Board With Video Games?
On my way back to work from lunch, I was listening to Word of Mouth on our local NPR affiliate. This is a really good show because they focus on some really off-the-beaten-track topics, and on occasion they hang a left into Geekville. Today, they were talking about the rise in popularity of “German-Style” board games here in the U.S. If you’ve heard of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride or Insert-Your-Favorite-Here, then you know what the term “German-Style” board game means. For those who don’t, I have no idea how you found this post, but these games are usually more cerebral, require more strategy in order to win, and revolve around some odd themes (the show mentioned one concerning the “Tulip Craze” in 17th century Holland).
I really like these games, although I admit I haven’t played many. I played Agricola once, and have only played the electronic versions of Settlers of Catan (I do own the boxed copy, though), Carcassonne, and Small World. Although I like the presentations on WoF most of the time, they seem to consistently drop the ball when it comes to understanding the gamer community. Case in point: parts of the show were contrasting the board game culture with the video game culture, asking questions like whether or not it was more advantageous for kids to play these board games as opposed to video games. Oh man. Where to start?
First, and hopefully without saying around here, the notion that it’s “kids” who are playing video games is so epically archaic that my faith in the rest of any argument proceeding such assertions always takes a nose-dive. But I can overlook that in this case mainly because I think that video game players need to share in the credit for the popularity of these kinds of games.
Back Then™, when being a “geek” was a forced condition, and not an outfit one puts on in the morning, board games required that you have people to play with. You could play Payday or Scrabble with your parents, but when geeks were isolated and potentially without like-minded friends, video games filled the void because they didn’t require (or yet support) multiplayer gaming. Fast forward to 2012, where video gamers get cranky if there isn’t a multiplayer component in their game. Online gaming and social networking have blown the doors off the isolated geek stereotype and have brought gamers and geeks together over great distances – or even across town, where 20 years ago one geek wouldn’t even know of the existence of another unless they happened to be at the exact same place, at the exact same time, for the exact same reason.
Seeing as how I have just returned from PAX East, this is such a powerful realization. Here we have seventy thousand geeks, dorks, nerds, gamers, collectors, and cosplayers, all of whom would have been social outcasts 20 years ago, from across the country (maybe even some from other countries, as well), taking what online gaming and social media have given them – the opportunity to easily connect to like-minded individuals – and kicking it up a notch by bringing them together physically to celebrate what they love. And it’s not just video games! There is always a massive section devoted to tabletop gaming play, and whole sections of the floor are given over to companies who sell these old-school “German Style” games and their successors.
A lot of the “analog games” (as we’ll call them) that are on display at PAX are the next generation of “German Style”, and many of them are based on properties that video gamers and general geek society has been privy to for decades, but which have recently been reaching the “non-geek” public: Lord of the Rings, Call of Chtulhu, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica…even The Walking Dead. Munchkin is a card game which has been around for ages, and which is seeing a renaissance of it’s own thanks to the momentum of the analog game market.
The popularity of these kinds of games certainly aren’t being propelled by the reality-TV crowd. They’re being developed and discovered by the geeks and the gamers of other stripes who are maybe introducing their non-gamer friends and family to experiences which aren’t as “threatening” as video games are perceived to be. There’s no special hardware, no eye-strain, no esoteric jargon to master. It’s a lot closer to Scrabble or Sorry! then World of Warcraft is, so it’s a lot easier to convince a non-gamers to give it a try. I think that these analog games appeal to the open-mindedness of video gamers who, believe it or not, can and do thrive on social interaction. It’s not “one or the other”, or one supplanting the other; it’s a complimentary opportunity for a demographic that was once marginalized and isolated to come together, even in the face of outdated stereotypes.