Gameplay in Fictional Stories

The Super Bowl got me thinking about how games–whether they be more sport-like or more board game-like–are portrayed in books. Often, unless the author is using an existing game that readers can Google, descriptions of a game will be vague (“a dice game”, “a card game”, “a betting game”) to avoid getting bogged down in details.

In fact, as someone who primarily reads fantasy, the most common gaming events I read about are jousting (tentatively a game) or chess. Both jousting and chess lend themselves to easy integration into a story because everyone knows how such a scene should look and play out.

But…how many readers have actually participated in a joust? When was the last time you played chess? While I used to play chess quite a lot, I think it’s overused as the go-to when “random dice or card game” doesn’t make the protagonist look clever enough.

Personally, I find it much more engaging to read about a variety of games that I’ve played or are similar to ones I have experience with.

And these are just what I found in my house after five minutes!

I’ve written a few short stories that revolved around games–namely chess and Egyptian Rat Screw. Each was a paranormal/speculative fiction story that my classmates enjoyed and, in each, the game was a driving factor.

I’ve also given a guest lecture on ancient Roman games and I know that you can, more often than not, explain complicated rules simply enough for people to grasp the concept.

The uses for games in fiction are virtually endless. The writer could develop a character by having them play a game that requires extensive strategy (or, in contrast, one that is absurdly simple). Or, think of how much higher the stakes could be if the final “battle” took place in front of a crowd of thousands in an arena? A single token could be a symbol, a vital artifact, or a key to some huge plot development.

Besides character development or plot motion, games are intense worldbuilding devices. In a fantasy world, they are a relatable element in an unfamiliar land. In a dystopian future (like mine), a game could define the tone (Hunger Games, anyone?) or demonstrate technology. In any genre, a writer can use a game to assist in the depiction of the culture in which the characters live.

I already have included board games by mention in my WIP, but now I think I’m going to try and work a game into an actual scene. It may not make the final cut, but it will help me as a writer and hopefully be entertaining enough to keep for the reader.

What kinds of games have you seen in books? How cool would it have been if your favorite badass warrrior played a healer in an RPG every other weekend on the side? Leave a comment below!


Author: V. Kane

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is ANATHEMA, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @ValkyrieWriting or Instagram at books_and_dogs

2 thoughts

  1. Very interesting. I had to scan my mind of games I’ve read in books and all I could come up with was chess. You’re stretching the imagination with the suggestion of coming up with a different kind of game. I like that.


    1. I recently realized I totally forgot about Harry Potter books, which brought us Quidditch! I think this is a fantastic example of taking a complex, imagined game and explaining it well enough for readers to make it real with minimal supplemental material needed.

      Liked by 1 person

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