The Revenge of the Board Game
I’m reading “The Revenge of Anolog - Real Things and Why They Matter” by David Sax at the moment. It’s a wonderfully interesting book that covers how various technologies like film, paper and vinyl records, which were, at one time, considered defunct (or in decline), have in fact shown remarkable resiliency in the face of the new digital world. One of the chapters that really caught my attention focused on board games. Specifically how board games are on a powerful new rise in society.
It turns out that board games are not just holding even in the market, but growing. As of 2014, board game purchases were rising between 25% and 40% per year. A little more recently, as of 2016, hobby games represented nearly half of the US 2 billion dollar game and puzzle toy segment. In 2017, the tabletop games segment had grown by 30% on Kickstarter. The board game segment overall is estimated to reach US 12 billion dollars by 2023.
It seems an odd time for board games to come back to life. We live in an age of low friction hyperconnected social media and gaming. With a device and internet connection we can share every aspect of our lives, learn about things across the globe in realtime and play massive online games with hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
In contrast to the digital world, board games require a great deal more effort and incur perhaps a larger social risk. Physical board games require us to occupy the same space as the other players. We must manage and handle physical objects. We have to work together to learn the rules, many of which are often a great deal more complex than online digital experiences that are designed to be easy to learn by a mass audience. To play a low-fidelity physical game, we have to work together to co-create the momentary illusion of the game world. This type of living co-dependence creates a rich space of imagination and play.
Social networks and games are mediated, not by other people, but by the technology itself. When we use social networks, or play online games (or do both at the same time) we turn away from anyone who happens to be around us; focusing instead on the devices that create the high-fidelity experience. The social network, game or digital resource becomes the leading actor and we become response engines, acting out our roles in the digital environment. Connected, but alone.
What do we lose when move into the digital realm to connect socially or to play? When trying to work together to play an analogue board game we are exposed to each other physically in a way that an online experience can’t replicate. The sights, sounds and even smells all cue ancient responses on our part. We’ve evolved to both respond to these cues as well as give off our own signals. These high bandwidth rich interactions bring us closer together by exposing our deeper selves. In turn, how we respond shape others behaviour. This back and forth interchange creates deep social context, bonding and the exercise of shared social imagination.
Online social networks and games have a much lower emotional bandwidth. Our actions are conveyed more shallowly and without crucial context. It becomes easier to render people on the other end of the interaction ambiguous. Online social networks and games struggle with abusive interactions between people that might be harder to create in a physical space. Social and cultural pressures more easily moderate these type of unthinking behaviours when we can physically see, hear and touch each other.
One of the games with some responsibility for the revival is arguably ’Settlers of Catan’. Released in 1995 it was designed by German dental technician Klaus Teuber. In interviews, he describes how we prototyped the game with his family, playing round after round to find the balance between difficulty and success. In the game, players compete to populate a fictional island by obtaining resources, trading and building settlements.
’Settlers of Catan’ seems to mark the beginning of a merger between the complex European board games with the polish and excitement of American board games. The fusion of the two produces games that are strategic, complex and often cooperative.
I have a copy of Settlers of Catan. I found it on top of a stack of goods being thrown away at a curb-side. It was still wrapped in shrink wrap and in pristine condition. Unopened and unplayed. Perhaps an unwanted gift. I’ve since played it with family and friends many times. There are countless memories I’ve formed handling those thick cardboard and wood tokens.
I often wonder who threw the game away without ever playing it, and if will ever realise the opportunities they passed up on by doing so. I wonder what they replaced the lost opportunities to connect to the people around them with. I hope it wasn’t time spent alone in front of a glowing screen, interacting with faceless avatars in some vast social network or game.
Duffy, Owen (2014) Board games' golden age: sociable, brilliant and driven by the internet. Retrieved October 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/nov/25/board-games-internet-playstation-xbox
Great Big Story (2016) The Man Who Created Settlers of Catan. Retrieved October 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=niTSTcZkriA.
Hall, Charlie (2018) Tabletop games are exploding on Kickstarter, video games are flat. Retrieved October 2019, from https://www.polygon.com/2018/1/2/16842204/tabletop-games-are-exploding-on-kickstarter-video-games-are-flat.
Sax, David (2016) The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. Public Affairs: USA
Game Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash.