Contrarian Corner: Board Games Aren’t Social

*The statements made in Contrarian Corner do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Dice Tower or Dice Tower News. These are my opinions, in the grand tradition of gamers arguing about the hobby, and are just as likely to be brilliant and insightful as they are misguided and wrongheaded. Reader discretion is advised.

con in your store

Trouble with Dreams

One of the most common attributes us board game fans heap upon our beloved hobby is that it is inherently a social experience. We wear that idea like a badge of honor, shielding us from the stereotype that geeks are antisocial basement dwellers. After all, to even play most games, you have to do it with at least one other human. That’s social, right?

Some of us are members of meet-up groups that get together for games, or play games at the local FLGS during the week. Many of us have regular gaming groups that consist of individuals we’ve known for years. At least a handful of us have even been to conventions full of fellow gaming aficionados. That’s got to be social, right?

Well no, not necessarily. And that’s a good thing!

Novocaine for the Soul

The fallacy that often plagues this concept of games being inherently social is the sense that human proximity and minimal communication qualifies as social interaction. It might satisfy the text book definition of social, but are those interactions meaningful? When you sit down at a gaming table full of strangers, how many of them introduce themselves or engage you in conversation that isn’t about the game in front of you? How many times during the game are you communicating anything other than the game state or the end of your turn? Do you remember the names of the guys and gals you just spent your afternoon with?

Depending on who you are, you might deeply engage with your fellow gamers right from the start and draw real social value from even one-off gaming experiences. For many of us, however, the answer is most often no. Gaming with strangers does not elicit meaningful, memorable, lasting social experiences. These temporary gaming partners are a means to an end: human strategy automatons moving their opposing pieces on their turn to help, hinder, challenge, meddle, or whatever else the game entails.

career interaction

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Humans spend all day, every day making social decisions. Do I strike up my barista in conversation or just offer them a friendly smile? Do I call my parents today or save it for the weekend? Do I send this strongly worded email now or sleep on it so a cooler head prevails? The same is true when we interact for entertainment and leisure. Not everyone we sit across the table from is our next best friend or even someone we might ever see again. That’s human nature.

Climbing to the Moon

I want to take a minute to talk about Carl Jung. Jung was a renowned Swiss psychiatrist in the early 1900s credited with many advancements in modern psychology that are still used today. He also originated a way of looking at personality that we’re all very familiar with: introversion and extroversion. Simply stated, introverts tend to be energized by solitude and introspection, while extroverts thrive on crowds and interacting with people. It’s not so much a binary measure as a spectrum, with many of us falling somewhere in the middle (aka ambiverts).

susan cain

In America however, there’s a very clear and pervasive extroversion bias. People with a gift for gab and an easy manner with others are perceived to be more attractive, seem to make more money, and appear to be more successful. Studies indicate that the truth isn’t so cut-and-dried. I encourage anyone interested in the subject to read Susan Cain’s wonderful book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking for a deeper examination of this fascinating societal construct.

What does this have to do with games? A couple things, actually. For one, it’s this extroversion bias that contributes to us holding so strongly to the notion that board games are inherently social. Societal norms compel us to fight against the loner geek stereotype with all the ammunition we can muster, including nonsense such as player count.

Hey Man, Now You’re Really Living

Board games aren’t inherently social, but they are a platform for people to socialize while gaming. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to want a meaningful social experience out of their game time. Back to Jung. Although introverts are capable of expressing extroverted traits and vice-versa, doing so takes effort. In the workplace, where stakes are high, an introvert can be the center of attention at a company happy hour, and an extrovert can sit alone in their cube for hours staring at spreadsheets. It’s draining, mentally tiring, and so we turn to leisure and entertainment to give us a recharge. Is an introvert interested in their game night being a drain just to satisfy societal norms? Probably not.

Instead of perpetuating extroversion bias and fighting geek stereotypes, let’s be mindful and understanding. It’s just as valid to choose to limit your engagement with your gaming partners at it is to treat them as instant friends. We should not suppress extroverts or try to force introverts “out of their shells”, but instead focus on making sure that the gaming table is a place where all of us can recharge.