We’ve all had a moment in our life when we’ve told someone that our hobby is playing board games, be it a family member, a co-worker, even a first date. Then comes the dreaded response: “You mean… like Monopoly?” Sigh! However, that is slowly beginning to change. Nowadays, you might even get a: “You mean… like Catan?” Hey, it’s progress! Truth is, that since board games really started to make a splash in North America during the Euro invasion of the mid-90s, more and more people are becoming initiated into the wonderful world of tabletop gaming. There have even been some notable examples of our humble hobby making appearances in the mainstream.
For this week’s CMON Feature Friday, we decided to take a look at how the perception of board gaming has changed over the years, what impact media has had on that, and how we can continue to usurp expectations of new gamers and welcome them into the fold.
One of the most prevalent misconceptions about tabletop games is that they’re played, mainly by men, in someone’s basement. That may have something to do with the fact that one of the most famous games of all time was developed in one. People even make pilgrimages to see the childhood home of Gary Gygax and the basement where Dungeons and Dragons began. But that perception is quickly changing. Board game cafes are helping quite a bit. They’re creating the image of games being a social thing you do to get out of the house. Successful cafes can run waitlists and generate long lines. This kind of public exposure can lead the uninitiated to wonder what all the fuss is about.
Two major mainstream personalities have done a lot to help bring the board game hobby to more people. Wil Wheaton is best known for his acting roles (Stand By Me, Star Trek: TNG), but it was his unbridled love of gaming that prompted him to develop Tabletop on Geek & Sundry. In each episode, Wheaton and a crew of celebrity guests play a game together, complete with trash talking and video confessionals. The structure makes it easy for people to learn how to play the games and immediately see how fun they can be. A lot of the participants are not big gamers when they sit down to the table, but it’s not long before they get right into the action. Wheaton and Tabletop have done for board games what ESPN did with Poker. He’s made it a spectator sport, and the next step is people wanting to get in there and try it for themselves. When a game is featured on Tabletop, it immediately sees a boost in the sales department. The show has even inspired a day to celebrate the hobby. International Tabletop Day is on April 29th this year.
You may know Rich Sommer from his acting gigs in Mad Men, The Devil Wears Prada, and Wet Hot American Summer. He has been one of the most vocal board game fans for years. He has appeared on numerous podcasts and shows (including Tabletop), evangelizing the pure joy of games. His latest venture is his very own podcast: Cardboard! Sometimes, it takes a recognizable figure in the public eye, speaking passionately about gaming to make people change their preconceived notion about the subject.
It’s not just these ambassadors of the hobby that are introducing new people to board gaming. Games are starting to work their way into popular culture in unexpected ways. Shows like The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Rec mention board games, albeit in a stereotypical sort of way. It could be argued that this sort of depiction of gaming does more harm than good, but whenever more people are exposed to the idea of gaming, the more the hobby has a chance to grow.
Filmmakers have even gotten into the board game business, with varying degrees of success. The delightful Clue, is a lot of fun, and is a great example of a board game properly translated onto the screen. Battleship also exists.
These are just a few examples of how board games are appearing in different forms of media. Of course, the hobby itself has a thriving media industry, with enough podcasters, reviewers, writers, and videos to keep any board game fan up to date on all the latest news. Still, a healthy industry needs to always be bringing in new members, and it’s nice to see a bit of crossover with our humble hobby into the mainstream consciousness.