A couple of weeks back, some of you might have seen the news that Wizards of the Coast is soon to launch a new hobby gaming site with a much broader scope in terms of inclusiveness- RPGs, CCGs and video games are not the pariahs they seem to be on other sites- and a more pronounced emphasis on MySpace-style social networking. It’s called Gleemax.com, which is a pretty terrible name from a linguistic perspective but it is a direct reference to a MAGIC: THE GATHERING in-joke. I took at look at the site, which isn’t nearly fully functional yet, and what I saw was a modern site not unlike most video game sites and other web destinations geared toward teenagers and young adults. Of course, it wasn’t long before members of the online board gaming community lined up to take shots at how “juvenile” it looked, how confusing the layout was, and how it hurt their eyes to look at it. Oh, my aching bunions. Never have I seen a bunch of fucking cranks whine like that outside of a front-porch bitching session at the nursing home. God forbid someone court younger gamers and get someone other than more 45 year old man-children into the hobby.
But that’s just part of a series of events and circumstances that made me realize something about board gaming I had been thinking about yet I hadn’t really pinpointed a position on. Enter a recent discussion I read regarding one of the larger gaming conventions in the
Now, I’m not one of those Chicken Little types that’s predicting that the hobby game industry is somehow going to collapse and disappear, but I will say that younger gamers are becoming very scarce despite the best efforts of Spielfriek parents to indoctrinate their kids with Haba games and the occasional attempt at HEY THAT’S MY FISH. I see less and less kids interested in hobby gaming with every passing year and when I recall being 13 years old myself and meeting with other friends around that age to run a role playing game or play AXIS AND ALLIES I can’t help but think that eventually a generation will come around where all “traditional” hobby gaming is transferred to electronic formats. The writing is on the wall- young people that used to get into gaming through DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS are now getting into it through MMORPGs and the kids that would have dug board games are whiling away their gaming childhood with RTS games and Xbox Live. Not that there’s anything wrong with video games at all, I’ve been playing them since the Atari 2600- but it’s very clear that the board and hobby gaming demographic has crept up over the years and it’s very unfortunate that most publishers and designers seem either completely unaware of that fact or just don’t care to court younger, teenage to young adult audiences. These are the gamers and consumers of the future, and if they aren’t cultivated then our already very marginal hobby will be even more marginalized in future generations.
I think that this is one of the places where the phoenix-like rebirth of Ameritrash games and the attendant evolution of hybrid games incorporating the virtues of European design stand to make the biggest difference on the hobby both now and in the future. The themes of most Eurogames are of little to no appeal to kids who are growing up with HALO and other video games that generally feature very conflict-heavy, some would say “violent” themes and images and although there’s definitely a large number of PC games and strategy titles that feature civilization building, civic planning, and the like it’s clear that the big, blockbuster games that most young people are interested are generally very immediate, action-oriented, and feature fantasy or escapist themes of some description. If we look at games like AGE OF STEAM (the classic cranky old man game), PUERTO RICO, and even SETTLERS it isn’t hard to see how the thematic appeal of these games skews older- even in their graphic presentation, which favors muted colors and a distinctly “old fashioned” atmosphere. But compare that to any given Fantasy Flight title- bright colors, modern typography, best-in-business genre artwork, and “blockbuster” production values. It’s not hard to imagine that an 18 year old looking to spend their first paycheck would be much more likely to pick up ARKHAM HORROR than NOTRE DAME.
At my store, I did have a number of younger clients but of course the big draw for them was collectible card games- but I did have an alarming number of kids who would spend their parents’ disposable income with reckless abandon on Games Workshop products. Some of the kids tried out and kind of enjoyed some of the simpler board games but I never saw an under-20 spending a single dollar on a board game purchase of any description. They’d come in and spend $100 or more on the latest VERSUS or MAGIC: THE GATHERING set but not a dime on any of the supposed “gateway” games or even the more youth-friendly AT titles for that matter. Why? Because CCGs and other collectible games are made accessible and appealing to them. They’re marketed directly toward a younger audience with more modern methods that are youthful and for lack of a better term, much hipper than anything I’ve ever seen a board game publisher pull off. The result, of course, is that CCGs and other collectible games routinely outsell board games and recent sales figures in the industry even show that CCGs are doing better now than they have in years. On the other hand, board games are made accessible and appealing primarily to the sort of men who used to (or still do, for that matter) spend inordinate amounts of time building model railroads or building ships-in-a-bottle.
So the usual trope is that video games are killing the business. It’s true that the RPG sector has taken nothing short of a life-threatening beating over the past couple of years but other product sectors are showing growth. The whole argument that I’ve heard game store owners grouse over about video games is pretty much the same thing as hearing Ratt and Winger lament over how Nirvana ended their careers- it’s not that somehow this new music (which wasn’t even really anything new) somehow lured people away from the hair bands, it’s that the new music was more youthful and in tune with the culture and zeitgeist of young people of the time. In short- it was more relevant. Board games, and hobby games in general, have to remain relevant and timely with someone other than middle-aged men if they’re going to survive in a long term situation. As it stands now, I feel that there’s a lot of disregard, disdain, and just plain hostility going on in the board gaming community regarding anything that appears youthful or vigorous. I look at message boards and see these anti-youth comments and all I see is bitter old men who use board gaming as a way to escape the responsibilities and demands of their families, including their own children.
So I say let the old men run off to play with other old men avoiding having to interact with their wives. Let the geriatric geezers have their “21 and up”game conventions so they can engage themselves on the deepest possible level over choo-choo train games and LOOPIN’ LOUIE. The kids are always welcome at my table, in my store, and at my convention. And if they can’t grasp TWILIGHT IMPERIUM yet then we can at least get them started on NEXUS OPS and if that fails the basic rules of HEROSCAPE should be on their level. It’s great that Gleemax is gunning for a younger audience and it really shows that Wizards of the Coast, unlike a company such as Rio Grande Games, understands that younger audiences are where the long-term future of the hobby lies and that it is absolutely critical that they be courted and their gaming lives be nourished if the hobby is to stay out of the old folks home, where it will inevitably expire in relative obscurity, lying in a puddle of its own urine while bellowing “wood for sheep” or calling for the Governor.