Thursday, February 05, 2009

Where Do Board Games Fit?

If the activity called board games has a problem, it's this: board games do not exist as a separate activity in most people's view of the world. Instead, board games are categorized as an awkward version of some other activity:

Interactive versions of children's toys

This is where you'll find board games on shopping sites, department stores, or the minds of parents asked if they play games. It's a pernicious association, and a vicious cycle to which board game marketers and manufacturers buy into.

It's why the board games that make it to the mainstream are children's games; because that's what consumers expect to find when they look for them. Without thinking, newspaper columnists sometimes toss the word "children's" before the words "board games" in an article, even when the association has no basis.

The problem with this association is that toys are seen as amusements or distractions. If adults play with toys, toys are downtime or part of a hobbyist's collection. When certain toys are lauded for their mental or physical benefits, the association is still more hurtful than helpful, because the worst types of games are held up as beneficial (usually educational games that are didactic hell), and because they're still associated primarily, or entirely, with children.

Analog versions of video games

I'd be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time a newspaper or blog article compared "dusty, old" board games to today's "modern, exciting" video games, as if the latter is the evolutionary successor to the other.

Sure, there is only so much time for entertainment in life, and time spent on one squeezes out time for another. And board games are constantly getting ported online; that usually doesn't make the games any better as games.

But, until VR really gets it, electronic gaming no more substitutes for tabletop gaming than flight simulator does for flying. Or a virtual hiking application would simulate for hiking.

A physical encounter comes with all the sights, smells, sounds, and touch of a real world experience (sometimes, that's not a good thing, but nevertheless). It comes with all the game rules, pieces, and opportunities in the heads of the players. You can create a new movement for your pieces in Chess on the spur of the moment in the middle of a game, with no programming required. It will be a while, still, before anything electronic can match that.

It's not only the face to face, personal, corporeal essence of the encounter. It's the complete lack of electronic dictatorial imposition. In real life, the pieces look, feel, and smell like you want them to. You play at any pace, in any way, and in any form that you want to. You change positions, change sides, rub shoulders, take breaks, change the board positions as you like.

Video games realize the potential of certain types of board games. What took hours of calculation in a tabletop war game takes no time all in a video game equivalent. The dynamic possibilities, and ability to display different screens to each player, adds possibilities to gaming that tabletop can't match.

But that is just one narrow subset of board games. Board and card games still encompass a vastly wider range of game types, many of which simply don't translate to video game format. For what it's worth, when we get working electronic tabletops that let you play turn-based games, I'll probably consider them electronically enhanced board games, not video games.

Family versions of drinking games

Many adults think of board games as diversions for social gatherings, i.e. a form of leisure and entertainment. When they think of games, they think of Twister, Pictionary, Cranium, Charades, Trivial Pursuit, poker, dominoes, dice, and so on. Hasbro's newest party game is called "Partini" for a reason.

This goes hand in hand with the "interactive versions of children's toys" mentioned above. It's the idea that board games are a form of social lubrication, and not an attention focal point in and of themselves. I'm not saying that party games aren't sometimes great. Fun is excellent. But board games suffer on the scale when they are judged only in terms of how much hilarity they can produce.

Similarly, some look at board games as a family friendly form of gambling. The word "game" is sometimes synonymous with gambling (some blog directories do this), or with dice and chance. Laws meant to curb gambling sometimes inadvertently end up impacting on the legality of all types of games.

Board games can be entertainment, sure. But they also straddle the world of mental exercise. If you don't like exercise, you're not going to like whole swaths of board games. Again, that's fine.

If board games are simply a family friendly version of dancing or drinking, some of the best board games are going to disappoint. Board games are more than strictly entertainment. They are also relationship affirming, brain building, disciplining, wickedly interesting activities in their own right.

Mental versions of sports

On the flip side, board games are sometimes lumped together with sports, within recreation (instead of entertainment). Board games are thought of as simply the mental equivalent of sports.

While the International Olympic Committee is mulling this one over, one has to remember that, like other sports, plenty of people don't want to devote their time and money to perfecting their performance in a single game (I'm speaking here to both Chess and Magic players, among many others). You can't forget the entertainment when you play games; sports means, to many people, hard work. But not to most others.

Obsessive devotion to a recreational or leisurely activity qualifies as a hobby, which fits some sports players and some board game players, but not all.

Board games are a form of recreation, as is hiking, sewing, and sports. As Wikipedia says about recreation:
Recreation or fun is the expenditure of time in a manner designed for therapeutic refreshment of one's body or mind. While leisure is more likely a form of entertainment or rest, recreation is active for the participant but in a refreshing and diverting manner.
Sports and board games are both subsets of games, which is a category of recreation. You can call sports a form of physical recreation, and games a form of mental recreation. But, like sports are related to many physical activities that are not game related, such as hiking, board games are related to many mental activities that are not sports related, such as puzzles.


So board games are a type of game, which is a type of recreation.

Some board games are simplistic and suitable for children to play with, like toys. Some board games compete with video games, or are adapted to or from video games. Some board games are good for social lubrication or gambling. And some are playable with fanatical devotion as a hobby, just like some sports.

But board games, as a whole, deserve better than to be lumped together into the wrong category that only tells one part of the story.
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