There’s an epidemic spreading among the masses. It’s a plague with no physical symptoms. It carries no sores, no bruises, and no discoloration. It doesn’t make anybody stuffy, irritated, or drowsy. This disease works stealthily, hopping from one person to another, invisible to the naked human eye. The only sure-tell way to identify this sickness is when it’s too late. It’s when the epidemic has your friends, your coworkers, and your family locked down, submerged into a full-blown breakout with no way out.
Even then, I only know because they tell me. These loved ones finally feel the illness worming its way through their systems, and when it has made its way to their hearts, they lean in real close, their glossy eyes a snapshot of terror, and they whisper, “I don’t know how to tell you, but I’ve traded in my thumbs.”
“My thumbs. Both of them. I ain’t the jockey I used to be, brother. I feel different.”
It’s happened so many times, I don’t blink anymore. I just ask them to hit me with it. Straight.
“You ever play Settlers of Catan?”
Several years ago, I never thought board games would rise up and challenge video games. The idea seemed silly. What were board games? Monopoly? Sorry? Battleship? Checkers? These were mildly entertaining bonding activities simple enough that even Grandma could participate. These were toys for family parties, a means to pass the time without turning on the TV, and in that, board games were as cool as they were exciting.
But then something happened in the early 2010s that changed everything. A staple from my youth started to die out. What once was vogue in the world of video gaming became archaic. It was slapped with a label and lost in most modern games, relegated to a cultural motif of yesteryear. They call it “couch co-op” or “couch multiplayer” these days. It’s the notion of inviting friends over to game, sitting next to each other in the same room, and either working together or challenging each other through split screens on the TV.
Couch multiplayer once had the power to solidify friendships or destroy them, but when it worked, it built a sense of community unmatched by other forms of entertainment. Competitiveness and team-building intertwined, some of the best friendships I have ever made were built through hours and hours of split-screen gaming.
We don’t really have that anymore. If we want to game together, we have to arrange a time to meet online. We jack in from our solitary dwellings, wading through loading screen after loading screen until we find a familiar name. And then we chat. We hear the digitized duplicate of another human being’s voice chirp in our ears.
This isn’t real; it’s imitation.
And when we do play online, more often than not, we have to suffer chatter from strangers. Insecure children simultaneously screaming at their mothers and other gamers. Mouth-breathing hillbillies gasping into their headsets. Would-be tough guys catcalling the only woman in the match. It’s like being lost in a sea of caricatures, adrift in an echo chamber of human duplicates. We don’t know who these people are or what they look like or if they’re even real.
It’s frustrating and lonely and maddening all in one go. With each caricature we talk to in any given match, we begin to see ourselves differently, as the only confirmed humans left on an Internet teeming with gap-toothed bozos who only want to talk insult our mothers.
Is this what Vincent Price felt like? Is this what being The Last Man On Earth is all about?
Those of us who grew up in an era where couch multiplayer was everywhere remember greener pastures. We remember shared eruptions of joy, frustrations, and memories. We looked our peers in the eye — friend or foe. It created a sense of respect in us, for ally and enemy alike.
We didn’t hide behind made-up names and hidden IPs. We lived near each other, and when we arranged times to battle, we met at the battleground in person, bearing gifts of food or drink to foster goodwill. Most importantly, we knew the other person was real.
Video games don’t stress this type of communication anymore, and it’s why the board game infection is spreading. There’s a need for communal gaming. There’s a need to bond with another human being, to make eye contact and share memories. The more we jack into the cacophonous Internet, the more we pull away and dust off the board games tucked away in the closet. And the more we dust off those games, the more creative we get in making them, innovating highly specialized experiences we won’t soon forget.
Board games aren’t just Monopoly, Sorry, or Battleship. There are countless titles out there filled with countless adventures, and they’re made for a plethora of different ages and skill levels. They’ve been there this entire time, fueled by a subculture that’s finally seeing its day in the sun.
Gaming isn’t mindless entertainment. It never has been, even when well-meaning senators tried to ward us away with fear-mongering. Through games we troubleshoot problems, solve puzzles, go on adventures, and explore the great unknown with each other. Through gaming, we’ve seen how keen, cunning, thoughtful, playful, humorous, creative, and imaginative our peers can be. Through gaming, we’ve peeled away the mundane day-to-day and connected with each other on a deeper level.
This growing epidemic is a pulling-back from the machines and gadgets that rule our lives. It’s a distancing from the coldness of digital space, a shrinking away from solitary online interactions. This rampant disease? It’s a virulent strain of humanity.