Games as Glue: The social value of play
The enormous growth of online computer gaming in the 21st century, so dramatic that "gaming" now implies "online" for many and "gamer" has become a cultural identifier with its own stereotypes and archetypes (arguably as inaccurate as those for any other cultural group), has masked a quiet revolution in how non-computer games have been marketed and consumed. Advances in small-run printing and manufacture have stimulated a renaissance in the design of traditional tabletop board games, and these are now sold not as child-friendly family entertainment to be dusted off while a festive meal slowly digests, but to a trendy young adult market hungry for something tactile and face-to-face in what is otherwise an increasingly bubble-like world of remote working and social media. The synergy with the resurgence of music on vinyl is evident if one looks at the patrons of boardgame cafes now appearing in our cities, or vibrant social enterprises such as Casual Chess in London.
At its heart is the discovery - or should it be rather said, rediscovery - of the joy of play. As children we play naturally and easily, but this is not merely to fill the time as yet unoccupied by the tribulations and responsibilities of adulthood. Play fulfils vital roles in personal development: through it we learn about the world, about ourselves, and how to interact with others. Watch a group of toddlers building an imaginary castle and see a prototype of how we self-organise as social animals.
From the US through continental Europe to China, schools now turn to traditional strategy games like chess and Go in order to build the soft skills of resilience, metacognition, critical thinking and self-control. It would be a mistake, however, to fence off games as an activity only for children (of all ages).
A major shift in neuroscience and psychology over the last decade has been from the viewpoint that "the child is father of the man" - that we are set in stone after early adulthood and doomed thereafter only to manage our decline - to one of continuous change. A landmark recent study discovered that no aspect of our character is truly fixed. Contrary to what my generation was taught in school, our brains continue to make new cells throughout our lives, stimulated by physical activity - a healthy mind and a healthy body really do go together. Given this perspective, should we not recognise that play continues to benefit us all, and can offer more than simple diversion?
In the modern workplace the provision of places and spaces to break from screen time is essential to employee wellbeing. Table-top games are a natural fit in these spaces for the following reasons:
They draw the players away from their desk (and personal) screens, which is beneficial to eye health;
They provide a context to allow social interaction between people who might otherwise work separately;
They are an inclusive activity, supporting diversity in the workplace;
They can build and reinforce the same soft skills in adults as we find in children;
By providing intellectual absorption they break cycles of rumination, acting as a "reset button" for minor workplace stresses.
What is more, the initial investment and ongoing costs to a business are extremely low. Traditional games consume no electricity, are easy to repair and are simple to confine to appropriate areas and times.
Whether you roll your own solution or consult an expert to help you maximise the benefits of cognitive gaming, let games stimulate the creativity of your colleagues and provide an atmosphere of healthy competition.