Big Lessons in Board Games

As someone who relied on regular board game sessions to help maintain his sanity, keep his mind sharp, and stave off the occasional bouts of depression, this pandemic, and its corresponding lockdowns have hit me and my gaming groups pretty hard.

Needless to say, I've been thinking about board games a lot recently. While online games have helped scratch the itch, they sorely lack that visceral feeling of facing other people sitting across the table and talking smack as you try to take over their territories, outplay their cards, or pull off some winning sequence of moves (regardless of whether these actually work or not).

Board gaming—and gaming in general—is, after all, pretty unique as an art form: a medium where one not only takes in the experience and the spectacle, but also has to contribute to it, manipulating game components like tokens and cards (sometimes even the other players) in order to score points, defeat opponents, and win. And with each new game hitting the table, there is a new set of levers to toy with, a new set of systems to dissect using the different parts of your brain, a new set of experiences to internalize. Recent research has even shown that board games also help people—both kids and adults—with social anxiety, autism, and a host of other similar challenges, as well-defined rulesets help tune out a complicated world, taking a large amount of social complexity out of the equation and giving people space to empathize and learn.

Learning, as well as the study of learning, benefits a lot from gaming. Bloom's taxonomy, perhaps the most popular learning framework used today, lists analyzing, evaluating, and creating as the highest-order cognitive skills in the learning process: one knows they've understood a concept once they're able to break it down to its component ideas, are able to critique it, and are able to produce something from it. I find that board games shine in these areas because of their capacity for immersion: players are made to play certain roles in a game, and are thus exposed—either directly through the game's rules or indirectly through their perception of how to accomplish their goals—to their roles' motivations, fears, and difficult decisions, in a manner that other mediums can only hint at.

Take Agricola, a game which places players as medieval-era subsistence farmers, giving them the excruciating decision of when to butcher their last sheep, pig, or cow for food—the alternative being begging in the streets—and whether to eat their vegetable crops (which are one of the most difficult things to properly grow in the game) raw, simply because they could not yet afford to have a working fireplace in the house to cook them properly. The one who survives with the best-looking farm and the most food stored away, wins.

In a game where a winning score can be anything between 30-50 points, -3 can be crippling. (Agricola)

This need not even be a competitive effort; cooperative games are a vast genre nowadays in board games, the most popular one being the unfortunately appropriate Pandemic, which sees players as various disease specialists trying to work together to contain viruses spreading across the world, collaborating on which cities to prioritize containment and whose health systems will have to hold out a little longer. My personal favorite of these, Spirit Island, is a game which turns the players into nature spirits watching over an island and keeping colonial settlers at bay, a narrative which turns colonialism on its head quite nicely.

Manila’s in trouble. (Pandemic)

Going far deeper into the geeky rabbit hole brings up works like Pax Porfiriana, which provides the historical backdrop of the presidency of Porfirio Diaz of Mexico, whose use of force, Constitutional amendments, and election manipulation draw eerie parallels to our country's martial law years, not to mention a rulebook which reads like a doctorate thesis. Or Arkwright, a game set in the Industrial Revolution in England that looks like nothing more than spreadsheets upon spreadsheets, until you realize that one of the sheets is an employment queue, and you've just unceremoniously fired three employees and replaced them with machines because you've found that paying for maintenance is cheaper than paying people a living wage.

All too familiar. (Pax Porfiriana)

This isn't a new thing, either; people have been used games to teach valuable lessons and experiences for millennia. Go was—and still is—taught to teach people, young and old, to open their minds to creating vast strategic possibilities from empty space. Snakes and Ladders was originally used as a meditation on the nature of morality, with the ladders representing virtues and the snakes representing vices on one's personal journey to salvation. And, the most famous of these examples, Monopoly, was meant to teach people how easy it is for a greedy enough landlord to bankrupt their tenants. (That frustration you felt as your game money is slowly bled from your hands? Yup, that was by design.)

So, the next time you see people having heated discussions while hunched over a board or a stack of cards (whenever that may be), go ahead and take a peek. For all you know, they might be learning how to save history from repeating itself. ✳︎

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