In my grandparents’ old house on Mulford—upstairs, in the bedroom to the left, in the closet at the back of the room—was the treasure trove to which I was frequently drawn. On the shelves just above eye level, in faded old boxes stacked and dust-covered, were around a dozen old board games.
I was always eager to play, often torn between the enticing allure of a game I hadn’t tried before and a different game I couldn’t wait to play again. I would stand on my tip-toes and slide out a box to bring down to the kitchen table and badger Grandma and Grandpa Broeks to play with me. Sometimes they would relinquish whatever else they were doing to humor me. When they wouldn’t, I would bring the box back upstairs and sit with it on the floor. I would sometimes, alone, take out all of the pieces, marvel at the details of the board and plastic gizmos, and read through the rules like a sacred text.
I remember once in particular when I hauled down a not-yet-explored box to the coffee table of the pristine living room. It was winter, and my other grandparents (my mom’s folks) were also there, in town for my annual Christmas program at church. I managed to persuade both sets of grandparents to teach me the new game, Clue. I remember my Grandpa Ed’s serious, yet playful tone as he cautioned me not to reveal too much information: “Alex…you gave away a clue!” It was the last time I saw him alive.
When asked today about my hobbies, I often state that I enjoy playing all games. Video, tabletop, card, party: I adore them all. Sometimes I even think of the people in my life, or my various life stages, through the lens of what games we played together. My dad: Cribbage, Backgammon, and two-handed Canasta. My mom: TV Scene It? and other trivia games. Grandma and Grandpa Broeks: Rook. Middle school friends: Egyptian Ratscrew, B.S., Yu-Gi-Oh! High school friends: Taboo, Mafia, Apples to Apples, Liar’s Dice. College friends: Euchre, Settlers of Catan, Wizard. Post-college: Pandemic, Codenames, Smash Up, Scattergories.
I think games of all types provide a space to practice being a human being. Games have a certain set of rules, a goal, a unifying theme, a group of people to interact with, and a closed set of choices you have to make at any given time. It’s life but simplified and with more structure. I think I’ve learned and practiced some of my most basic life skills through games. I’ve practiced planning and working towards a goal. I’ve practiced flexible thinking and problem solving when my initial plans for victory don’t pan out and I have to improvise. I’ve practiced teamwork when playing cooperative games (e.g. Pandemic) or partner-based games (e.g. Euchre). I’ve practiced emotional self-regulation by figuring out how to deal with the frustration of losing.
Some of the doldrums of quarantine have been alleviated by playing games online or with a few people at home, away from the crowds. While I do enjoy a good one-payer video game, my favorites are always those that I can play with other people. I guess even introverts need some social contact, just in small and controlled doses. A few friends and I have even learned creative ways to play tabletop and card games over Zoom, usually by setting up our own boards in front of the camera.
At its core, I feel more fully human while playing a game. Struggles with social awkwardness can temporarily be shed in a space that’s simpler, safer.