Loving the bits and pieces
The ongoing popularity and variety of board games, especially among adult hobbyists, can teach us about how we can better design the digital versions
Board gaming is in a “golden age”. The industry worldwide was worth more than US$9 billion in 2016, and is growing by as much as 20 per cent every year.
But it isn’t children and families fuelling this growth - it’s adults.
Although board games are sometimes portrayed as the uncool cousins of video games, modern board games have featured as plotlines on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, Orphan Black, and Blindspot. No longer a symbol of childishness and immaturity, board games are an important part of many adults’ lives.
What is going on? For technologists this is more than just a whimsical question. Understanding what it is that draws people to the gaming table can help inform how we could design better digital environments.
My research area is Human-Computer interaction. We study the way that people engage with a technology. Board games are an interactive technology that goes back at least 5,000 years – the Ancient Egyptian gridded game Senet is the oldest known board game.
I’ve been studying how and why people play board games for the past four years. Through interviews and extensive observation I’ve boiled down our enjoyment of board games to four key elements.
- Social interaction: Playing a board game is a social, and usually face-to-face, experience. I found that even board gamers with young children still found a way to continue playing, often by changing the time or location of their game sessions, or by playing games with friends online.
- Intellectual challenge: Players often report enjoying the challenge of finding an optimum move, or cracking a tricky ruleset. They describe board games as an active pursuit, comparing it to watching a movie, where they can sit back and allow the action to happen. In a board game, players remain fully engaged until the end.
- Variety: Playing board games is not like playing Chess or Bridge – games where enthusiasts specialise in a single game and work to improve their skill in that one very specific area. Board gamers delight in the range of games available, and in finding the perfect game for any setting or number of players. They enjoy trying new games and observing the underlying mechanisms and game systems. At October’s Spiel game fair in Germany, more than 1200 new games were released by publishers.
- Materiality: Although board gamers may play games on computers and other devices, the physical board game is the core of their hobby. They talk about the quality of game components, the wooden pieces and sculpted resin figures, the thickness of the cards and tiles – even the weight of the game box and the noise it makes when opened or closed. Ask the right board gamer, and they will claim to know where a game was produced just from the smell of the ink used on the cards and boards. One interviewee summed this up with her proclamation that “I love all the bits!”
In looking at those four key elements of board gamers’ enjoyment, there’s one very notable absence: almost nobody talked about winning.
Several board gamers quoted prolific board game designer Reiner Knizia, who famously said, “When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.”
Being a hobbyist board gamer is about playing games, enjoying games, and being knowledgeable about games, rather than being an expert in the play of any particular game.
To understand the interactions of play, we brought people in to our usability lab at the University of Melbourne to observe and record them playing a game. We found that players – even when playing a game that is overtly competitive – co-operated to interpret and enforce the rules, co-ordinate turn-taking and other key activities. They even cooperated in finding optimum moves – even for their opponents.
Beyond this, though, they co-operated with the game pieces to make sense of the game, sorting and ordering cards, creating piles of money and resources, and using pieces to create and enact plans. A familiar example is a Monopoly player tucking $500 under the corner of the board to remind themselves to save in case they land on Mayfair.
Importantly, this level of planning is often lost when games are digitised, and money is represented as a single number rather than as individual notes. This off-loading of planning and cognitive tasks has been well researched in work settings, where people and objects work together.
I also discovered that board gaming isn’t just about playing games.
My research shows that there is a “digital hinterland” that supports and enables board gaming. Several of the people I interviewed spend at least as long reading about games as they do playing them. Board gamers use digital tools to access information about games, to manage their game collections or personal libraries, to research and buy games, to discuss games, and to track and quantify the number of games played.
Others share their game collections, often in the form of “Shelfies” – photos of their (carefully curated) game shelves. We see similar habits in other hobbies, including yarn crafts like knitting and crochet, and even reading.
It is not unusual to find board gamers who own hundreds of games, or who play 300 or more games a year. Some aim to play ten games at least ten times, or to play with a certain number of different opponents.
My favourite was the board gamer who tried to play games in alphabetical order – he made it to Q before his game group finally rebelled.
To date, little research has investigated the play of board games, although there is a significant body that looks at the history of board games as systems of rules, and as objects from antiquity.
One common assumption is that people play board games to escape from the pervasiveness of screens. My research, however, shows that board games have an intrinsic appeal that focuses on social interaction, active intellectual engagement, breadth and depth of choices, and the “lovely dexterous, sensuous feeling” of the pieces.
Beyond board gaming, though, this research tells us about the ways in which people choose to engage with physical objects, and how that can be represented in digital environments.
In the famous words of Roald Dahl: “Life is more fun if you play games.”
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