Board Games in the Digital Age

By Adam Thomas

Over the last few decades, while the Internet grew from infancy into the dominant force it is today and while video games slowly overtook the box office in revenue, something else – something quieter – was also happening. That something was the steady rise in popularity of tabletop games. You might think it strange for such a trend to exist during the digital age, but if you take a step back and think about it, it makes sense.

If you’re anything like I am, then you’ve discovered you cannot live your entire life in the digital world. I tried that from June 2006 to March 2008 when I lived in Azeroth more than I lived on earth. For most of my time playing World of Warcraft, I was having fun. I enjoyed questing, exploring, starting alts, healing five-mans, occasionally DPSing. I had favorite spots on the water to watch the sun set. I liked my guild and shared small talk with them. I had the rare deep conversation over vent. (I was in seminary at the time, and most of my guild knew I was studying to be a priest. Most of them were also gay men, so they had a lot of questions about my church’s view on homosexuality, which by the way, has been evolving over the years towards, “Yea! We love you!”)

Heck, I even liked farming and fishing. But even when I was having fun immersing myself in the virtual world, I knew in a secret place that I usually ignored that I was doing it all to run away from reality. I started playing WOW so I didn’t have to think about my life turning out differently that I thought it would. I could control my characters progression. And that was enough. But at some point, my real life started getting better when I was looking the other way. And yet, I still played WOW. At that point, I didn’t know what else to do. I was too invested, too lost in the game. I was playing even when I didn’t want to, when the fun wasn’t there.

That’s when I realized I was addicted. Of course, I kept playing, because there’s a pretty wide chasm between realizing you’re addicted and taking steps to alleviate the addiction. It was during this period between addiction and treatment that another seminarian (and all around awesome guy) introduced me to board games. Yes, I had been playing board games all my life, but not like the ones he showed me. These were German. Wunderbar!

And when I went to his house to play board games, I found something I had misplaced two years before. I found the ability to be near people; that is to say, to be physically close to them, to see my smile reflected in theirs. I had isolated myself for so long behind a computer screen, surviving on the meager rations of remote intimacy that dripped like an IV through my Ethernet port. I had forgotten how refreshing it could be to be close to others, to sit around a table, to graze hands as we passed cards back and forth.

This was the beginning of my redemption, my slow walk back from Azeroth. For once, there was something I’d rather do than fire up World of Warcraft. And while it took a nasty bout of the flu to detox me once and for all, I know board games helped get me there. Tabletop games are an antidote for digital isolation, and as more and more people realize they can’t exist fully in the virtual world, board games will become more and more popular.

Board games as antidote is the main reason I believe they have grown in popularity in my lifetime (that’s since 1983 for those of you keeping score). There are two more reasons, one subjective and one ironic.

The ironic one is this: the Internet has made board games more accessible, even as it has stolen much of the market share of physical, embodied life. The paradox of the Internet is that it isolates us and connects us in the same breath. The Internet has allowed us to find our subcultures and make the massive discovery that we are not alone. The Internet has allowed tabletop gamers to find each other, and then to go out, strengthened by a like-minded community, and invite others to play. Thank you, Internet.

The second, more subjective one, is this: board games are just better designed than they used to be. My wife and I like to pick up retro board games at yard sales and tag sales, and most of them are just downright bad – or else, like the game of Life, they’re not actually games, they’re activities. The two board games that the uninitiated may have played are Monopoly and Risk. (And here I must resist my soapbox about these two games; I’ll vent my spleen about them someday.) These games are not fun: they go on forever and usually end with people getting fed up and quitting. But the German imports that started appearing in the 1990s are amazing games: well-designed, interactive, thought-provoking, and – Ja! Dankeschön! – they have definitive ends.

Mix these three ingredients together and you have the recipe for a tabletop gaming explosion: better games, better access, and the need to detox from the virtual world. I don’t see any leveling off coming either. Nor are we in a bubble. In Germany, tabletop gaming is just part of culture, not subculture, and thankfully the influx of German games to the States is moving that particular dial here, as well. Jawohl! Board game culture is here to stay.

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