what do they represent," "how do they represent," and "on how many levels do they represent?" are not only fascinating but hint at the larger questions of how games can be expressive.
For now, though, I am just going to present a few of my favorite examples and talk a bit about the many layers on which these objects operate. Click on the pictures to open a larger version in a new window.
To begin, a common example is a rook, from Chess.
This is my favorite example from a standard Chess set. On the surface, the piece seems to represent a castle, or a tower. To a person unfamiliar with Chess, this object is nothing more than a miniature tower. But for someone who knows Chess it is impossible to think about a rook without considering the rules; this miniature tower moves orthogonally between one and eight spaces, and may capture an opposing piece. A more experienced player may find deeper meaning - the rook is more valuable than the pawn. The rook thus has meaning on two levels.
A different example is a Go stone.
Go stones are interesting because unlike the rook they only represent on one level: as Go stones. Taken in isolation, these are just small hard discs, made of plastic, rock, shell, or whatever. An observer unfamiliar with the game may have an aesthetic reaction ("this is a pretty rock") but it is not meaningful in the way the rook is. As with the rook, a player of Go will likely recognize Go stones (especially when in play, as in the example), thus imbuing the stones with meaning.
A more complex example is this Viking set of Settlers of Catan pieces (courtesy a good friend who brought me these from the Netherlands).
These pieces are a replacement for the standard pieces, and operate on a few levels. From left to right, these replace the city, settlement, and boat. The city replacement is modeled on a Nordic stave church, the settlement replacement is a traditional Viking house (identifiable by the gable cross roof), and the boat is based on a Norse merchant ship known as a knarr. These pieces thus represent various bits from Viking and Norse culture, yet at the same time represent the base pieces from Settlers of Catan. This is in addition to the deeper meaning of how these objects function in-game. For someone familiar with these pieces they operate on at least three levels.
The last example is also from a Chess set.
These are the most interesting game bits I've found so far. Here we have collections of letters, which represent sounds, combined in such a way that they represent ideas of objects, which in turn represent specific game bits that also represent real-world objects, but then contain game-specific meaning on top of it all.
This was just a short glimpse at some of the interesting questions that arise when we study game objects, and think about what they represent and how they do so.