How tech saved: The family game night

Coming together is more important than ever.

The year is 1995 and your parents call you and your siblings to gather around the family dining table for your weekly family game night. Snacks teeter on the table's edge to let the hand-me-down Monopoly board take center stage as the group settles in for a ruthless battle over a pile of brightly colored paper money.

Or, at least that's how it plays out in sitcoms.

In reality, family game nights across the country and around the world take on a million different forms but remain focused around two key tenants: connecting with family (whether that be chosen or biological) and escaping into a different world of adventure, strategy or entertainment. Sometimes begrudgingly attended, othertimes meticulously scheduled, for decades family games nights have been a refuge from the chaos of the outside world.

But this social institution has seen a decline in recent years as a result of increasing social pressures and distractions. Whether it be extended work hours, marital pressures and fractures, or the eye-ball stealing power of the internet and smartphones, these games and the nights centered around them have been on a rollercoaster that nearly brought them to extinction. But between the advent of internet crowdfunding, like Kickstarter, and the creation of new social gaming apps, technology has saved the family game night and ushered it into a new golden age.

While you'd be forgiven for thinking that board games originated some 70 years ago on the shelves of a big-box store, their origins are actually far more ancient.

The origins — The first signs of dice can be traced back to the fertile crescent, modern-day Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, around 5000 BC. Unlike the plastic dice we're accustomed to today, these dice were carved from knucklebones, wood, turtle shells or made from painted stones. While some are more irregular in size, some have the tell-tale square shape and numbered markings that you'd still see rolling across any Catan board today.

Thousands of years later in 1300 BC saw the evolution of military strategy games (similar to chess) in the Roman Empire. The Germans and Celts would further perfect these games in 400 AD, with a checkered playing board and two opposing "armies." The Vikings brought this game with them as they pillaged their way across Europe and brought to life thousands of iterations of what would become modern-day chess.

And finally, 1904 saw the emergence of a modern-day classic: The Landlords Game. Or as we might know it, Monopoly. The independently created game that focused on the economic principles of Georgism was originally created to demonstrate the evils of capitalism, but when Parker Brothers bought the game's patent in 1935 for only $500 they transformed it into a multi-million dollar franchise dedicated to the pursuit of capitalism instead. Figures.

The trouble — So if board games have such a rich history, what happened to them? As computer and console gaming became more popular in the early 2000s and websites like Facebook and YouTube captured more and more of people's time, the past-time of the humble board game began to decline. While dedicated fans of games like Catan or Dungeons and Dragons persisted, casual family game nights centered around games like Sorry! or Monopoly simply couldn't compete with the dopamine-spiking entertainment of the internet and gaming consoles.

More than just affecting the sales of these tabletop games, it can also be argued that a decline in community gaming has changed how we interact with each other as well. While internet communities and online gaming do have their own forms of social interaction baked in, it's still not quite the same as gathering around a table together and talking face to face.

According to a survey done by the health insurance company Cigna, as many as 3 out of 5 Americans report feeling lonely, and that loneliness can contribute to a whole host of medical complications, including depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease. These numbers don't point to the effects of one activity over another (the jury is out on just how unhealthy that late-night Twitter scroll is,) but generally show that more social interaction couldn't hurt us.

How tech saved the family game nightLucky for us, board games are experiencing a new golden era thanks to the very thing that threatened them a few years back: technology.

Exploding Kitten

In 2009 the crowdfunding site Kickstarter emerged as an unlikely hero in the plight of board games. Originally designed for the music and film industry, Kickstarter has been embraced by board game enthusiasts and helped gamers fund and create hundreds of new games over the past decade. Including the game Conan, which in 2015 met its fundraising goal of $80,000 in only 5 minutes and 37 seconds on Kickstarter. The game's fundraising campaign would go on to raise $3,327,757. Other successful games launched from Kickstarter include the family-friendly game Exploding Kittens, Dark Souls: The Board Game, and Rising Sun.

Kickstarter has 217 games currently being funded as of writing.

Board games on Kickstarter.

But what happens when your family and friends live too far away to come together over a coffee table to play board games? Or during the coronavirus pandemic when it's impossible to physically gather together for a night of dice throwing.

Over the first few months of 2020, a number of video and gaming platforms have risen to popularity to solve just this problem. Free from the confines of a comments thread, games like Houseparty and Bunch integrate video conferencing into easy-to-play community-based games.

Houseparty, which is owned by Fortnite maker Epic Games, raked in 2 million new downloads worldwide during the beginning of March alone.

"My educational background is in sociology, so I find the social constructs in which we communicate very interesting," said Houseparty CEO and cofounder Sima Sistani on the "Danny in the Valley" podcast in 2018. "And it's now manifesting here in a really interesting time. What we're seeing is now, I don't think it's too crazy to call it a loneliness epidemic. I think everyone sort of feels it, but particularly Gen Z and Millenials are afflicted by it... It's not that I'm saying technology or social media is to blame, but it is a part of it."

Sistani continues to argue that social media platforms like Facebook have failed to deliver on their promise of community and interaction, but that Houseparty is stepping in to fill that gap and put the social back in social media.

The futureThe coronavirus pandemic has shown us that now, more than ever, is the time to make those meaningful connections with friends and family that we've been putting off. Whether it's joining a Houseparty or Zoom-ing a board game session with friends, technology gives us the tools to take back those interactions. And hopefully, on the other side of this, we remember how important these moments are.

How Tech Saved is an occasional series from Inverse that explores how technology saved something that's great. Have a suggestion for a future How Tech Saved story? Let us know here using this form.

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