Deforestation: Hacking games to investigate narratives of systems thinking

  • Date and time: Wednesday 31 May 2023, 5.00pm
  • Location: BS/008, Berrick Saul Building, University of York Heslington West Campus

Event details

Paul Wake, Reader in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, presents a talk in the series “Current Research in Narrative Studies,” the research seminar of the British and Irish Association for Narrative Studies. These seminars are held in a hybrid format, with speakers and audience from the Association membership around the country, hosted at York by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Narrative Studies


This paper interrogates the idea that games are systems, and that game systems are abstractions that can be distinguished from game fictions, narratives, and themes. It does so by deploying ‘hacking’ as a critical-creative method through which to read games by un- and re-making them. In this paper I will give an account of a hack of Hjalmar Hach’s tree-themed board game Photosynthesis (Blue Orange 2017). The result, the hex-based wargame game Suppressive Fire, gets under the skin of the original to reveal the ways in which the idea of the (eco)system has always yoked together concepts of nature, conflict, and the economy in one imaginary.

Beyond reflecting on the ways in which Photosynthesis’s abstraction of a forest ecosystem produced a combative economy, this hack prompted reflection on the idea of systems more generally. The abstractions that are game mechanics and systems (re)produce the complexities of the world in ways that tend to suit the modes of quantification, instrumentalization, and extraction that characterise colonial capitalism, and which drive climate change. The paper will therefore conclude by reflecting on the damaging and deterministic narratives that have been naturalised by the rise of systems-thinking, and, so, explore the potential of game hacking as a political mode of critical play.

[This paper emerges from an ongoing research project, and co-writing work in progress, undertaken with Dr Chloé Germaine. I’ll own the errors.]


Paul Wake is Reader in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University and a co-director of the Manchester Game Centre. He has published on literary representations of casino games, 80s Adventure Gamebooks, and game design for communication. His most recent publication is the edited collection Material Game Studies (Bloomsbury 2022). His current research continues to combine narrative and game studies, turning attention to game design, and particularly hacking, as a means by which to explore narratives of alternate climate futures.