Games and fun activities in general are often ranked low in relative importance to pretty much anything else. The common consensus is that they’re frivolous, un-constructive, or a waste of time that could be spend doing something more productive. But they’re actually some of the most important things we do in life.
Of course, your personal philosophy will determine how you choose to spend your time more than any of my beseeching. But I daresay most cultures and belief systems hold time spent bonding and interacting with other humans as worthwhile, and would agree that there needs to be time explicitly set aside for fun in any healthy person’s life. Games are the best tool we have to do exactly that, as frameworks for interaction, strong relationships, and a healthy alternative to solo screen time.
Games are powerful forces towards strong relationships. Within the framework of a game, you are working together or against each other towards a goal. Your brain is on high alert; it is reading the situation and choosing on the fly which actions to take and how it can use your assets to its advantage. While the stakes are not as high as those found on the African savannah where Homo Sapiens was bred, the moves calculated towards victory or defeat run the same neural networks in the brain. Adrenaline and dopamine work their magic identically no matter the trigger, be it a tiger crouching in long grass or the outstretched hand of an ‘it’ in a game of tag.
“Men cannot know each other until they have eaten salt together” – Aristotle
Judging from numerous proverbs and personal experience, humans already know that the strongest friendships are forged in the trenches, in times of adversity, in the extreme situations where danger, discomfort, or joy are present. Such emotions are always present in a game taken seriously, even when nothing more than bragging rights is at stake. In team games, the shared elation of victory or disappointment of defeat draws you closer to your teammates, in a way that time spent doing few other things can. Within the framework of a game, the ‘trenches’ may be imaginary, but the friendships forged within them are anything but.
I recall the night I sang a duet with a friend met the day before on a karaoke machine in a room of strangers. We barely knew each other, and so far had exchanged no more than the usual polite pleasantries and introduction questions. But that night we bared ourselves to the room with our horrendous singing voices – together. It remains the standout memory I have of our friendship, and the kind of shared story that we can refer to and joke about for years to come.
Even when games cannot cement powerful bonds, they are a potent force for social good in the form of interaction. In an age when screen time is the default mode of recreation for children and adults, and any lull in the conversation leads to nervous hands reaching for phones, it is becoming harder and harder to see authentic, face to face interaction between people, especially those newly introduced. Every host knows the agony of trying to match up two friends that they know would get along, but cannot convey her specific knowledge of their possible chemistry to the hapless participants.
The solution here is games. ‘Game’ is just a more friendly way of saying ‘framework for social interaction’, because that’s what it is. Within the world of a game, there are rules and boundaries established independent of the world at large. People normally incapable of carrying a conversation together can become avid rivals or teammates once you introduce a common goal or enemy within the game. The made up rules of the game completely rewrite the normal rules of social engagement, often for the better.
I can’t tell you how many awkward group silences I’ve defused into raucous shared laughter using Visual Telephone. Or how many bored teenagers we’ve brought together with the promise of physical contact both rough and gentle in the form of Pool Basketball. The new rules, introduced seamlessly into the scene under the guise of a ‘game’, give conversation fodder to total strangers, and strengthen existing relationships by giving them different dimensions to go on.
Just the other week I visited a buddy at his college house to find them lounging in a common room idly chatting, with some involved in the conversation and others not. Of course, I immediately pulled out Kubb and set it up with my friend in their front yard, and within minutes the entire house was outside clamoring to play, offering advice to the teams, or even helping light the field using spotlights once it got dark. Even the house corgi got involved. We ended up play Kubb for something like 2 hours nonstop, punctuated throughout with shouts of exuberance, desperation, and trashtalk. There’s nothing wrong with lazy conversation, but I’m definitely going to remember that happy night far more vividly than any idle talk I carried out while lounging on a couch.
And perhaps most importantly, games are just plain fun! Study after study shows that the regrets people have on their deathbed invariably include the desire to spend more time with their families, to not have worked so hard, and to have spent more time appreciating the moment instead of wishing for more. Games can help you do all three of those at once. They let you unwind from the real world into the made up framework contained within the rulebook, allow even the most reluctant of family members a chance to participate, (especially useful in intergenerational gatherings, as long as you’re not playing dreaded monopoly) and will likely cement themselves as some of your all time favorite memories. I know they have mine.
Need help getting your game on? Look no further than my family’s book: Life is a Game: Group Games for Kids, Teens, and Adults