About five years ago I was introducing a board game to students in a live classroom. (One of my colleagues characterizes this as a “butts in seats” class as opposed to an asynchronous online class). As I was explaining the rules to the class of 27 students, I noticed a sea of increasingly confused faces. “Sorry, Mr. Seay,” one of the students piped up, “but I have never played a board game before.” Astonished at this obvious outlier, I asked if anyone else shared his predicament. I was stunned. None of them had ever played a board game. It had finally happened. I was the “old school” guy with an 8 track tape in a room full of digital downloaders. I was officially old. It was only after I got over my shock of just being old that I was able to lament the end of the analog game era. Now, fortunately I think I was a bit premature. I am still old. But analog is back.
Today around the world in pubs and public libraries (because, what is the difference really?) people are gathered in groups of actual people around actual tables to play board and card games. In fact the board game cafe1 —where for a $5 cover charge a group of friends gets a table and chooses from a myriad of board games to play — is a growing business and business opportunity. As a board game cafe manager in Austin, Texas said, “The thing that…we hear from our customers that’s appreciated is just the sense of community.” Another cafe manager says, “Customers also welcome the chance to put down their smartphones.”2
I think it no coincidence that board and tabletop games that involve the face to face interaction of live people are now experiencing an upsurge in popularity and a renaissance of design. As this column goes to press, International Tabletop Day is about to dawn. Thousands of libraries and game and hobby shops nationwide — not to mention board game cafes — will host the play of gazillions of games on boards, games with cards, games with plastic or cardboard pieces — games that have anything that can be touched, pushed, and manipulated on a tabletop. Face to face human interaction, like old blue jeans (albeit with many more holes this time), is back in style. Analog board and card games that involve real people and synchronous live communication (with full non-verbal interpretation capability) are competitive with immersive online video games. So, why is this even happening in our very high tech society where nearly everything we do is connected to a keyboard and a computer with reality rivaling digital special effects?
We are a fully wired and social media mad world. Ironically we communicate with other human beings both near and far more often than any human has ever communicated with any other human at any other time in human history. But, we do most of this communication through email, chat, text and insta-whatever while staring at a screen and typing on a keypad in solitude.
Even more troubling is that this solitaire, techno-only communication is happening more and more within sight and touch of other human beings. This was strikingly brought to my attention last Thanksgiving as my extended family gathered around the family dining table to play a game of cards. Everyone at the table who was 25 years and younger was glued to a mobile phone and frantically texting to another human being somewhere. Or so I imagined. When two of my nephews started giggling simultaneously (and still not looking up from their screens), the realization hit me. They were texting each other. They were less than a table’s length apart, and they were texting each other! Oh, the humanity! Oh, the lack thereof.
Obviously many people are so enamored of their wireless (and distance-less) technological communication ability that they use it much more than (and sometimes in place of) face-to-face communication — even when they are face-to-face. We play in online worlds with thousands of other people from around the world and never see a single real human face. But, lately it seems that many people immersed in this sterile, high tech bubble sometimes long for real human interaction. They want high touch with their high tech.
This term “High Tech High Touch” was first coined by John Naisbitt in his 1982 best seller Megatrends. He theorized that in a world of ubiquitous technology, people long for personal, human contact. He re-examined the concept in his 1999 book High Tech High Touch. Naisbitt said we are creating a society that is a “Technologically Intoxicated Zone” in which we are assailed with technological stimuli. Naisbitt’s partial list of symptoms include: “we fear and worship technology; we blur the distinction between real and fake; and we live our lives distanced and distracted.”2 He further concluded that we seek relief and meaning by buying self-help books, popping Prozac, Viagra, and other supplements. We seek a tangential connection to nature and we yearn for human to human connection.3
It would be hard to argue that Naisbitt did not pretty much hit the nail on the head 36 years ago as to the effect of our current state of technology. The blurring of the distinction between real and fake is particularly chilling. But, besides those who are popping Prozac and Viagra, the need to experience tactile contact is also driving “old school” high touch. I recently conducted a quick anecdotal poll revealing that even the majority of college students these days prefer to curl up with a real book (with real paper and cover) rather than a glowing screen. They said they liked the smell and the feel of a book better.4
So, is there any surprise in the mighty resurgence of analog tabletop/board games? This is an industry that many thought would be killed by the advent of video games. Sales figures for 2016 place the hobby game market (the trade name for tabletop games) at over $1.4 billion and growing at 21%.5 There are even board game versions of video games. Incidentally in an ironic anti-twist there is a growing number of video games based on board games.
With this resurgence in analog high touch, it is no wonder that teachers and trainers in all fields are leveraging it to enhance and inspire their instruction. I noted in a previous column how libraries and educators are getting into the escape room phenomenon. Libraries have always been centers for community and campus activities. This analog immersive activity is itself an even more high touch, interactive game environment than tabletop games. It seems to me that this entry into escape rooms is only a beginning and augurs well for the potential of other immersive group learning experiences like LARP and megagames. Humans, after all, create their best synergy within an actual group of intermingling humans. Go figure. Everything old is new again and fully analog interactive.
To be sure, this analog resurgence will not replace or even overshadow the digital world we have come to know and love. But, it will greatly influence and shape it even as it is becoming a place of reprieve from the digital world. I for one am happy to apply my 8 track brain where it is still useful and experienced. Though I should still upgrade my music collection to vinyl while there is still time.
- MacArthur, Jeff. “The Exciting Rise of Board Game Cafes.” Geek & Sundry, August 26, 2016, https://geekandsundry.com/the-exciting-rise-of-board-game-cafes.
- Driscoll, Molly. “Board game cafes: why game night no longer means staying in.” The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 2017, https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2017/1226/Board-game-cafes-Why-game-night-no-longer-means-staying-in.
- Naisbitt, John. High Tech High Touch. Broadway Books, 1999, pp. 4-22.
- I polled about a dozen students from the reference desk. I actually read this somewhere too, but I can’t remember where. In any case it is certainly what I would rather do.
- Griepp, Milton. “Hobby Games Market over $1,4 billion in 2016.” ICv2: The Business of Geek Culture, July 20, 2017, https://icv2.com/articles/news/view/38012/hobby-games-market-over-1-4-billion.