Saturday, April 14, 2007

Gaming and the mass media

As gamers, many of us are evangelists. We love our games, and we want to share them with others.

Gamers organise school games groups; they run clubs; they organise family game nights at schools, libraries or churches; they give games as gifts; they regularly demonstrate games for free. We do this because we love the games - and when you love something, it's natural to want to share it.

Gaming is a fantastic hobby. It promotes social interaction, it accommodates different-sized groups of people, it can be played in mixed gender and age groups. There's a growing body of evidence that shows that families that share a hobby like gaming are more resilient than those that lead largely separate lives.

Gaming can foster a range of interests, encourage logical and rational thinking, promote the development and understanding of key skills. It's cheap, you can do it almost anywhere and, best (and most important) of all - it's fun!

When it comes to promoting games, we have mixed success. It takes a lot of perseverance to get a good-news story into the mainstream media or into public places for people to explore. It's considered "normal" for adults to coach a football or cricket team, or to drink beer in front of sports TV, but it's not considered normal for adults to get together to explore a more intellectual/cerebral interest like playing games.

As far as promoting our hobby of gaming, there has been success in a range of places. I know I will have missed people and activities - this is by no means an exhaustive list - but please add to it in the comments for this post.

  • The Spiel des Jahres award is credited with bringing gaming into the mainstream in Germany.

  • BoardGameGeek provides a central 'home' for gamers and also a contact point for journalists seeking informed comment or information.

  • Ben Baldanza coined the Beyond Monopoly name and was the first, as far as I am aware, of many people to run games classes at adult education centres.

  • His wife Marcia has brought games into the mainstream in the elementary schools where she has taught; other teachers and parents have picked this up, including Giles Pritchard, who has worked to bring games into schools and has even established a games library for a local school. Chris Brooks often blogs about the game classes he runs at a local school.

  • Neil Thomson, the president of Border Gamers Albury-Wodonga, has a regular column on gaming in the regional newspaper. Some years ago, the Melbourne's Child (Sydney's child etc) group of newspapers ran regular reviews of games. Ward Batty runs (ran?) a weekly syndicated column on gaming for several newspapers.

  • Greg Schlosser has written about his experiences with church family game nights.

  • Many, many games clubs run open-to-the-public events and work to promote gaming in their local community. Here's a coming-soon listing that leverages an existing activity.

  • Fraser and I try to do our bit, with a family games night at Biggie's school, consultation with teachers on games for use in the classroom and in the out of school hours care program, and of course the month-long display of games at the Melbourne Museum last September, complete with accompanying demonstrations.

  • Phil Davies, of Mind Games Albury, has worked hard to bring Eurogames to local schools and to promote them, even founding the Australian Games Expo to promote gaming to the wider community.

One of the people who, to my mind, has done the most effective promotion of gaming over the past few years is Jon Power. Jon is the founder of Beyond Monopoly! - a games club in York, in the UK. From its beginnings as a once-a-month event in 2005, the club has gone from strength to strength, helped in no small measure by Jon's enthusiasm and commitment. Anyone who has ever been involved with running any non-profit organisation knows how much effort is involved, how hard you sometimes have to work to find the drive and commitment to keep things running smoothly, but Beyond Monopoly! doesn't seem to falter.

As well as running the now twice-monthly game club, Beyond Monopoly! has run demonstrations at public events and venues including York's National Railway Museum. They've featured in newspaper articles, radio spots, even had a mention in the BBC's Mind Games Magazine. Jon himself is widely recognised and respected by gamers around the world, and he has been very successful in securing donations of boardgames for the club's library as well as marketing material and posters from publishers to use in his demonstrations (trust me, after the demos we ran last year, I know just how hard it is even to get a response from a publisher, let alone some actual product). He's always happy to lend an ear and help out others, in their promotion of gaming and also on a personal level, as a good friend and listener.

Jon is also known to BoardGameGeek readers as the font of all knowledge on the Essen Spiel fair. I remember introducing Jon to a friend on BSW late one night, where recognition was immediately followed by "I followed your Guide to Essen word for word last year. It's great!"

This week, Jon hit the holy grail. Daily newspaper the Yorkshire Post ran a fantastic article about Jon and his games collection, with column space for Beyond Monopoly! and also BoardGameGeek. You can't buy publicity like this in a national newspaper - this sort of promotion of our hobby is a boon to publishers and distributors as well as to games clubs around the country. And of course to Beyond Monopoly! as well.

That's why it was so disappointing to see Jon's story picked up and damaged by the tabloids. In yet another example of shoddy tabloid journalism, they perverted the truth of the original article, invented quotes, and ran a story about yet another lonely loser with a sad and sorry hobby. Jon - and, by extension, all gamers - was turned into a laughing stock. Worse, a similar bastardised and disrespectful "story" was run in his local paper for his neighbours, friends and colleagues to read.

Responses on BGG have been mixed - there's been some sympathy, but mostly there's shared amusement - a feeling that being mocked by a tabloid is somehow a badge of honour. I think that's shortsighted.

Articles like the tabloids ran undermine our credibility. They invite people to sneer at us and our hobby, and they suggest that there is something wrong with those who share it. They ignore the proven and readily demonstrated benefits that playing games brings in favour of that laziest of devices, mockery.

Meanwhile, these same papers that sneer at us continue to promote inferior and dull product like Mousetrap and its ilk as the best gifts every Christmas.

So where is the common ground? How can we build a credible and reasonable media profile for games and gamers without opening ourselves up to mockery and vicious slurs? How do we sell gaming to a wider audience?

Or is it all a mistake? Maybe we should stop our evangelising and figure that people who WANT to play games will find us, and forget the rest.

Meanwhile, there's a train spotter I want to get to know a little better.

Melissa

7 comments:

Scott said...

The more public you are with your board game publicity, the more attention you will draw. Gathering around terms like Geek and Trash makes the situation worse.

I've been through this myself. I distribute Board Games with Scott (my video series) all over the place.

BGWS was picked up by Yahoo for their show "The 9" at http://9.yahoo.com/2006/12/11/ with a positive discussion.

Then, Google Current talked about BGWS in a less-than-positive light at
http://www.current.tv/google/GC02295

But you know, I didn't mind. It is more publicity for the site, and I know from feedback that a number of people who didn't know anything about these games started watching.

That's the double-edged sword of publicity and there is no way to avoid it. I realize that people embrace negative terms for the hobby and find the humor in them, but it does make it tougher for those of us doing board game PR.

huzonfirst said...

Thor and Sarah Samuelson, who run the GameSurplus.com Internet games store, run Beyond Monopoly sessions at a local library. What makes the Samuelson's sessions unique is that their five children pitch in and help to teach the games to the attending families. This helps to make the sessions even more friendly and approachable. I've played games with the Samuelson kids and I know they're all pretty sharp. Thor and Sarah are also enthusiastic ambassadors for our hobby and their sessions are usually very well attended.

Melissa said...

Thanks, Scott and Larry.

Scott, I confess that I thought of your experience when I wrote this, and then I forgot to add it in.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it is the unfortunate situation that some of the people best able to promote the hobby are able to spend a bit more time on promotion due to less family attachments. Unfortunately, sometimes that is what is picked up by outside promotion, rather than the good stuff actually being done.

smatt said...

Thanks for the editorial, Melissa.

It's incredibly difficult to talk about a hobby like gaming without coming off like "someone who has a bit too much time on his hands." I don't know why that is. People had NO PROBLEM swallowing MTV (24 hours a day music - in the beginning anyway) or ESPN (24 hour coverage of sports). But if you go out of your way to attend a gaming convention (which is basically 24 hour gaming), then something's wrong.

Ahhh!!!! What a frustrating double standard.

I've been writing reviews for the paper for a couple of years now. In an effort to reach more people, I spend around half of my article talking about some ordinary life event before talking about the game. In this way, learning about a new game is a bit more digestable. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback, though usually about the personal parts of the stories.

But something else is happening. There's a realization that there are other games out there, and that people are playing them.

Ultimately, I agree with Scott. You have to get all kinds of exposure and hope for the best.

Chris Farrell said...

This is an interesting topic.

First of all, we simply must recognize that we are not talking about boardgames, we are talking about OUR kinds of boardgames, which are a niche of a niche (apart from Settlers, maybe). By all accounts, playing board and card games is a fairly mainstream, non-controversial hobby. Chess and/or Go clubs are a staple of secondary education, at least in America. Clubs for people over 30 to play Scrabble and Bridge are mainstream. Lots of people have Poker nights. And it was not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, that American adults were playing boardgames in large numbers and Parker Brothers was designing good games for them. I've been reading more about the history of games of late, and it seems clear that playing games is an activity that is in people's blood, even once they pass 30. Far more people play board and card games than we generally accept. It's just they don't play "our" games.

So ... two things.

First, games that are the favorites of BGGers - Power Grid and Puerto Rico and Caylus - are never going to travel well to the "mainstream", and we have to recognize it.

Second is what I think of as the "classic" test. Is a game of ours clearly better and more engaging than Scrabble, Monopoly, or Risk? Hearts or Spades? i.e., something they can buy at Target or is in the public domain? More often than we'd like to admit, I think, the answer is "no" (these are classic games that have stood the test of time and been played by millions for generations now).

I'm obviously not trying to say people shouldn't evangelize our games. But when we do, we have to be careful about what games we're pushing. Sometimes we get so absorbed in our niche of a niche we have a hard time evaluating what is going to get any traction at all outside of it, and a lot of "BGG games" are always going to be just ours. Trying to evangelize Age of Steam, Caylus, Die Macher, or even Power Grid will make us look a little ridiculous. But games like Settlers (and some of its follow-ons), Ingenous, ZERTZ, Modern Art, maybe San Juan or Beowulf are games that "we" like a lot that can bridge the gap.

AnakinOU said...

There's also Ward Batty's "The Game Table" which is carried by a handful of papers across the US...but I don't think he's put anything out there in a while.