I think a lot of gamers feel it—that slight tinge of shame when you tell non-gamers that you spend most of your free time pushing tokens around on a game board or planning to do so. Recently, a poster on Board Game Geek was devastated by a relative's disapproval of his hobby, while a pro-gaming article from a couple of days ago described board game cafés as "kitsch." Board games are cool right now, but they are also viewed by our wider culture as inherently frivolous.
I, however, beg to differ. Gaming is an essential part of life and possibly one of the best ways to spend free time. I had my Latin students read some excerpts (in English) from Seneca's On the Shortness of Life, which is a text that never fails to get me thinking. It has some real gems in it, such as "Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing," and "Learning how to live takes a whole life and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die." Which of course leads me to ask: Am I spending my life in a way that I won't regret? Including all of that time I spend playing board games?
The time I spend gaming is often the time when I feel the most alive. When I play with others, I connect with them in ways that deepen our relationships and truly give me a sense that I had a quality interaction with someone. We are in the fourth week of school, but I am already closer to my students because I have played games with them. Playing Mice and Mystics with my boyfriend has put an extra spark in our relationship (and we are coming up on our six-year anniversary). Some of my best family memories involve playing men vs. women Trivial Pursuit or trying to keep up with my older relatives in a round of Facts in Five. I remember those evenings more vividly than any movie we watched, any present anyone ever gave me, or even any one family dinner we had together.
When I play alone, it's one of the few times I am truly in the present moment. Normally, I am constantly worrying about the future, mulling over the past, fretting about things. But during a game, my focus is entirely on the game. My brain is on fire. I'm living out an adventure as a mage, a castaway, or a vintner. I'm also a voracious reader, and a good game scratches a lot of the same itch that a good novel does. As George R. R. Martin has written, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies." What about a gamer? It's no surprise that excellent game designer Ignacy Trzewiczek chose to title his blog (and later his book) "Boardgames That Tell Stories." Even abstract games like chess or Hive tell stories of tension and dueling wits. And what is it that gives life meaning, if not a story?
I have spent a lot of time contemplating ancient Roman history, and one of the most difficult realities for me to absorb is that millions of people have lived, died, and left no trace of themselves. Seneca's writings have reached us, but even he isn't around to know that. In fact, he learned firsthand about the shortness of life, because his former student—Emperor Nero—forced him to commit suicide. I wonder sometimes: Did he feel that he got to live enough before that happened? And what about all of the nameless farm workers, shop owners, bath attendants, and other people we never get to hear from? I know they did a lot of work for very little money. But I hope that they also talked to their friends, told stories, and played games.