In Praise of the Board Game
But as my children get older and I watch them begin to navigate in earnest the landscape of real relationships, I am struck anew by the crucible of morality the more traditional games are able to engender.
I grew up playing games and not just the electronic kind. Before Super Mario Brothers stole my heart and well before I spent weeks of my life launching bird after angry bird across a screen the size of my fist, I used to sit with my mother or a friend or my sister, if my begging wore her down, and move actual pawns around an actual piece of cardboard. I remember from those days the feel of cool, smooth Scrabble tiles slipping through my fingers, as I chose letters from the heavy burgundy sack of our Deluxe Edition. I remember perfecting the art of the “bridge,” my mom’s preferred method of shuffling cards, my mom who still considers not knowing the difference between a spade and a club by middle childhood to be a sign of parental neglect.
It’s not that I don’t like the modern iteration of gaming. I have no aversion to screen time. My kids are digital natives through and through, the little ones masters of Toca Hair Salon as much as the bigger ones are seasoned architects in the fields of Minecraft. I’m not pining away for a bygone age of chiseled wooden toys and Cleaver family fun. Far from it: I think there is room for both types of activity. But as my children get older and I watch them begin to navigate in earnest the landscape of real relationships, I am struck anew by the crucible of morality the more traditional games are able to engender.
We talk a lot recently about how our kids are deprived of a certain sort of play and the negative consequences that come with such a deficit: cosseted children unable to roam the streets and learn the lessons uniquely taught by a free-range neighborhood dynamic. Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray describes the two educations he took from his youth in the 1950s, the one at school and the other one, the more significant one, gleaned from the experience of outside, unsupervised time with friends and siblings. Board games, non-electronic games, are the inside version of this lost phenomenon. The rainy day version, if you will.
Because board games are based on an interesting mix of social skills. Sure, they involve strategic thinking and executive function and other good stuff like that. But in today’s head-down climate of technological immersion, they also require something far rarer for an indoor pastime: face to face interaction. You can see the human consequences of your decisions over a game of Clue, for example, in a way that you can’t by linking up with a buddy online. My kids have playdates now where they sit like ducks in a row on the couch, or in separate rooms of the house even, clutching devices and barely uttering a word. Quite a different scenario from clocking the look on your brother’s face when you are the one to reveal that Professor Plum did it in the kitchen with the candlestick.
Board games are different from electronic games, but they are also different from joint imaginative play because they hinge on a shared set of predetermined rules and on negotiation and compromise as to how those rules apply in individual scenarios (which is what life is all about, right?). In order for the game to work, instructions must be followed, turns must be taken and tempers must be controlled. As a child, I upended the board in frustration more times than I care to say and I suffered the logical consequences as a result. And, what was worse, I suffered them in real time. As Gray explains: “The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit…and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players.”
One of the most salient features of the board games we play in our house is that they are zero-sum. There is a winner and there is a loser or there are multiple losers. Some video games are similarly structured, but many aren’t, set up as they tend to be so that the only thing you are working to top is your own high score. It is a feature of modern parenting that we see it as part of the job to protect our children from the despair of loss. Cue the spate of participation trophies that go hand in hand today with team sports and other extracurricular activities. But nobody is getting a sticker for effort in Chutes and Ladders. Which makes it an important, if not unlikely, early vehicle for imparting the home truths our kids might not be exposed to elsewhere.
When my sons were very young, I used to stack the deck, I’ll admit it. I would strategically place the ice-cream-cone card in Candy Land so that they would be the first to cross into King Kandy’s coveted castle. Or I would slip a Sorry! card to the front of the pile so they could knock me off course, as I hovered on the brink of my “safety zone.” I did it because they were little and I wanted to gift them the thrill of winning. I did it so as to create an experience to which they would ask to come back. Sometimes I did it just to be done with the damn game.
Now that they are older, however, there is no pandering. They are too shrewd and too hung up on fairness between them to let it happen. And really they play with their peers more often than they play with me, where none of the participants tolerates that kind of “cheating.” For ten days this summer vacation my boys had a daily session of Monopoly with two other kids, our family friends. Four children, ages six to ten, sitting around a card table, making eye contact and negotiating who gets to be the top hat, who gets to be the banker and whether or not to put a $500 bill in the Free Parking spot. Then finishing the game, some hours later, with only one of them emerging victorious.
It could have been a scene from the 1980s, which warmed me to no end. I know there are new board games out there, ones that are specially designed for the modern generation. But I also know there is a particular loveliness, a welcomed continuity in watching my kids play the games I am so familiar with from my own childhood. And beating me at them to boot.