.The Games People Play

On Petaluma’s West Side, deep in the “number and letter” streets, a local gentleman maintains an ongoing chess game with the public. Catty-corner from McNear Park, resting upon a waist-high pillar on the corner of his yard, is a chessboard with pieces in mid-play. Protruding from beneath it is a cardboard sign that reads, “Your move.”

A fixture in the neighborhood for years, the chessboard has, miraculously, suffered little in the way of vandalism apart from an occasional toppled chessman, which could just be the fumbled move of a tree-dwelling creature who lacks an opposable thumb. At the onset of the quarantine, however, the chessboard disappeared. The reasons why are obvious. Its recent reappearance, however, portends something else entirely.

While the curve of coronavirus infections flattens, symptoms of iPhone-fatigue and Netflix-induced-comas are on the rise. America is bored with digital diversions and it was only a matter of time before someone opened up the Pandora’s Box of the family game closet.

“First, there was a notable [and perhaps obvious] rise in interest in board games and tabletop games at the beginning of the quarantine,” says Kristen Seikaly, a writer and blogger at CatsandDice.com who specializes in non-video games. 

In Seikaly’s observation, today’s quarantined gamer chooses a game against four criteria: 

• How many people can play (solo, two-players, the whole family)?

• Can it be played while social distancing (perhaps via Zoom, et al)?

• Anything new out there besides the classics?

• Is the gameplay in-depth enough to sustain hours of entertainment?

“Based on my research, Millennials are largely interested in finding new, modern board games for two players or solo gameplay,” Seikaly reports. “They also show a great deal of interest in Dungeons and Dragons.”

Seikaly says many players use online tools like Roll20 and Discord to keep their role-playing games rolling, though she says others play less because they cannot meet face-to-face.

“Those in older generations, however, are largely interested in how to play games at a distance,” Seikaly says. “They are less interested in whether or not the game is new to them and more interested in how they can connect with their loved ones through the ease of online gameplay or through conferencing tools.”

Cal Muncy, who runs the website Let’s Play a Drinking Game (letsplayadrinkinggame.com) with three friends, echoes the sentiment.

“Virtual games—not video games, but just regular games over video chat—have been very popular recently with Gen Z and Millennials,” Muncy says. “Games such as Uno and Cards Against Humanity can be played virtually, as well as the suite of Jackbox Games, which provide a lot of creative options for large groups.”

By now, most people in quarantine have either enjoyed or endured a Zoom meeting (whether it be for work, school, or happy hour). While the video conferencing platform has its critics, it also has practical, social-gaming applications.

“Zoom has proven to be a fantastic means of engaging audiences with team trivia,” says David Jacobson, founder and CEO of TrivWorks, a trivia-based corporate entertainment venture. “Not only is it interactive and incredibly user-friendly, but some of the existing features such as breakout rooms and spotlight really lend themselves perfectly to a virtual trivia event. Of course, there are also challenges which must be overcome—particularly, platform updates which affect the gameplay.”

At times, Jacobson was chagrined to find that Zoom briefly disabled hyperlinks in its chat window, which is how he was sharing the answer submission form with trivia participants. 

“As the organizer, I’m also concerned about things which are out of my control, such as connectivity and stability issues,” Jacobson says, adding that his experience with Zoom thus far has been “extremely positive.”

Beyond trivia, classic board games such as Monopoly and Uno have likewise been adapted for virtual play through phones and computers, says Let’s Play a Drinking Game’s Muncy. However, Muncy has detected one trend that doesn’t port to online that is literally puzzling.

“I have been taking note of which games people talk about on social media, both before and during the quarantine,” Muncy says. “It might not be considered a ‘game’ in the traditional sense, but puzzles have by far been the most popular new fad over the last couple months.”

Puzzles appeal to every generation, says Muncy, who has observed photos of completed puzzles posted to social media from Gen Xers, Boomers and Millennials alike. Moreover, puzzles are selling out in online retail outlets.  

“My town even started a ‘puzzle swap’ Facebook group so that people can trade puzzles when done,” Muncy says. “The appeal is that it’s a relaxing activity that can be done alone or with family and can be done with a movie or TV show in the background.”

Among the favorite puzzle themes Muncy has tracked are landscapes, city scenes, movie scenes, cartoons and animals.

“One trend I’ve seen pick up recently is the oversized puzzles—2,000-plus pieces—that pretty much take up an entire table,” Muncy says. “Those certainly kill some time!”

Puzzles also lend themselves well to playing solo, a trend tracked by Flynn Zaiger, CEO of digital marketing agency Online Optimism, who also happens to be a “noted Monopoly expert” (yes, that’s a thing) as cited in Readers Digest and Business Insider.

“People have been focusing on more solitary games, as we’ve all had to deal with the oddities of human interaction: namely, Zoom meetings and conference calls,” Zaiger says. “This means that more strategic games are in, while those that are luck-based are out.”

The inclination to remove luck from the equation—as well as its close cousins “chance” and “the great gaping void of the unknown”—makes sense for a nation whose appetite for uncertainty is on the wane.   

“You don’t need a poor spin dropping you down a chute to remind you that life can kick your ass sometimes,” Zaiger says. “This means that now’s the perfect time for those games with little luck, and more skill. For traditionalists, that can be Scrabble, Risk or Monopoly. To the untrained eye, those may appear luck-based, but anyone who has played a series of best-of-seven knows how much skill can overcome luck.”

And if you don’t have the skills to overcome bad luck there’s always drinking games where everyones a winner (or a loser, depending on your hangover).

“Drinking games have become even more commonplace, as people are spending all their time at home and have nowhere to go in the morning,” Muncy says. “As evidenced by the r/drinkinggames subreddit or #drinkinggames on Twitter, people are having fun turning mundane things into drinking games like the news, or press briefings on the virus, for example.”

For those who prefer to raise the stakes instead of wine glasses, the classics endure and have increased appeal with Baby Boomers.

“Chess, Go and Checkers are games with no luck, where your only competitor is your quarantine partner,” Zaiger says. “Just make sure you schedule some time afterward so the tension doesn’t boil over.”

Meanwhile, in Petaluma—pawn to king-four. Checkmate.

Daedalus Howellhttps://daedalushowell.com
Daedalus Howell is the editor of the North Bay Bohemian and Pacific Sun. He is the author, most recently, of Quantum Deadline and is the writer-director of the feature film Pill Head.
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