Please Don’t Ask Me to Play Your Board Game

Play can be a great shortcut to bonding. But I’d rather just have a conversation.

A single dice with a face looking distraught
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.
A single dice with a face looking distraught

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Several years ago, I moved to a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, and a co-worker invited me over for a classic social tradition: a game night. I don’t like board games. When I’m hanging out with others, I much prefer the free flow of conversation to the structure of competition. The moment someone starts explaining the rules to something like Gloomhaven or Codenames, my brain tends to involuntarily tune out, a defense mechanism against unwanted and useless information.

So obviously, eager to make new friends, I told my co-worker I was in.

The evening was grim. An alarmingly complex game was first explained—something about a ghost, or a haunting—and then repeated, upon my request. I was assured that I’d “get it after a couple rounds,” which never happened. Bumbling through my turns, I felt like I was wearing a dunce cap. Worse, I was so bad that I was ruining everyone else’s experience with my erratic plays and constant need to be reminded of what was happening.

Although these people kindly became my friends anyway, I was never invited back to another game night. “We just know you’re not really a game person,” one of them later told me, eyes sliding sideward.

Not being a game person nowadays can make one feel like an exception. Board games, which in 2021 were a $13.4 billion global market, are surging in popularity. Weekly poker and bridge nights are the foundation of friend groups spanning generations. Bars across America offer cornhole and boccie, or a pool table and dartboard. At seemingly every age, in every town, there are people who love socializing through games, which makes my aversion to them feel unacceptable. Games are supposed to be fun. Not liking them feels like a statement that I don’t like to have fun.

Still, I know others like me shudder when they hear the chipper proposition “You guys want to play a game?” One of them is my friend Whitney, whom I recently spotted grimacing when our pals brought out a word-guessing game called Just One after dinner. “I don’t like games, because I feel like I’m performing in front of a group,” she told me. I dislike that social pressure, too, with its spotlight on victory and defeat.

I called my sister, Victoria, to see if I could blame my parents for this. She thought so, pointing out that our family didn’t play many games growing up. Though she’s learned to enjoy playing simple ones like Pictionary with her husband’s family, she still avoids the more complicated endeavors. “It takes really focused and complex mental energy,” she told me. Moreover, she can’t escape the sense that games have little to do with “anything that actually matters in the world.”

Well, what does matter in the world? I’ve written in the past about the joy of pointless pursuits, and I enjoy pastimes like downhill skiing precisely because of their lack of productivity. Maybe, I thought, I was missing something about the social value of games. Rachel Kowert, the research director for Take This, a nonprofit that supports mental health in the gaming community, told me that the beauty of getting to know people through play is that the relationships form “backwards.” “You meet someone on the street—you get to know them slowly over time and see if you can trust them,” she said. “But in a game, if you helped me kill this dragon, I immediately have some foundational level of trust.”

In other words, games can reveal people’s core qualities: how they react when they’re stressed, how they cooperate in a team, or how they behave when they win or lose. Nick Yee, a co-founder of Quantic Foundry, which does market research for video-game companies, told me that games are “not only a social experience, but a social experiment.” They tap into the old idea that to truly know a person, you have to pay attention to what they do instead of what they say. (I suspect that this exposure may be exactly what I can’t tolerate about games: They reveal foibles like my laughable attention span and inability to strategize long term.)

Yee and Kowert generally believe that most people can enjoy games; they just need to find the right one for themselves. Yee, however, said his belief applies primarily to video games, which can be individual or multiplayer experiences. Most board games are designed to be inherently social, he explained, which might introduce dynamics—like the performance aspect Whitney dislikes—that just put some people off.

As it turns out, though, I might not be one of those people after all. Yee offers quizzes on the Quantic Foundry website that tell you what types of video or board games you enjoy, based on your motivations for play. His board-game quiz tells me I prefer games that minimize direct or hostile confrontations, that don’t require much long-term thinking or planning, and that don’t have an intrusive theme or narrative. This makes sense—Dungeons & Dragons, for example, sounds like my nightmare.

However, I score high on the spectrum for social-fun motivation, meaning that games, for me, are primarily about having a good time with people, regardless of who becomes champion. This also resonates—I can tolerate boisterous party games because they stoke funny interactions, as in Cards Against Humanity, or the guessing game Fishbowl.

So I’m not as allergic to all games as I thought. But what about my general sense that they’re a silly way to pass time? “Games are inherently indulgent,” Yee said. “It’s not productive labor.” Research finds that women generally have less leisure time than men, perhaps because of the gendered division of household work and child care. That could be why Yee told me he more often hears women than men express that games are a waste of time. This rings true for me, at least: When I think about the leisure activities I “indulge” in, such as cycling, they tend to have bonus benefits, like exercise.

In fact, cycling and similar activities are my outlets for socializing through play and sharing novel experiences with others. While mountain biking, a friend and I might chase each other down a trail at high speed, or learn how we react when we’re suffering up a difficult climb together. On a long ride, I’ve found, relationships can fast-forward weeks or even months. The key, it seems, is to share experiences that simulate the variable conditions of life: joy and pain, disappointment and elation, uncertainty and achievement. We can all benefit from “backwards” bonding through play; what we see as play just varies. I get that now. But to be clear, there’s still no need to invite me to your game night.