There are a number of reasons we play board games; for the intellectual challenge, for the thematic experience, for the chance to get away from a computer screen for a while. One of the bigger reasons we play, or at least claim we play, is for the shared experience with other people. Gaming on the tabletop is by nature a social experience, with only a few exceptions.
But what exactly is shared during these times? I recently went on a week-long camping trip that left me plenty of time to play games but also think about the nature of the gaming experience. In the time I had there, I stumbled on a thought that exposes, I think, one of the deeper reasons why it is so difficult to grow the hobby gaming culture.
The truth is, our shared experiences are much smaller than we think they are; they are contained in spheres that do not expand, do not draw others in. They are isolated.
I was sitting at the campfire, listening to the discussion that was happening there. It was on books, or movies; probably a bit of both. We talked of the stories we had read recently, what they meant to us, what messages they sent, what it told us of humanity.
The interesting thing about discussing a book is that the discussion often revolves around broader themes; themes that are relevant to society. At least, when people talk about them, they bring up ideas related to the book that are relevant. Whether we interpret deeper messages or comment on what people believe or the state of humanity, the ideas are often broad enough that an “outsider” – in the sense of someone who hasn’t read the book, can participate. Even if only by listening or asking questions, that person can get engaged in the conversation. If they haven’t read the book or seen the movie, and they find the discussion interesting, they may be prompted to go experience it for themselves.
How can we talk this way about board games? We can’t. No matter how much theme you pour into a game, there is no game I can think of that lends to a deeper conversation about meaningful themes or ideas. It is impossible to expand the discussion of a board game beyond the inner circle of those who have played the game. Board games do not hinge on moral conundrums. They do not purport ideals or wax philosophical. They are machines designed with function; even the most thematic games, the games that I myself have claimed to have a soul, do not explore ideas. They give you a goal and tools with which to accomplish that goal, and arena to play in.
Board games can only be discussed mechanically, even if in a thematic context. Eurogames are the worst offenders, emphasizing function over form. How can you get into a campfire conversation about the most efficient way to turn your wheat into victory points, unless you’re already in an “inner circle” of hobbyists. Unfortunately, even heavily thematic games don’t give us much to talk about. I’ve relived plenty of my favorite games of Cosmic Encounter, Twilight Imperium, and Last Night on Earth – but generally only with the same group of people, or retelling an adventure from the last time we played – which comes up during a current game. Our games don’t offer us choices with depth, choices that have consequence; they give us choices of on or off, 1 or 0, left or right, with results that don’t have much weight other than ‘will I win the game?’ and that’s hardly going to draw outsiders in.
I think it is important to understand this idea, because if we want to grow our hobby, to bring more people in, we have to understand what engages people, what interests them. If we cant sit down at the dinner table and say something to the effect of “I read this book recently, this idea was portrayed like this, what do you think of that?” (I suppose it might read “I played this game recently, it presented a choice like this, what do you think of that?” if we could do that), and engage them with a game before they even play it, how can we get them interested?
I don’t know if there is a way to change this fact. I don’t know if it is inherent to gaming, or just something we haven’t managed to reach yet. The way our hobby exists now, our shared experiences exists only within the experiences themselves.
On the plus side, our hobby does differ from reading a book or watching a movie in that the experience itself IS more social. Even in the most multi-player solitaire games, you’re still there with other people in a race to be the best, and what you do affects the outcome for the other players just as much as what they do affects you.
But we have to get players to the table, and that can take a lot of convincing, cajoling, and forcing exposure. We have to offer a game a dozen times before someone will try it, we have to be gracious and courteous as we teach newbies, and we have to keep bringing our games back over and over again.
My challenge to you? Think of ways to expand this shared social nature of games. I dare you to prove me wrong; to show me that you CAN discuss board games outside of playing the game itself. I dare you to bring up board games in a conversation in a way that draws non-gamers in, and that you engage them with your hobby so that they become interested in trying out the game. I also challenge you to consider that this will be difficult and it may be impossible. We need to be aware of this aspect of our hobby so we can compensate by engaging new players in other ways.