Humor me for a moment.
Take a look at the following IMDB page, where it details the top 100 films.
The Top 250 Films according to IMDB users
Done? Okay, now here's a link to one of many video game user database sites, where they track similar ratings.
The Top 100 Games according to RF Generation users
Notice anything? For the most part, even if you're not a fan of cinema or video games, you've heard of many or most of these titles. Everyone knows who Mario is, or Sonic, or has certainly seen the controversial news stories about Grand Theft Auto. Even if someone has never seen the Godfather, they've certainly heard of it. Sure, there are a few oddities sprinkled in here and there on both lists, but many of them are a part of the public conciousness. My aunt, who has never seen Fight Club, knows about the phrase "You Do Not Talk About Fight Club."
Now let's take a look at another such list, Boardgamegeek's top 50 games.
Mario, Sonic, Godfather, Shawshank Redemption...Puerto Rico? Power Grid?
First, a disclaimer--the questions I'm about to ask about games and gaming are equally pertinent to Ameritrash games as they are Euros. I labor under no delusions that someone wandering on to BGG is going to have the first clue what War of the Ring is, or even want to find out.
The question really is this--why is it that BGG, one of the focal points of our hobby, is so "out of whack" with what could be considered 'mainstream awareness?' Ask someone about famous video games, they'll definitely respond Mario, Zelda, and so on. Famous films? Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler's List, Casablanca, you betcha. And you'll get those responses even if someone doesn't profess to be a big fan of either video games or movies. My mother has never once played a video game but she is well aware of who Mario is. Heck, my two-year old twins instantly recognize him--shouting "MAHWIO!" whenever he's on TV or featured in an advertisement.
So then, what happens when you ask that same person to rattle off boardgames that they know? Without fail you'll hear the same answers--Monopoly, Sorry, Risk, Candyland. If you're lucky, you might get a Cranium or Apples to Apples, games that they played with "a friend of theirs who collects games." (That friend usually owns about 5.) If I pull up BGG and look for these items, what do I find? Sorry? Ranked 4305. Risk? The stellar high ranking of 3523. And Monopoly, probably the most famous boardgame of all...well, I'm going to have to keep looking awhile...oh yes, there it is at rank 4320, sandwiched in between Pachisi and Hungry Hungry Hippos (games that are also a thousand times more likely to be rattled off than something like Goa.)
Understand too that I'm pointing no fingers here (the graphic and title above is intentionally provocative to attract eyeballs.) When I was a kid, I *hated* Monopoly. But here's how a game as popular and famous as Monopoly warps the brain--I just assumed that since I didn't like Monopoly, I didn't like boardgames! I figured I was the weird one, maybe I just didn't "get" it...after all, Monopoly lines the walls of the local Targets and Wal-Marts, so it MUST be good, right? And truth be told, you do see a lot of gamers who get initiated in the hobby and quickly pick up the groupthink of hating all the classics. I just saw a Geeklist the other day where a guy proclaimed that he had once loved all of the games listed...until he got to BGG, where the users told him to know better...and he did. Gack.
Why is the disconnect so large between hobbyist boardgaming and the general public, though? If you show someone who doesn't know much about boardgames the top 50 games on BGG, you'll be greeted with puzzled bewilderment--at best. I can't count how many times I've brought a game to our lunch group at work only to hear, "Where on earth do you GET all these games? How do you even HEAR of them?" As though I've been out touring the world and have discovered these games in some ancient shop--"no, sir, I don't want the Mogwai, but I will take a copy of Drakon, thankyouverymuch."
Is it just exposure to the hobby in general? Sure, you see advertisements for video games and movies on television all the time. But boardgames are just as ingrained...as any boardgamer will tell you, there are people on television playing boardgames all the time! The character John Locke on Lost was shown to be a boardgamer in one of his flashbacks, and he's played Backgammon during his stay on the island a couple of times at least. On Seinfeld, Jerry had boardgames lining his shelf. And I'm willing to bet that if you ask someone if they have any games, they'll take you to their closet where they'll have Monopoly, Sorry, and maybe Trivial Pursuit or something like that. You can't just write it off as a lack of exposure--people know boardgames. They're everywhere!
Is it just the lack of exposure to the "right" kind of games? In which case, you're lead to follow that question with "why are the *wrong* kind of games lining store shelves?" If Settlers were on Wal-Mart shelves, could Monopoly fans be persuaded to give it a go? I'm not convinced entirely, because we've seen limited penetration of some "hobbyist" titles at the mass retail level, and usually it makes barely a ripple. Carcassonne was featured on Toys 'R' Us shelves for awhile; I remember seeing the same copies sitting there every time I went in. I already had it, so I had no use for it--but there was a "better" game sitting right there, and I'm willing to bet sales of Monopoly didn't suffer an ounce from the competition.
Maybe, then, it's the people in charge of the brands and games that have the attention of the public consciousness. Yet you look at guys like Rob Daviau and Craig Van Ness at Hasbro, and it's obvious from the interviews that they've done that both of them have strong gaming backgrounds. These two guys were the brains behind (or certainly played a big part in the development of) Heroscape, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Risk: 2210, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Star Wars: Epic Duels, and many others. And if there were fistfuls of dollars in those types of games, Hasbro would have the muscle to encourage their further development and get them onto Wal-Mart shelves. Obviously this doesn't happen, so that means Hasbro isn't getting the mega-bucks from these types of games...and so they greenlight Spongebob Life instead. That's just how it seems to go.
So what needs to happen, then? Let's say we did get every person who's ever claimed to enjoy a boardgame to sign up for BGG, and rate the games they know from 1-10. I think if that happened, you would see a HUGE leap in the ratings for the "classics"--the Strategos, the Checkers, the Connect Fours, yes, even the Monopolies. If they did appear in sufficient numbers, they would be immune from the groupthink that causes them to go, "You know, I don't like Cranium after all. In fact, I think I suddenly hate party games. Changed from a 10 to a 4."
I'm left to think that despite the fact that boardgames as a medium are a part of the public awareness...despite the fact that in the age of the internet, you don't have to look far to find "better" games...despite the fact that most people have probably played a boardgame of some kind in their lives....we just won't see people lining up to try boardgames, at least, not the kind that we enjoy and talk about. Really, for things to "synch" up, one of two things would have to happen. Hobbyists would have to 'open their mind' to the classics once again, if for no other reason than to attract gamers into the hobby--and yes, this means saying "Yes" when the guy at the office asks if you want to meet with their game group to play Vanilla Risk. The other thing would be that somehow the knowledge of the hobby would expand beyond Monopoly, to the point where the hobby achieves the same level of general familiarity that films and video games enjoy. But I know one thing--so long as there's ignorance on one side and stubborn elitism on the other, nothing will ever change.
This Fortress Flashback was originally published March 23, 2008