The Social Nature of Gaming
Many critics of board gaming believe the hobby is, simply put, anti-social. While there are many reasons why people feel this way, I think much of it stems from the fact that there appears to be a lack of talking and other generally understood forms of social interaction. On the contrary, board gaming is inherently social and, in many ways, it is more social than most hobbies.
For someone who loves games as much as I do, I want to emphasize that gaming is just as much (if not more) about the people as the games themselves. Although there are several reasons for the social nature of board gaming, much of this identity stems from one key construct – the local gaming group.
I have been playing modern board games for over a decade and have been hosting game nights since 2011. My current record for most attendees at my house in a single game night is 32 which, FYI, is a terrible, terrible idea and incredibly difficult to coordinate. In 2013, I moved to Raleigh and when I visit or catch up with old friends, they inevitably say how much they miss the elaborate game nights we used to have. Here is the best part – few of them would actually consider themselves gamers – yet our shared experiences were something special. I had a local gaming group back then and some of those members still influence me today. I have a Raleigh-based gaming group now and they are among the people I see most often; the hobby essentially requires it.
Members of your local gaming group will fall into one of three categories:
There will be friends you knew outside of gaming that you are desperately trying to convert. You have pre-established friendships with these people and that is likely to remain whether or not they adopt gaming as a hobby.
There will be those who were already invested in gaming but did not know you previously - you meet them through gaming and they become part of your group. These players are useful because they can help explain games, provide access to more games and offer a great challenge consistently.
Finally, there will those you meet at public game nights that neither knew you nor gaming – they were looking for something to do or happened upon a game night accidentally. They never played a game before but showed a natural affinity for it; most games they have played came from you.
It is amazing to me how, after a short duration of time, all three groups begin to blend into each other. Though you met under gaming circumstances, members of the latter two categories will become close friends while your existing friends can become great gamers. All three groups will meet and begin to intersect, and through the simple act of playing games on a recurring basis, you have the chance to become someone who holds several friendships together.
As I stated before, the hobby requires repetition and frequency, particularly with the same group of people. I generally teach games at least three times a week – Tuesdays and Fridays at work and Thursdays at a local game night – and despite my seemingly infinite patience, even I get tired of explaining the same game repeatedly. In that way, gaming encourages you to invest heavily in the same people week after week so that they build up domain knowledge and you do not need to always explain things. As a result, you will see these people often and they will become close friends; after a while board gaming becomes something you do together, not merely something you do. Like everyone’s, my life can be extremely busy and I spend most of my time exhausted, but it will take extreme circumstances for me to miss my Thursday night game night not only because of the games I get to play but because of the people I know will be there.
Do not mistake this phenomenon for a clique. While it is preferable to play with people you already know, many of the best players I know fall into category #3. You must be willing to take chances on people and create new gamers, even if you didn’t know them already. People will surprise you, and although not every person will work out, when they do, you are greatly rewarded for your efforts. I find myself always looking for that next person who will become a regular. As a result, I get to meet many new people, and although not everyone will enjoy gaming, I try to make sure that everyone has an enjoyable experience. If I am doing my job correctly, I will be putting people before games, which I believe is the best way to create new gamers. At work, there are days where seeing someone else enjoy their introduction to gaming is more enjoyable than playing the game itself.
Mathematically, there is further incentive to play games as often as possible. At the time of this writing, there are 21 games in my collection that I have not yet played enough to form an opinion. This is in addition to the 100+ other games that I own and enjoy, which is a lot of games to cover every year. The only way to justify owning so many games is to play games as often as possible – with as many people as possible – so that I feel like the games are earning their space in my shelves. Some players won’t like learning a new game every single time, so to mitigate that, I have to create core games within each subgroup, developing multiple subgroups in order to maximize the number of titles I get to play. The more games I buy, the more games I have to play, which means the more people I will seek out as opponents.
Often, I will hear someone say something akin to “I can play this game with my family.” I enjoy hearing these phrases because it means that the experience has transcended the game itself – the activity is instantly presented in a context about who else might enjoy this. Games can be a repeatable, habitual activity for family members to spend quality time together, where the cost is bound only by the number of games you wish to own. If you are willing to experiment and show patience, I truly believe there is a game that exists for every family; you could also try Codenames.
Unlike other hobbies, board games are very accessible and do not have as many barriers to entry. One of the key members of my first gaming group was unable to walk without crutches, yet it did not affect his ability to play games. I have played games with people who have disabilities in their hands, who would not be able to play sports or video games but can enjoy many board games where physical dexterity is not an issue. I have played with people of all ages; some of my friends have children who are quite good for their age and the hobby becomes a vehicle through which I can form a relationship with them as well. When I think of my grandmother, some of my most vivid memories of her were playing Rummikub, a game I rarely play today but cannot bring myself to remove from my collection because of its sentimental significance. Games can create memories of people, and those shared experiences last much longer than the sum of their individual playthroughs.
It is impossible to talk about playing games without a focus on the people with which I play them. This is not accidental but rather intentional – if I wanted lengthy solo experiences, I would prefer to find that in video games (which I still enjoy). But because of their physicality, board games inherently lend themselves to being a proximity-based experience. Although digital games are on the rise, there is no substitute for face to face, deeply personal gaming. If you take up board gaming as a hobby, you will be receiving a low-cost hobby that fosters great friendships and a never-ending array of choices of entertainment.
When I hear non-gamers talk badly about the hobby – my first experience of Gen Con was an older woman sardonically referring to it as “a bunch of men sitting together throwing dice” – I cannot help but think about how badly these notions misconstrue the hobby. While I take great satisfaction in the mental challenge of gaming, the constant opportunity to refine my critical thinking and become better, I take equal enjoyment out of those with whom I share that experience. As much as I hate the frequency with which I am indiscriminately targeted in games, it underscores how much history we have as a group and proves that many people have it wrong. Of the many people to which I have taught games in the first category, the vast majority of them probably never expected to enjoy them; instead, gaming becomes one of their first thoughts when they see me, something they miss immensely (and not just because there was often free pizza).
Gaming is extremely social; it is just as much about the people as the games themselves, maybe even more so. People are undeniably the core of gaming and the industry as a whole is better off because of it.