Whenever I ask people to name their favourite columns from those I’ve written, there’s always a unifying thread amongst the responses. Everyone mentions pieces that skirt around that deliciously murky place where games and real life collide. Whether it’s the story of how gaming helped me reconcile pacifism with an interest in militaria or the tale of how my daughter learned to love gaming, the human interest stories that always float to the top.
And why not? Human interest stories float to the top of journalism like the oil-slick rainbows of childhood puddles. We are human. Other humans interest us. So when deeply felt, personal stories collide with our interests and hobbies the result is a perfect storm of wonderment that, at best, helps us know ourselves and our relationship with our games just a little bit better.
As you’d expect, it holds equally true of video gaming journalism. I was reminded of this universal truth this week when this superb article about playing L.A. Noire with a native of the games’ 40’s setting, united internet denizens in a flurry of adoration. It seemed to set other journalists tumbling over one another to mention other, previous favourite pieces. And again the universal truth held. Many were articles made special by the human angle, such as this harrowing fable of a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. press event near the actual Chernobyl reactor.
So no surprises that people playing games is also the number one thing mentioned when I ask people what they want to see more of. So here I am, trying to do just that. But when it comes to board games, what’s surprising and worrying is just how difficult that turns out to be. I’ve written those two pieces I mentioned at the start of this one and I think there’s probably one more in me, about family gaming over the festive season, which I may slot in closer to the appointed date. But beyond that I have nothing.
This should not be. Board gaming is a deeply social experience. You’re playing face to face, right there, with other human beings, real people with whom you can chat, share jokes, pass the time between turns with banter about things other than the game. Social mores are actually leveraged as game mechanic in anything that involves trading or negotiation. Playing games has been a part and parcel of custom and tradition for centuries. There are, in fact, few hobbies that are more social than playing a board game.
Computer gaming is certainly not one of them, unless your definition of “social” encompasses screaming juvenile obscenities over a headset during multiplayer Call of Duty Games. And yet human interest stories in the videogame press abound. How do they manage it? Well, a quick glance at the articles I linked earlier, or at relevant pieces from any outlet, reveals that the personal angle is usually exterior to actual game play. Very little in either of those articles actually talks about playing the game, but instead relate the experience of play to things in the real world, reaching out to touch important, emotional things that everyone can understand.
Videogame journalists can make this link for two reasons. Firstly because playing computer games has become a mainstream, ubiquitous thing. That means it’s becoming a cultural reference point, a thing readers can relate to quickly and easily without paragraphs of introductory text outlining the setting or mechanics of the game. Secondly because computer games have begun to do a startlingly good job of mimicking aspects of the real world. Much of the piece about L.A. Noire was focussed on how good it was at evoking the physical reality of 40’s L.A., and how in doing so it missed some of the cultural realities of that period.
When we sit down to write about board games, we’re afforded neither of those luxuries. The things that differentiate hobby board games from mainstream ones are not well known and often need explaining, even to an enthusiast audience because many of them may not be familiar with the intricacies of the game in question. And even the most simulation oriented board games are highly abstract compared with the reality they seek to depict, so we need to spend time delving into the relationship between the two. It’s hard to make the link between the experience of play and real life in a board game because there rarely is a link to make. And when you can it’s impossible to do it and keep the narrative flowing and trimmed to a reasonable length because of the background material required.
So we come back to the fact that the experience of playing a board game is inherently founded in social reality in a way that playing a computer game is not. That, surely should be something we can leverage? But it seems not. For all the thousands of that I’ve spent gaming, I have precious little even in the way of anecdotes to offer, let alone genuine human drama. I have a lot of fun to show for those hours, and I wouldn’t give up them up for anything. But all I learned from them was better statistics and logical thinking. For all the much-vaunted social value of board games that tends to get trotted out by hobbyists explaining how much better their hobby is than nasty, introspective video games or TV watching, precious little that happens in the game has much relevance to what happens outside it.
It’s very tempting to open up the whole can of worms with the introverted, socially awkward gamers again but I don’t think it really has much to do with this, although I do feel that some people use gaming as an excuse for not socialising otherwise, fooling themselves that they get all the social time they need over a board . It’s about the games themselves and how obsession can limit horizons. I don’t think I ever realised any of this until I read those pieces of videogame journalism and had a long, hard think about how one might be able to find a similarly powerful angle for board games. But I could not. And, strikingly, I couldn’t think of a single board game writer who ever has.
Before that realisation I happily bought into that “board games are social” line. But that seems to me a quaint, self serving myth. Board games are only social in a dreadfully restrictive manner, totally isolated to play itself. There are too many times that I’ve been out with friends to play, and got home, and been asked “how is so and so? how are their kids?” and I’ve not been able to answer. That’s sad, but I kept on justifying it to myself by thinking about how much we talked and interacted. But all we talked about was the game, and what happened in the game. Board games are a great tool to organise your socialising around, but it’s too easy to let them dictate your interactions completely.
Could we do anything about this? Yes, if we wanted to. It'd help is board gaming was more of a common culltural touchstone than it is. But a lot of hobby gamers have a worryingly narrow definition of what constitutes a board game. There are many games on the fringes of the hobby scene that encourage genuine sociability and imagination, such as the excellent storytelling game Once Upon A Time, or the emerging scene in mass-participation social games to look to for inspiration, all of which a lot of hobbyists would turn up their noses at for being too imprecise or poorly defined. But then again there more important question is, do we want to? There's nothing particularly wrong with game experinces being escapist, introverted or non-social. But perhaps it's about time that we stopped pretending they were not those things, and kidding ourselves that they're a substitute for genuine socialising.