Here’s Why Board Games Are The New Video Games
[First published on www.tabletoptribe.com]
In the 1970s, amongst the Space and Tech Lego, Evel Kneivel figures and Action Men, two new forms of entertainment stirred.
In 1972 the video game Pong appeared in limited quantities at arcades. The simple digital bat and ball game was surprisingly addictive and by the middle of the following year was a runaway, mainstream success as one of the first home console games. In turn it spawned classics like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Missile Command. The video game revolution had begun.
At around the same time Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson gave the world Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). This novel take on a Tolkienesque universe, where players cooperated to forge their own heroic stories, gripped hold of the imagination and hasn’t let go since.
Over four decades later these two pillars of geekdom still stand. Video games dominate the world of entertainment generating over twice the revenue of the film industry. RPGs, whilst not in the same league, nonetheless have not only survived in this digitally-obsessed culture, but positively thrived, and enjoy greater popularity now than ever before.
In fact the entire tabletop gaming industry, including board, card and dice games, has seen a resurgence in recent years which has baffled many and, combined with so many celebrities “coming out” as closet tabletop gamers, attracted mainstream interest in this relatively niche hobby.
These mainstream, non-geek outsiders aren’t just voyeurs either: they want in. They’re going from playing family staples like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, via “gateway” games like Catan, Carcassonne and Ticket To Ride, to the brain drain of heavy Eurogames and glossy excitement of Ameritrash. They’re becoming full-on geeks and bona fide Gamers.
This could be attributed to a general upsurge in gaming as a whole, particularly video games. The days where the gaming demographic was socially awkward teenage males are gone. That’s not to say they’re now under-represented, but the environment is considerably more diverse. Most are aware there’s a huge female player base for mobile gaming, but you might be just as likely to come up against a girl in your average FPS too.
There’s also a mainstream acceptance of fantasy themes across media that’s been building for a couple of decades. Harry Potter wasn’t just a runaway success with children: Bloomsbury even printed more “grown up” covers of the books to allow adults to read them in public without feeling too self-conscious. The fantasy epic Game of Thrones has become one of the most successful TV series ever, boosting further the sales of the novels which had been popular with fantasy nerds since 1996.
Remember that many of the folk that gush excitedly to their co-workers about last night’s Game of Thrones episode or how on earth they’ll be able to wait for the next series, are the very same people that less than a decade ago might have disparagingly looked down their noses at geeks and nerds immersed in the very same folklore iconography.
However, none of this necessarily explains the boom in tabletop games, often in favour of their digital counterparts. To find the answer we’ll have to look more closely at the two main generational groups that are driving this Golden Age of Tabletop Gaming in an environment dominated by video games.
This is the generation that started it all. My generation. The children of the 1970s and 1980s who grew up alongside both video and alternative fantasy gaming. Our parents were utterly baffled by these twin alien worlds that evolved and grew with us. Worlds which were novel and exciting to us, and that we felt a certain ownership over.
No internet. Hell, no LAN in the beginning. Multiplayer video gaming was a social pastime, whether it was playing Joust on your friends Atari console, or a decade later gathered around someone’s SNES enjoying Super Mario Kart. It was raucous, split-screen mayhem.
By the first decade of the new millennium that had mostly moved online. Our gaming groups had expanded to encompass countries and continents across the globe, and most modern games featured online lobbies where we could meet and play against total strangers at the touch of a button.
Today it’s never been easier to find folk to play video games with, and the couch-based split-screen gatherings of yesteryear are almost obsolete.
Generation Xers also grew up in an age where there was a clearly defined geek culture, meaning a proportion of those playing a lot of video games into the 21st century were also still playing their RPGs and board games, however infrequently and despite often being seduced by the likes of Oblivion and other digital incarnations of various analogue fantasy genres.
However, with multiplayer video games going global and often no longer even supplying an offline multiplayer mode, and analogue gaming like D&D requiring the kind of planning that many Generation Xers now encumbered with families just couldn’t manage, things were looking bleak on both fronts.
As the first decade of the new millennium was drawing to a close there were many Generation Xers hankering for a return to more social, face-to-face gaming experiences once again. The same geeky camaraderie felt when gathered around a CRT television shooting each other in the face playing Goldeneye on the N64, but without the time sink of an RPG campaign.
That’s where board games come in.
A board game provides the same social interaction that the Generation Xers crave from their console huddles of yesteryear, along with giving them the kind of gaming escapism that they might have got from RPGs, but wrapped up in packages that (with a few notable exceptions) can be played in an evening over a bottle or three of wine, and aren’t such self-conscious endeavours as RPGs for those who have become used to gaming alone in front of a screen.
Sometimes referred to as Generation Y, Millennials grew up fully immersed in the digital age. There was no life before the internet/mobile phones. There was no 8-bit game loading from cassette tapes (whereas I swear I can understand audible binary) or dot-matrix printers. Millennials arrived in a world where personal technology was integrated with life. I can no more conceive of what that’s really like than Millennials can of a world where a mobile phone is the size of a house brick.
As such you might also think the same generation would be equally unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of analogue entertainment, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Millennials are flooding new board game cafes and meetup groups, and are often the most outspoken on forums and social media.
This has led some to suggest that it is Millennials alone that are driving our present Golden Age of Board Gaming, although that opinion is usually expressed by Millennials themselves, who as a group exhibit around 16% more narcissism than older adults, so this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise! [N.B. It’s fair to say too that they’re usually naysayed by Generation Xers who are 100% more likely to harp on about how good the old days were and how Millennials have it so easy. And they’d be right of course.]
However, statistically the 20–30 age demographic is the most prevalent in the online board game community by a long way, even if it’s the Generation Xers that are the most likely to have large amounts of disposable income to spend on the hobby, and those most likely to be designing the games we play. Think of your favourite tabletop designers and you’ll probably be picturing beards with grey in them.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Millennials are undoubtedly abandoning video-gaming for the tabletop, but for subtly different reasons than Generation X. There‘s obviously a shared desire for more face time away from social media and online games, and a shared nostalgia, although for Millennials that may be fond memories of board games with the family as kids, rather than Generation X desire to return to the “good old days” of social gaming.
That’s not to suggest that there aren’t many geeky Millennials that have been playing RPGs, Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40K since their pre-teens, but in terms of the uninitiated mainstream, their generation has been far more openly embracing of this tabletop culture, perhaps because they were born into a world where the Geek was already inheriting the Earth?
Gaming is Dead. Long Live Gaming!
So in fact it’s two generations driving the board game boom, coming from different technological and gaming backgrounds, but both sharing a general desire to switch from online gaming with it’s faceless friends and foes and beautiful, yet intangible content, to a world where friends gather face-to-face to laugh and battle and cooperate and game over tactile components.
Nostalgia aside, the environment is also more conducive to attracting non-gaming friends and family. With video games the main barrier to inclusion is the method of interaction itself: the controller. Even experienced gamers from one platform might baulk at the controller of another device, branding it poorly designed and nigh on unusable.
Board games on the other hand require no such muscle memory and hand-eye coordination from the player, barring dexterity games like Flick ’Em Up of course. True, they still need a certain level of mastery to beat experienced players, but at least noobs can compete without being made to feel incompetent or uncoordinated. At least most of the time.
Being a Generation Xer myself I tend to compare board games to video games in the same way I compare the Commodore 64 to the PS4: the graphics might be a bit shit, but there’s often much more actual game there.
So if you’re tiring of the faceless online world of gaming, or just fancy a change, then pull up a chair with us, crack open a frosty beverage, and prepare to be entertained!