Why I Plan To Make Board Games a Priority For My Son

I’ve been feeling like an old man recently.

Which is strange, because I’m 27 and every time I mention this strange feeling to my wife, who is 30, I receive a cold, stern look. Really, I’m a baby, I need to shut up and just enjoy the blissful fountain of youth.

Except it’s hard to feel too in touch when the 17-year-old girl I tutor in high school English doesn’t pick up on some pop culture references I make. (Seriously – who hasn’t heard of Jeopardy?)

That’s easy to stomach, though, because pop culture comes and goes. What I’m more afraid of – or, rather, fascinated by – are the changes in communication. Yes, texting apps, etc, are all fine and I use them every day. Broadcast television, save sports, is slowly becoming a thing of the past. We all love Netflix. HBO Now? I’m there.

But I’m a little concerned. I look at my nine-month-old son and wonder, what will the world be like for him, not just when he’s a kid, but when he enters the workforce? How is the technology designed to make his life so easy going to help him find a sustainable living?

It’s not all bad! This recent piece in the New York Times suggests people born after 1990 have some skills the previous generation, Gen-Y, don’t have:

Gen Zers seem to prefer in-person to online interaction and are being schooled in emotional intelligence from a young age. Thanks to social media, they are accustomed to engaging with friends all over the world, so they are well prepared for a global business environment.

But I’m still concerned. I’m concerned that when my son is 13, he’ll want to spend more time talking with his friends online than in person. Again, it’s old man speak, but only a little – a recent study of sixth grade students found that those who spend more time offline are able to better recognise emotions in others.

It’s not hard to imagine the huge amount of time we spend with tech makes us deaf to social skills. Gen Y, of which I am a part, and Gen Z are probably the most empathetic generation in history – but only in theory. We argue for human rights, an equal wage and a higher standard of living for everyone, but we may not know if we offended a friend or co-worker by saying something stupid. An exaggeration, maybe, but not hard to imagine. I’ve seen it in the workplace among 20 and 21 year old grads.

Here’s something curious, though – the resurgence of board gaming. There have been multiple articles alluding to what some are calling a renaissance or even “golden age” of board gaming. Last year, I witnessed a talk at the Game Developer’s Conference by Mohawk Games founder and former Civilization designer Soren Johnson who argued why developers should take more inspiration from board games.

Sales among hobby and game stores have risen 15-20% in the last three years – each year. Kickstarter is full of interesting board game ideas.

What’s more – Magic: The Gathering has never had more success. These are games in which little or no tech is involved. It’s hardly toppling giants like League of Legends, but it’s enough to suggest a rising interest in games in which social interaction is a premium. And there’s plenty of research which shows social gaming has educational and social benefits.

(A side note – I saw multiple talks this year at GDC about making games more social places. League of Legends is the big example here, with an entire analytics team dedicated to making the game a safer space. The internet has always been an anti-social place, but efforts like this bolster a thesis that tech-based gaming is becoming more aware of its problems.)

Look. Board games are hardly going to take over the world. And I’m sure part of their success is due to celebrities and podcasts pimping them, like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop series.

But I’m glad that in an environment in which I’m encouraged to buy my son a cell phone before he’s six or seven, there is an alternative to simply sitting him down on the couch with a controller. I’m almost embarrassed by the riches of gaming he’s going to experience as he grows older.

Clearly, digital games have a place in my home. But as he grows older, I’ll certainly make board gaming a priority for my son. If nothing else, simply so he can see the face of his opponents. It makes it harder to cheat, lie or be a bad sportsman if you can see the offense you’ve caused materialise on an opponent’s face.

Could that help him become a better person in the workplace when he eventually hits working age? It’s difficult to draw a line between Ticket to Ride and being a good co-worker.

Actually. Maybe it’s easier than we think.