Board Games Gone Online

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Author: Andrea Friedmann Rozenbaum, MSc, Anthropologist, University of Amsterdam alumna. You can contact Andrea at andy.rozenbaum@gmail.com

Fieldsite: In isolation in the north-coast of São Paulo (Brazil), in the hinterland of a sea-side town called Camburi. I consider my field site being both the neighbourhood I am at and the people with whom I am interacting online.

I’ve been playing board games since I was a kid. But for an extended period, this activity became rarer. About eight years ago, I was reintroduced to this ‘world’ through a group of friends who met regularly to play such games. Little by little, I learned new games, and I came to appreciate these meetings. Suddenly, I was converted into a board game player, arranging game nights with varied groups of friends.

Picture of a live board game session (taken by a participant before social isolation)

Within my player community, some individuals had other board game groups amongst different friendship circles, enjoying their encounters to play several games and to socialise. There were also those who, apart from that, would attend gatherings for a specific game in which players were not necessarily friends, and, in such events, socialising was secondary.

With the social isolation recommendations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, board games seemed to be doomed to end, since they would assume a physical encounter was possible. Suddenly, board game enthusiasts realised that socialising through game nights wasn’t a possibility anymore. But, just as many activities found online solutions which allowed them to keep happening, board game players would have to uncover their solution. Within some of the board game circles I participate in, members have started to suggest online platforms for board games. When I first saw this, I remembered that about a year ago, a friend had recommended we play a virtual match, as we were living in different countries. It didn’t catch my attention back then, and now I start to wonder why it did now.

Both myself and many friends who used to play regularly together have moved countries. While our group meetings stopped, none of us ever gathered to play online. However, the former members of the groups didn’t stop playing. Each one found different game partners and created new groups, gathering other friends to play offline.

I’ve been observing how some of the former ‘original’ groups, separated by many miles, are now gathering online to play their beloved board games together. Even though such virtual platforms already existed before the pandemic, they are only turning to them now. Aiming to understand why and how this online response to social isolation is taking place, I conducted informal interviews with some people, who shared their experiences and perceptions. Among them, one is a woman, while five are men, and their ages range from 21 to 36 years old. They are Brazilians currently living in different regions of the country.

The pandemic as an incentive

Regarding what has been driving people to play games on online platforms, most people said that physical isolation was the main incentive for this new practice. For one player, it all started as a way of finding games to entertain his grandmother during the pandemic. [i] He says, “I consulted with friends with whom I used to play non-virtual games, and some options emerged“. Additionally, he suggests that due to the current situation, with everyone having more free time, playing such games is a way of connecting with people he misses.

One player suggests that before the pandemic, he could find other people to play face-to-face, and they could meet whenever they wanted. However, as he says, “today we are in quarantine, and it is a way of gathering, even if it is virtually”. Another person mentions that even though playing board games virtually was a possibility before, since the platforms already existed, today it is the only alternative.

One research participant compared the new practice of meeting people to play games virtually to other new activities people are participating in due to the quarantine. She says, “it’s funny because it’s for the same reason that we didn’t meet virtually and now we do, right?”. As she puts it, now that the possibility of meeting people face-to-face is in suspension, then it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Such reality is valid both for social and game gatherings, making people create new ways of adapting these activities to online platforms.

A participant mentioned that before social distancing, he had some preconceptions regarding online board gaming because he knows that it is not the same as a live encounter. However, when a friend suggested it, he was excited to discover “a new dynamic of gathering”. As they played, his prejudice was left behind. “There aren’t better options for socialising, and everyone has more available schedules, now this is a good choice”, he suggests.

In brief, although the possibility of playing board games online already existed, it was only incorporated into players’ routines due to the current situation most people are in. Engaging in this activity is a way for people who were already regular players to continue practising a social event they enjoyed.

Picture of a computer screen displaying the online version of Catan Universe (taken by the author)

The socialising aspect

When I asked about how people deal with the socialising aspect of online board gaming, all of them told me that the game platform itself doesn’t completely cover it. They usually organise a collective call by voice or video in parallel so that players can interact throughout the game. One player tells me that, as they communicate by phone while playing the game on their computer or smartphone, the socialisation element is maintained. He has tried playing the same games with strangers online, but he says the communication component is missing in those cases.

One person shares that interacting ‘live’ by phone is good, so everybody can “follow the game minute by minute”. Another player says that apart from commenting on the game, they use this opportunity to keep each other updated on their lives. One of the participants takes a more critical stance with regards to the gaming platform, suggesting that if they had taken the time to improve the usability of the tools,  and if the Internet connection was more stable, it would be better. He adds, “apart from the usual problems relating to conference calls, there is the fact that we can only talk one at a time to be heard … which makes us pay less attention to others’ moves … you end up focusing more on your own moves“. This is different from a live game where you can pay attention to every move – online, it’s harder to pay attention to the game as a whole. On the same matter, another interlocutor mentioned that on the Board Game Arena platform, if you purchase a subscription, it’s possible to unlock a video call feature during matches, even though he hasn’t tried it yet.

As we can see, socialisation is a vital aspect of board gaming. Since the current online platforms don’t offer sufficient – or free – ways for players to socialise, they counteract this by finding alternative solutions. Using video or voice calls helps them maintain social bonding. Additionally, such communication tools help them to follow the game more accurately.

Online gaming vs. Online board gaming

It is important to highlight that there is a vital difference between online gaming and online board gaming. Online gaming has increased significantly with the lockdown, being used as a tool for entertainment.[ii] One main difference is that board games have a hidden purpose – that of gathering people around a table for them to socialise. For instance, one player says that in comparison to online games, “board games usually require communication, while the others don’t, so, it’s not the same”.

Moreover, players explained to me that the part of the brain that people use to play board games is different in comparison to the one used to play video games. Most board games involve strategic thinking, and a dynamic of turn-taking, which gives participants time to ponder. Crucially, in the majority of video games, what matters is the player’s ability on the controller and reaction speed. Thus, they presume different brain activities. Another participant says that, although video games are developed for the purpose of end-to-end online play, online board games are simply the adaptation of these games to the digital environment. He says that although this seems to be carefully thought through, the technical obstacles can be noticed.

So, the fact that board games have a virtual option doesn’t make them analogous to video gaming. Such differences are due to their socialising aspect, their cognitive activation, and the nature of their developments.

Screengrab of a smartphone screen displaying an online board game match (sent by one of the interlocutors)

A temporary or a new practice?

Reflecting on the temporality of this new activity, I  asked people if they thought they would continue playing online board games when social isolation ends. Most of them answered positively, saying that they imagined they would play these with friends who live in other cities, but not with the ones they can meet in person. For instance, one says, “I think that it’s a habit that we’ve already established, so why not keep it?”

However, some revealed possible obstacles to this becoming a regular practice. They mentioned time zone differences and issues due to people’s availability. For instance, one person says, “I think it is already a bit difficult to establish the right moment to play since we are distant. It’s not like when people meet [face-to-face], and then they eat and then they play. Now it needs to be more planned“. As she puts it, coordinating people’s time to meet virtually seems more laborious than when they meet in person. One player also highlighted once more the technical issues of the online platforms, which could discourage people from continuing to play.

When I questioned individuals about the possibility of playing with strangers online, all but one said this idea doesn’t resonate with them. Some said they had thought about it, while others told me they dislike it. As one participant reiterates, “the social aspect is significant, and I don’t like to socialise with unknown people. I would rather play with my friends“. The only person who said he enjoyed playing with strangers highlighted the fact that it is different because you never know what to expect. He adds, “in a way, it’s cool because you end up creating some kind of bond with these unknown people”.

Perhaps it is still early to affirm that online board gaming is a practice that is here to stay. Although people are enjoying this possibility, looking at it positively, imagining it in a future without physical isolation, a future that features social distancing, we will only know for sure when this is over. In the meantime, I invite those who haven’t yet tried to arrange an online board game session with friends or family to do so. It is definitely fun!

[i] The interlocutor’s grandmother did not end up playing online board games. He recommended online card games to her, since he found the interaction through board games to be too limited.

[ii] See BBC, CNET, and the Daily Mail.

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