Those weekends long ago in the neighbour’s basement, playing Snakes and Ladders, Trivial Pursuit, and Monopoly aren’t the stuff of nostalgia anymore.
A new golden age of board games has arisen, one where players flock far and wide to cafes, clubs and tournaments, including the recent Gen Con in Indianapolis, welcoming 70,000 visitors.
According to the authors of a new book, the reason is that people are discovering that gaming isn’t merely about entertainment, or social activity, but can also be a window to understanding the human psyche.
“I wanted to create a book about the big ideas that go into, and come out of, a life spent playing board games—big ideas that transcend the little world that exists inside the game,” noted Jonathan Kay, co-author of Your Move: What Board Games Teach Us About Life (Sutherland House Books, 168 pages).
He, along with author Joan Moriarty, tackle topics from the headlines, from Trump’s America to cultural appropriation, transgender identity to economic decision-making, political correctness and more, by examining mainstream games like Monopoly, Cards Against Humanity, and Scrabble as well as lesser-known ones as Greenland, Advanced Squad Leader, and Power Grid.
Kay, a distinguished journalist, non-fiction author, and board game enthusiast, said that “board gaming allows players to enjoy games in the way that our brains are programmed to enjoy social interaction: face-to-face.” This is in contradistinction to our buzzing digitally-addicted lives, which for many, have groomed a habit of disconnect from genuine human interaction.
“You have to behave like a civilized social creature, because you’re all there in the same space, building an imaginary world together… Plus, you can’t multitask, since it’s rude. When you’re playing in an online forum, most of the people are also listening to music, talking on the phone, watching TV.”
Moriarty built on the answer, by explaining that “play builds connection, and through that connection, humanizes the other.”
“Imaginative play can also provide opportunities to see what it’s like to be someone else. For example, The Long Drive Back From Busan by Clio Yun-su Davis is an award-winning live action roleplaying game in which the players take on the roles of Korean pop music stars. It is explicitly intended for people of all races and genders, even though the characters they play in the story are all Korean men. You don’t even need to be a k-pop fan! You’ll experience hardship, betrayal, heartbreak and hope, together as a kind of surrogate family,” noted Moriarity, whose career has been spent designing, developing, distributing, art directing, recommending and teaching board games — and, more recently, writing about them for a wider audience.
Of the games that have become classics, lasting decades and passed through generations, the common elements, she says, are that they are “easy to teach to children.”
“Most adults in the western world have been so brutally conditioned by their schooling to fear the possibility of weakness or failure, that to even suggest trying a new game will typically provoke a reaction of fear and revulsion. Young children, however, have not yet been through that spiritual meat grinder, and consequently they are more willing to try to learn how to play a new game,” she noted.
“Take Monopoly, for example. It’s a long, complicated game with a lot of rules to learn. Most adults don’t realize how complicated it is because they learned it when they were children, not yet afraid of making play-mistakes in an imaginary world.” For her, that explains why most adults drift towards the games they’ve always played.
“We need to convince people that the joy of play far outweighs the consequences of making play-mistakes in a pretend world.”