Tabletop games bring social groups together.

Why play games?

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The BBC News website recently ran this story about an Appalachian village and its own native card game: Pig. The reporter tells a story of competitive spirit and giving kudos for skill; of an event at the social heart of a community – old timers telling their stories and news being exchanged; of cross generational common ground and a sense of belonging. It struck me that this simple human interest story told a lot about why we play games and of what the benefits of board games are.

I play games, always have. All sorts of games. I don’t imagine that makes me much different to other people.

Video games and board games; role playing games and quizzes; escape rooms and laser tag.

It is such a commonplace thing in my life that I’m surprised to be asked “Why?”
“Why play games?”

Er..because they’re fun!

But there’s more to it than the quick answer. There always is. The question made me give it a good think and a bit of research too.

Thinking about games

What makes them fun? From a purely personal point of view, I enjoy immersive games. Psychologists identify a state of mind called ‘flow’ in which you are focused and immersed in an experience. ‘Lost inside the game’ as it were. I’m sure you can identify with the feeling of losing hours being lost in a game. Recently during an Escape Room experience at the excellent Deception in Matlock, Derbyshire, we had an hour to complete the challenge. We threw ourselves into it. Afterwards every member of the group said, “It didn’t feel like an hour.” We were in the flow. Immersed.

Crucially, we experienced the escape room challenge as a gang. A social entity. Afterwards on the comfy sofas, we analysed our performance – we wanted to tell the story again straight after experiencing it. Gaming gives us the chance to create stories. It is also a forum for socialising and social skills. An evolutionist might frame it as a safe place to learn critical survival skills. “Games with frontiers, war without tears,” as Peter Gabriel sang.

I also enjoy the challenge, the very achievable challenges. Games are designed to be beaten. Challenging but beatable. At least most of the are – one notable exception you may remember is The Tomb of Horrors D&D adventure from the 70s. An adventure which seemed to delight in randomly killing the player’s characters. I’d lose motivation for that pretty quickly. Equally, if a game isn’t challenging then you lose interest. Who still plays the simple childish boardgames of their childhood? The best challenges are those that keep pushing until the very end. In which there is always the chance to win or lose right up until the last minute. Pandemic is a classic example of a game which keeps your adrenaline running until the last card turn.

Learn through games

And it is this idea of beatable challenges that brings me on to my next point. Recently, my young son was stuck on an end-of-level boss in a well known video game. He was fed up and cross. He chose to put the game down and do something else for a while. Later, he returned to the game with a more analytical mind, tried some new tactics and won through. He appeared at my office door full of bright smiles and proud of himself. Like me, he knows that games are there to be beaten and that with perseverance and imagination you can beat them. He also learned that a frustrated head isn’t a thinking head. A valuable lesson. He’ll carry that lesson into life. He’ll have a more positive attitude to managing failure.

I’m not the only person to have seen someone develop soft skills through gaming. As a parent and as an educator (I teach primary school age children when I’m not playing), we use play to teach all the time. I have a personal mantra that there’s nothing in the primary school curriculum that can’t be taught through Minecraft. All this learning comes through associated with positive emotions: curiosity, achievement, creativity, affection even.

Affection? Really? Yes! Affection for the characters in the game. People who play games identify with the character they are playing. I reckon the extreme example of this would be RPG characters because you inhabit them and invest in them. If you’ve ever been part of a game where a PC dies, you’ll know what I mean. In a recent D&D game, a much beloved comic-relief NPC betrayed the team. You wouldn’t believe the outrage this caused. But also affection between players. Folk who share an interest, share time together and build friendships.


Backed up by Research


Not just kids, either. While reading a little around the subject I saw research which suggests that seniors who stay mentally active are about 2.6 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia. Mentally active like through play.

My anecdotal observations appear to be backed up by the researchers I found: Nick Yee an academic who studied motivation identified the same 3 things that I’ve mentioned. Achievement – wanting to advance, to compete, to succeed; the social component – the desire to form connections, to chat and to cooperate; finally, the immersion part – creating characters and escaping real life.

It is nice that the I’ve been thinking along the same lines as the great and the good. Why do we play? Because its fun, of course but these frivolous past times sit right at the heart of some of the processes that are the best of humanity.

I’ll sign off with Friedrich Schiller from his “Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man”, he states that “Humans are only fully human when they play.”

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