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Board games reflect society, for good or ill

by Evan | Mar 23, 2018
Its All a GameIf you're like me, you do your favorite hobby because it's fun -- but you also want to believe it has some kind of deeper significance. I keep telling people that board games are good for social interaction, which is kind of a weak rationale, but at least it's better than video gaming.

Now there is a good read that ups my rationalizing game. Tristan Donovan's It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan presents board games as artifacts that reflect their societies. Ancient Egypt's senet appears to have been a game about the afterlife. A contemporary one in Mesopotamia told your fortune.

The rules and pieces in chess evolved to reflect different kinds of nobility in India, Arabia and Europe. The gambling game backgammon was around for centuries before it became a craze in the Roaring '20s and then again in the wild and crazy '70s after the doubling cube raised the stakes. 

The first version of Monopoly was designed in the progressive era to discourage greedy capitalism, but it became a glorification of rapacious landlords in the 1930s. The Game of Life promoted 1950s-style consumerism (and was as vanilla as the decade). 

The most successful modern board game -- The Settlers of Catan -- is a riff on the adventures of Viking settlers, but it's trading mechanism is also a lure for players to cooperate even while competing. If cooperation is dominant over competition today as a social value (a debatable notion), the epitome is Pandemic, which was inspired by the 2003 SARS epidemic. The whole point of the game is that people must cooperate or die. It is the most popular of several recent games in which the players try to beat the game instead of each other. 

Donovan's book is more than sociology. He also tells a lot of stories about the obsessive people who created some of the most famous games we play. But he finishes by predicting that future board games will reflect future changes in society.

Given the sharp social divisions these days, it will be interesting to see how they appear in board games the next few years. My guess is "fake news" will be featured. 


EvanEvan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.
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