Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Making "Gateway" a Useful Term

We have put out a few calls now for guest bloggers. Here is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts from writers who've not posted on Gone Gaming before.

Boris Dvorkin responded to one of my posts looking for guest bloggers. Strangely, it was a post in the "Women and Gaming" forum on Boardgamegeek which has netted the most interest. More strangely, perhaps, none of the interest has been from women.

I like the new twist Boris puts on this familiar term. Please comment on his post to inspire him to write for us again!


What sucks worse than having an awesome game and no one to play it with? Lots of things. Getting hit in the nose with a mallet, for example. But most of us gamers don't even own a mallet, let alone someone who might hit us in the nose with it, so we spend most of our time bemoaning the lack of companions for our cardboard adventures. This is why some gamers are obsessed with the idea of "gateway games" — games that will turn their boozing socialite acquaintances into insatiable Puerto Rico fanatics.

Of course, most people realize by now that gateway games are a myth. Like all good myths, the "gateway" concept is built on a fleck of truth: outstanding members of a hobby can indeed generate widespread interest in that hobby. Chess participation skyrocketed in the 70's when Bobby Fischer became the first American world champion. But this burst of enthusiasm for chess was not accompanied by similar spurts in Go and backgammon. Fischer's phenomenal chess play only generated interest in chess. Thus, when you teach your friends how to play Settlers, a phenomenal board game, the best result that you can hope for is that they'll become interested in Settlers. Hence the common cry, "I taught my friends how to play Settlers and now they won't play anything else!" Well, duh. Serious gamers may accuse Princes of Florence of being multiplayer solitaire, but to the average Fred it seems more like multiplayer chess — bewildering, difficult to learn, and boring.

For most people, spending twenty minutes learning a complex set of abstract rules and then the next hour and a half perusing decision trees is torture. You have to be a very, very special kind of person to want to do this kind of thing in your spare time. I once taught Puerto Rico to a guy who had never played Settlers in his life, and he loved it. He was just that kind of person. Conversely, my Settlers campaign back home was so successful that a number of my friends bought their own copies plus expansions — yet they won't touch Puerto Rico with a twenty foot shark.

The result of all this is that the term "gateway game" is still being used in discussions but contributes nothing meaningful to them. People either cling to the phrase with dewy-eyed dreams that their sweater-knitting girlfriends will be brainwashed into adoring Caylus, or decry it as a hopeless folly and ignore all mention of it altogether. I think that's a shame, because with a bit of tweaking, "gateway game" can be made into a useful term.

Now, as an English major, I know better than to try to impose my will on the way that language is used. People are funny about language. If you ask them how important it is to them, they're likely to say "not much." And yet, if you tell someone that a word they're using is wrong, or that it shouldn't be used at all, and the person happens to disagree, you're likely to face such a brutal retaliation that a passerby will wonder if you didn't just try to shoot their dog. People are extremely attached to the way they use words, which is why attempts to regulate the language by prescriptivist linguists (aka Grammar Nazis) are usually utter failures.

But what the hell.

Here's how many people think of the term:

Gateway game: a game that can make non-gamers interested in gaming.

And here's how I prefer to see it:

Gateway game: a game that both gamers and non-gamers are willing to play.

The second definition makes down-to-earth, immediately useful discussion about gateway games possible. For example:

— Puerto Rico is a bad gateway game because the rules are hard and it requires a lot of thinking, so non-gamers won't like it.

— Cranium is a terrible gateway game because its 5.9 rating on BGG indicates that most gamers aren't thrilled with it

— Settlers of Catan is a great gateway game because many people who refuse to play any other remotely serious game, still play Settlers.

The above analysis may not seem very useful because everybody already knows intuitively which games are gateway games and which ones aren't. But the pie-in-the-sky vagueness of the first definition ("Will Ticket to Ride make my friends like other board games? Well, I don't know...") casts a pall of doubt on any game labeled as "gateway." With the second definition, there is no doubt — a game is either generally tolerable to non-gamers, or it isn't.

— Boris Dvorkin


Shannon Appelcline said...

Very thoughtful, and a great writing style too.

However, in response to an article that offers an argument on diction, let me offer an argument on diction.

I think that "gateway game" is exactly the right term for a game that brings people into the hobby. However, I think there's something to be said for your logic that such a game may indeed not exist.

What you're describing instead seems to be a "bridge game" which connects up two different groups of player types.

How's that for trying to wield vocabulary to my own usage, with no chance of success?

daw65 said...

I can agree with Boris' definition of "gateway". If you extend the analogy, what you find is that there are many people who will approach the gateway, and indeed enter through the gateway, but never stray from it. Rare indeed are those who come to, go through, and run far beyond the gateway, deep in to the land of hobby games.

In that sense, "gateway" and "bridge" aren't much different.

Anonymous said...

I like both bridge and gateway terms. They mean different things. Gateway is here is a game that will show a non-gamer that there are games more fun than the roll and move games associated with the term (as commonly used) boardgame. A bridge game is one that I, as a gamer, can enjoy but that my in-laws will play and enjoy.
The problem with these terms is that it doesn't really depend upon the game, it depends on the people playing the game. Settlers was a gateway for many people who now play other German games, some of them meatier like Puerto Rico. Settlers is also a game that I can enjoy playing with my in-laws, but I don't think any of them will be playing Puerto Rico (or any other similarly complex/meaty game) any time soon.
So I guess devoid of context, specifically who is sitting around the table, it is unknown whether a game at that time is a gateway or a bridge. It can even be both at the same time.

Fraser said...

"a game that both gamers and non-gamers are willing to play." I like this definition.

Dani In NC said...

I like the definition of gateway game that qzhdad gave. I've been using games like Poison and Fluxx to show my friends that there are alternatives to what can be found at Toys R Us. However, in recent months my idea of gateway has moved closer to Boris' definition. My group and I all started out as boardgame newbies together, but I'm the only one interested in moving on to meatier games. So my task is to find games that are engaging for myself but also light enough so that my husband and his friends are willing to play them.