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Published: Sunday March 31, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 24, 2013 MYT 2:20:22 PM

Tabletop and no wires

ALTHOUGH many of you would not have realised it, yesterday (March 30) was International Tabletop Day. Organised by the people behind the the web series, TableTop (tabletop.geekandsundry.com), the idea behind it is to encourage more people to go out and “spend more time and strengthen the bonds with the people who matter most, our friends and family, by playing games together”.

Just to be clear, by “games”, they mean the kind that we can play without using electricity.

A respite from the electronic is probably what the doctor would order anyway. The irony is that the recent resurrection of interest in board games has been fuelled by the digital generation.

An article on board game company, Days of Wonder, in Forbes magazine pointed out that iPhone and iPad copies of a popular board game can sell up to 40 times faster than their physical counterparts. But the surge in people buying the electronic versions is usually then followed by a corresponding spike a few weeks later as people decide to buy the physical copies.

Clearly, it’s not just about playing the game. As board game aficionados know, a physical board game demands real life interaction, which unsurprisingly creates new dynamics. So a game like Apples to Apples (or its adult R-rated counterpart, Cards Against Humanity) where players look to play the card that generates the most humour only really works around a table that can help hold you up when you are collapsing with laughter.

On the other hand, during a round of Diplomacy, that table can also help act as a barrier to protect you against a former ally whose armies you have just massacred in a proactive defensive attack.

As fun as they can be, the problem, of course, is that playing board games as a hobby can seem a little nerdy or geeky. The phrase “serious board gamer” conjures up an image of pallid figures squinting through glasses at a board covered by hundreds of play pieces. Perhaps one should take it positively, and claim that playing board games makes you smarter.

In one study, it was found that children with learning disabilities performed better when given one hour of chess instruction each week in lieu of maths class. Meanwhile, Monopoly has been used to teach students about finance, and it’s obvious how Scrabble can be used to improve language skills.

But there may be more subtle benefits.

Chris Crawford, an influential computer games designer, defined games as interactive play that has a goal which someone or something is trying to prevent you from achieving. Strangely enough, if we take out the word “play” from this definition, it pretty much describes many things we do in life.

Yet there is an advantage to it being “play”, in which we create an environment that is like life but that allows the possibility of losing without dire repercussions. It’s important to note that you must be able to make decisions that affect the outcome of the game. Thus, Snakes and Ladders, as engrossing as it can be, is purely determined by the roll of the dice and is, to my mind, less a game and more a learn-how-to-count exercise.

Rather, you want a game where at points you have to make a choice, and it needs to be from several equally valid, yet significant decisions.

Interestingly, while there seems to be fewer board games for children these days (having been replaced by electronic gadgetry), the market has expanded to adults who are still kids at heart. As a result, there is now a broad choice of board games available for people of every ilk, from the abstract to ones where you fight goblins or Nazis (or both), to working together to save the world – and usually with no dice in sight.

Even when there is an element of chance, the games are designed to be balanced enough so that it’s good decisions that win the day.

Sometimes we get the choices wrong, but the cost of doing so is low. What’s the worst that can happen? You lose a game. Perhaps there are tears. In extreme cases, somebody may throw all the pieces off the board (you Risk players know what I mean).

But what we must do is learn from our failures, and then overcome them. In doing so, we understand better both the game we play and (with a bit of luck) ourselves.

The other great thing about board games is that you can examine how they work. This is unlike some computer games where the details are frustratingly hidden away. In fact, many computer games purposely make the gameplay harder (or easier) without any clear indication to make the game more “interesting”.

Ever played a racing game where it’s easy to catch up if you’re behind, but tough to pull away when you’re in front?

So, basically, when you play board games, you are set a challenging task within a transparent framework with which you can practise living life. And you do so within the context of being with friends and family, who in theory are there to lend you support – even as they steamroll you on the game board.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at star2@thestar.com.my.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Opinion, board games

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