• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The New and Old Face of Gaming

The value of board games.


January 26, 2017

Over the winter break during a family visit, I watched my children and their cousin play Monopoly on a video gaming system. It recalled nothing of the experience of Monopoly during my youth. Rather, it seemed to me like all the learning opportunities were taken away from the children. I immediately went out and bought a new copy of the board game (a “vintage” version, according to the box) so they could learn the “real” game.

After watching them play for a few hours, I was reminded of what they had been missing. With the video version, the computer applies the rules of the game. The computer was the banker, and though players could toggle specific rules on or off before the game started, there was no negotiation afterwards.

Part of the board game experience is the social interaction from negotiating your own set of rules. I can remember my sisters and I fighting over whether to put money in Free Parking, whether one could ask for extra privileges when bartering property, or even how to decide unexpected situations, such as when the dice fall on the floor, or someone “forgets” to give the money to get out of jail. New family rules emerge that aren’t the printed rules of the game; the computer is not so forgiving, precluding the opportunity to learn how to negotiate social rules. 

My daughter complained that, with the board game, we ran out of money, but the computer had endless money. This prompted questions about the nature and function of currency. While the computer performed calculations with ease, the children had to change money and figure out percentages themselves, just like they would in real life (that is, if they lost their phone with the calculator app). 

I’m not saying there is something wrong with playing video games. Some games require players to negotiate complicated rules and positions for play. However, board games encourage players to be accountable to the people they play with because they will see them again in a few hours, negotiating the last dessert at the dinner table. As we are replacing so many of our interpersonal interactions with digital ones within an increasingly partisan society, I relish the lessons of the traditional game.

I recently read Steven Johnson’s Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. He discusses how people’s desire throughout history for novel forms of play helped to shape the world in which we live. I found his ideas worth considering, and I wondered where there is space in our modern world for play and reflection to converge. What struck me most about watching the children play Monopoly was how long the game took to complete, and how much boredom was interspersed throughout the game. Players sometimes took their time during their turn, and constant disagreements would have to be negotiated. All of that gave my mind time to think. I would argue that in our digital world, reflective thinking is simply not encouraged as much, since multiple screens and endless choices distract our minds. I wonder if bringing back the traditional board game might bring more reflective time for families.



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