Board Games Will Save the World – Tabletop Games and Mind Engagement

It was 10:30pm, later than we intended, but we had high hopes that despite the hour we would still be able to finish a game of Eric Lang's The Others. Silly us. I had to be up at 5:30am and when it hit 2am I knew I would have to pack up the game and leave it unfinished. It was disappointing yet the game had been good until that point. I was playing the Sins character for the first time and was doing rather well. I think. There was cause for concern on the horizon, but the untimely (or perhaps timely) nature of our finishing meant that we would never fully know.

Pulling the pin on our game was not what I wanted to do; I wanted to finish. There is something deeply unsatisfying about an unfinished game. Thinking about it, our decisions seem crazy that we would be so committed to finishing a game that we would stay up that late. And despite my need for an early rise it is absurd that I would be disappointed at packing the game up. Yet games have made a place in our minds and culture in a way that I think warrants consideration.

It is unsurprising that games have always been part of our social environment. Archaeologists have found evidence of games for almost as long as we have been recording history. The d20 die was used in ancient Egypt for various games long before Gary Gygax utilised it for generating probability in Dungeons and Dragons. There were even games so popular that they spread through multiple countries despite language, cultural, and geographic barriers. In other words, games spread with universal appeal centuries before the rise and notoriety of Monopoly, Catan, or Pandemic.

It is not hard to see signs in today's world of how games became part of our human make up. My daughter is about to turn 3 and I have become a little sentimental of her brief few years. From the moment she was born I would grab a cloth and throw it over her face, whip it off exclaiming "Peek-a-boo!" As she grew I would turn tasks around the home into games and soon chores or obstacles to her learning were given goals, materials to manipulate, role playing, and resources to manage. I would have to say that for the most part my daughter learns best through games. However, for some reason as we get older there is a pressure to throw away games for more 'mature'; pursuits. Being fixated or engrossed in games is seen as childish, or at best a frivolous pastime. Contrary to this belief I think games have an even bigger role to play as we get older.

It is worthwhile questioning why and how games become part of our cultural meme and have consequently been passed on through social evolution. Unfortunately answering that is a task I am not capable of doing justice to here. What I want to suggest is that games have developed a symbiotic relationship that is very relevant for our time.

Greg Costikyan argued that traditional art forms are passive. People go to art galleries to stand and look at paintings, audiences gather to watch plays, or listen to music. Yet games are active and require the audience to participate for them to work. GenCon would be less interesting if board game releases were, well, dressed people drinking expensive champagne while looking at displays of set up game boards. Games require you to move tokens, manipulate materials, manage your cards, and play components all in the pursuit of a goal. This is something our minds find deeply satisfying. There are other things our brains love that games provide. Our brains love working towards goals. We like seeing accomplishments. Games also provide immediate feedback. The game state changes after each move and depending on what happens it is either for my benefit or to my detriment, but the thing I think our brains like most of all is that games provide us a problem to solve.

Games would be boring if you could solve them by following a set of instructions. If the only problem was finding out the optimal moves that you could use every time then that's a puzzle and not a game. Games change to meet the state of play, they respond to our decisions and they throw up regular problems for us to overcome. And our brains love it. While this is true for games it is also true for real life. I think games work because in life our brains love these same things.

I know it seems counter-intuitive, but our brains respond well to problems so long as they stretch our abilities and capabilities. When people are free of problems they become bored. When people are posed with problems they cannot manage they are anxious or stressed. Games try to provide that optimal state of challenge and ability. They seek to provide enough pressure to make you feel under pressure, but are not too overwhelming so as to leave you feeling hopeless.

Good games ensure that you have decisions to make and those decisions are meaningful and impacting on the state of play. Funny enough this is important in all of life. People who can find jobs and hobbies that work at this same optimal level report feeling happier and healthier. Games actively help us to practice those skills of meeting problems and seeing them through to resolution.

This may explain my disappointment with having to pack away The Others despite the late hour. The challenge was there, my skills were being stretched, I was forced to deal with shifting problems, but I did not get to see a resolution. One thing games do well is that they all finish, even Twilight Imperium has an ending so I'm told. Seeing problems to resolution is vital feedback. We get to see how our decision play out over the long term.

The convenience of modern technology in our relaxation such as social media, or in our work life – with such things as computers – has reduced our exposure to problems in daily activity. Where once we had to learn and refine technical skills we are instead bombarded with distraction and provided problem free relaxation like Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix. In other words the very comforts and marvels of the modern world have started to make us more passive in all areas of life. While I am not here as a technophobe, nor am I proclaiming gloom and doom, I am suggesting that board games can play a vital role in engaging our minds. They provide us chances to simulate problem solving skills and goal focused work that will help us in the real world. I think it would be an injustice to see board games as a childish thing to grow up from, or simply a nerdy indulgence. I think board games are far more powerful and should be celebrated as an element of society to be enjoyed and acculturated as a necessary part of developing successful generations to come.

What do you think? Do you agree, or have I stretched the value of the hobby too far? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.