We board gamers love our hobby, and there’s a natural inclination to try to share our passions with others. To me, this is a great thing, and not just because of potential new customers!
Sometimes this enthusiasm turns into frustration. Gamers will take their favorite games to people outside the hobby, and discover that these people do not share their enthusiasm. It turns out that not everyone enjoys playing board games.
I see some people on Twitter writing how the term “gamer” is needlessly exclusionary, and that all humans engage with games on some level. There’s an element of truth to both statements; the term “gamer” should mean more than just a white male ages 14-28 who plays Call of Duty or Magic: The Gathering obsessively. And almost all humans engage with play on some level, be it gambling, watching or playing sports, or even just the occasional good-natured sarcastic comment.
That said, the idea of using one’s brain actively to engage in recreational activity is one that not everyone enjoys. Some people spend a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional energy during the day, and prefer to spend their leisure time turning their brains off. That could mean watching mindless TV shows, or reading fluffy novels, or playing casual digital games.
In this context, “mindless” or “fluffy” is not pejorative; the fact that these activities require no mental work is a positive thing. It helps these people wind down from a stressful day and relax.
I work at an escape room as a game master, and I remember asking one group if they enjoyed puzzles. They all answered, “no.” And sure enough, they floundered in the room and did not enjoy the experience one bit. It turns out that actively using one’s mind to play – adopting what Bernard Suits calls “the lusory attitude” – is not one that comes naturally to everyone. And while I have no hard data behind this, I wonder if there’s an uncomfortable element of privilege here too; that the idea of recreational play for adults is not something people of all classes or backgrounds have access to. (For more on this subject, I recommend Nick Bentley’s outstanding essay.)
So let’s go back to this hypothetical enthusiastic gamer, trying unsuccessfully to get their friends to join our hobby. How come people who are exposed to our games, which to us are so much “better” than mass-market games, do not necessarily cross over?
I was in Paris a couple of months ago, and I had the pleasure of going on a food tour that stopped at a master chocolatier. He played a little “game” with us, in which he brought out some of his special handmade treats, but didn’t allow us to choose them directly. Instead, he told us we would get two pieces of chocolate. For the first piece, we would specify “dark” or “milk,” and where we were from. For the second, he would choose for us.
Now, I have a sweet tooth, and I love chocolate. At the same time, I’m hardly a chocolate expert; I prefer milk to bittersweet, and I don’t really like nuts or fruit in my treats (I’m not allergic, just picky). I generally stick with Lindt, Ritter, or Milka bars; just a couple of notches above ordinary Hershey bars.
The chocolatier sensed my pickiness, and I wound up with two pieces of chocolate ganache that were absolutely heavenly. I could tell the guy was immensely skilled at what he did, and I would likely never have more exquisitely-crafted chocolate in my life.
So this means I’m hooked on high-end chocolate for the rest of my life, right? Well, no.
First, there’s familiarity. I know what I’m getting in that Lindt bar. I know I love it. But adventuring into high-end chocolate, I know I’m going to hit a lot of barriers of personal taste. Like I mentioned before, I don’t want fruit or nuts in my chocolate. I find that everything over 55% tastes like solidified motor oil to me.
I’m also a bit intimidated. How do I know that any particular high-end chocolate is good or right for me? I mean, I could research it, but that would take a certain amount of work. Would I get a proportional amount of satisfaction corresponding to the work, as opposed to just getting a mass-market bar I like?
And maybe there’s a pride thing too. Jumping into high-end chocolate means admitting a lack of knowledge, on a certain level. Consciously, I love learning new things. But perhaps there’s a primal, unconscious part of me that would prefer to remain on terra firma?
It would be a bit pricey, wouldn’t it? And some of that money would be lost on chocolate that I wouldn’t enjoy.
And finally: maybe I just don’t care as much about chocolate as the true fans do.
Obviously, I’m bringing all this up because I think this maps fairly closely to why people tend to stick with “classic” mass-market games, and not cross over to our games, even after being exposed to them. There’s an intimidation factor when entering this rabbit hole of ours, and not everyone relishes the prospect of entering it.
Of course, from our perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Why would anyone decline it? But from a person comfortable with what they’re familiar with, it’s not so much a slam dunk.
Let’s look at Cards Against Humanity as an example (and of course, CAH has all sorts of baggage to it that I’ve written about previously, but let’s assume here it’s being played with full consent and buy-in from its participants). I see new party games try to position themselves as “CAH-killers,” because they require more thought and effort. Like, a game that requires you to build a pitch, or tell a story.
But that misses a vital truth about Cards Against Humanity and its fans. CAH’s whole appeal is that it takes no thought to play. You can play randomly, and the game will still work; it might even be funnier than if you had chosen a specific card. And of course, if you choose something morally horrible, you can always blame it on the game.
Again, whether this is a good or bad thing is an excellent question and a valuable discussion, but outside the scope of this blog post. The important thing is that you don’t need to think when you play CAH, and while game fans think this is a disadvantage, the game’s fans find it an advantage. Once again, “mindless” is not always pejorative when studying entertainment.
That is why it’s so hard to lure “non-gamers” into our hobby. They don’t necessarily share our way of thinking. The idea of working for our fun, and working specifically by expending mental energy, is something that they don’t enjoy.
So the next time you bring a game to your place of work, or to your family for the holidays, remember that it’s not enough to just expose them to our games. In order for our games to stick, the people we show them to must be predisposed to adopting the lusory attitude for tabletop games. They must enjoy using their noggins for fun. That’s not something we can take for granted, and it’s why tabletop games are never going to be for everyone.