The term gamer, though historically referring to those who played tabletop games, is now a title that most commonly belongs to players of video games. Rightfully so. Play used to be something mostly reserved for children. Moving out of an agrarian society has generated more free time for adults and play has become an accepted mainstream form of entertainment and at the center of that lies video games.
The word geek used to be ammunition in the bully’s arsenal. Now we have made it ours and wear it with pride. I believe video games paved the way for that. Would we have the Lord of the Rings movies if a relevant and sizable geek culture, fostered by video games, didn’t exist? Would we have the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead series if the Lord of the Rings movies didn’t exist? These are incredibly popular, widely praised and totally geeky.
So geeky is no longer a bad word. But even those not proclaiming themselves geeks are playing video games. Games are ever-present and widespread since the invention of the smart phone. Everyone plays them. My mom plays video games. With geeks and games becoming an accepted part of our culture, the increasing popularity of tabletop games is of no surprise. In fact I would posit that right now we are only seeing a mere splash over effect of video gamers discovering board games. Even with major video game websites like Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun doing regular board game articles, I still found commenters on video game news articles concerning our recent release BioShock Infinite: Siege of Columbia saying things like, “People still play board games?” I believe the cross over between people who enjoy video games (even the casual Farmville player) and people who would enjoy board games is much, much larger than the splash over we are currently experiencing.
I am writing this article for publication on our board game website. So I imagine that my readership is already incentivized to see the board game hobby grow. That passionate desire to evangelize about one’s hobby to others is a phenomenon known as fandom and it is a defining characteristic of a geek. Among fans of tabletop games there seems to be a desire to defend the hobby against the implication that some gaggle of video gamers out there, covered in Cheetos dust and hopped up on Mountain Dew no doubt, is defaming their beloved pastime by listing off all of the reasons why video games are the superior medium for playing games. The defense against these (imagined?) arguments is well trodden. To my mind the most convincing of these arguments is that tabletop games are a social medium. In a world that has gone more and more digital they bring people physically around a table and have them interacting with one another.
Some tabletop games manage to offer an experience in the game’s very design that takes advantage of this meeting of physical people in a physical space that just haven’t been duplicated by video games. I offer up Dead of Winter, Plaid Hat Game’s upcoming release, as an example of this type of game. Dead of Winter has players taking on a role of a colony of survivors in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Resources are thin and the players are given a main objective that the colony is working towards. They must all work together closely to stay alive and complete the main objective, but they have all also been given a secret objective. Things like: Power Hungry, Hoarder, Germ-A-Phobe, Neat Freak and many more. These are personal psychological motivations that while not always being directly opposed to the group, can be a clear hindrance and can cause that player to come under the suspicion of the group, which is important because in some games one of those secret objectives will be a betrayal objective. The group must always be alert to the fact that in some games there is someone in their midst that is up to no good, and yet they cannot allow their concerns to cripple them to the point where they fail to survive and work together. The game is built to allow players (human intellects) to interact in intense social situations. These tense situations will tell an emergent narrative that is thrilling to play pretend at for awhile. Some part of our nature is drawn to that human drama in an intense situation. It is part of what draws us to the aforementioned Walking Dead and Game of Thrones as well as shows like Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica and it is a gaming experience that is unique to the tabletop.
The problem with bringing gamers into tabletop gaming, to discover and enjoy the unique things it has to offer, is that while video games have lowered the barriers to play to be near non-existent, board games haven’t. I have composed a list of barriers that stand between tabletop games and an audience of people who would enjoy them, as well as some of my solutions. I hope they spur others in the industry to start thinking about these barriers and further solutions.
Barrier: Rules. Game rules are by their very nature a sort of technical manual. This is an intimidating or downright insurmountable barrier for some. Some people just don’t have the toolset of experiences needed to decipher rules text, or doing so gives them flashbacks of text books and they decide there are better ways to spend their free time.
Solution: As a publisher we have begun doing how to play videos for all of the games we release. Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and Rodney Smith’s Watch it Played YouTube series have taken it a step farther. They show full playthroughs of games. Game stores that provide demo copies of games and knowledgeable staff that can teach them is another way of lowering that barrier. We are working on instituting programs through our distributors to offer demo copies at a very low cost to retailers who are interested in them.
Barrier: Stage Fright. People are afraid of looking dumb. They are afraid they are going to get into a game, it is going to be over their head, and they aren’t going to know what to do.
Solution: When introducing new players to games, choose a game with easy to learn rules. Summoner Wars is a good candidate from our line-up. Play with a small group of understanding people, and offer to play for just a couple of rounds to see if they like it. After those couple of rounds are over ask if they’d like to keep going. (The answer is yes more often than not, as they’ve gotten over their initial fear and the game has started to hook into them.) Also, try not to turn into a power gamer and go hyper competitive. Crushing them into dust isn’t likely to result in their having a good time.
Barrier: Cost. Someone new to hobby games has the perception that board games cost $20, because that’s what a mass market party game costs.
Solution: Education. As people understand the differences in time spent on these games, materials used, and the economics of much smaller print runs they’ll come to understand why the price tag differs from that of the mass market game. I don’t foresee being able to do what video games have done and have free and 99 cent games out there, but with time the value as well as the economics of hobby board games could become more understood. (Note: I realize that print and play is an option for free or low cost games, but they come with their own barriers of assembly.)
Barrier: Exposure. Even the biggest tabletop publishers don’t reach all the way out to the mainstream with their marketing efforts.
Solution: Social media has definitely played a part in the growth of hobby games. Getting out there and talking about your epic game session is going to cause some of your friends call you a nerd. Others will be intrigued. Quintin Smith of shutupshow.com has an excellent video called An Intro to Board Gaming, For Your Friends. Link your friends to it. We have also tried to spark the interest of the video game crowd through games like BioShock Infinite: Siege of Columbia and our upcoming Video Game High School game.
Barrier: Attention Span. I mentioned that games are everywhere and many people you wouldn’t expect to game have. But just because someone enjoys playing angry birds on their phone for 5 minutes at a time doesn’t mean they want to sit down and play a 2 hour game of Puerto Rico with you.
Solution: This could be about choosing the right game. There are some really fun really light and short games out there. Even though they might not be your favorite, breaking one out at a family get together can be more entertaining than some of your other Christmas at the in-laws options. And they can be gateways into greater interest in tabletop games for some. In a fast-paced barrage-of-inputs culture, growing an attention span for games may take a little time for some. Harshly reprimanding a new player for getting out their phone because they are bored is likely to scare them away. Instead, perhaps try harder to engage them outside of their turns. Provide a fun social talkative environment and tabletop games shine and the phone becomes less interesting.
Thanks for reading. I’d love for you to get involved and make this a discussion that spills out past the comments section of this site.