In Internet era, board games make comeback

If the makers of Trivial Pursuit really want to stump players, they would do well to consider adding this question:

"What toy was selling at an all-time low a few years ago, but today is making a comeback because of the Net?"

Answer: board games.

In a time of PlayStation 2 and interactive Internet games, board games might seem a bit passe.

Not so.

From Watsonville, Calif., to Wakefield, Mass., people are shunting blips and bytes for cardboard and dice. Sales of board games are up for the first time since the joystick grabbed control of consumers' leisure time.

Part of it is simple nostalgia - the desire to return to something tried and true instead of the latest technical contraption. Perhaps more telling, though, is a desire among many Americans to turn away from computer screens and feel a greater sense of connectedness with friends and neighbors.

"Just interacting with people, that's the big draw for me," says Craig Massey, who took up board gaming as a serious hobby several years ago.

He plays several nights a week around the Boston area for up to five hours a night. His group usually has dinner beforehand, then settles in to play a wide variety of strategy games, such as Settlers of Catan and Aladdin's Dragons.

The group consists of people with advanced business and computer degrees; Mr. Massey works for an Internet research firm. "Internet-savvy people all looking for personal interaction," he says.

Statistics bear out a desire to reconnect through games. Sales of board games rose 34 percent in 1999 and are up 23 percent in the first 10 months of this year, according to the NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. That adds up to some $400 million for board games this year.

'An old friend'

There have been several reasons for the resurgence of board games. With the Sony PlayStation 2 as scarce as the needles on Charlie Brown's tree - and with no other "must buy" toys on everyone's list this year - parents have gone back to basics.

"When [parents] see familiar games like Twister and Monopoly and Candyland, it's like seeing an old friend," says Mark Morris, a spokesman for Hasbro Games.

Moreover, many board games have repackaged themselves to appeal to a younger audience. For example, Monopoly - originally released in post-Depression 1935 - now has a Pokemon version.

Yet, at the same time, board games have benefited from a backlash against the Internet. Two years ago, Hasbro began promoting the idea that game nights are a good way for families and friends to spend time together.

Lisa Brinton was receptive to that message.

"Some of my fondest memories growing up are playing games at holidays or other family events," says the Watsonville city employee.

After mentioning to family and friends how she missed those times, a group began to form. Now they meet once a month, she says. "We decided to revive 'Game Night' and start a tradition" - complete with dinner and dessert.

Across the country, the story is the same. Andi Wakefield, a Boston-area school teacher, grew up in a big game-playing family and always received a new board game for Christmas. Last winter, she and her friends began gathering every Sunday night to play games.

With board games tucked into every nook and cranny around the house, Ms. Wakefield provides the games - Clue, Othello, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Sorry!, Pictionary, Monopoly, Boggle, Balderdash, Checkers, Risk, Candyland, and more.

"The games I like to play require actual thinking, not just watching mindless shooting on a TV screen," she says. "Plus, I enjoy being with my friends."

But the real proof is in the sales. At the Compleat Strategist in Boston's Back Bay, Peter Orfanos confirms that. He perches on a stool behind the register in a bulky sweater and black-rimmed glasses. Near the door is a bulletin board filled with postings by various gaming groups.

The bread-and-butter of this business are those who play strategy games and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons - but sales are down, he says.

Instead, an increasing number of first-time customers are coming in and buying games like Monopoly and How to Host a Murder - games Mr. Orfanos considers "courtesy" items. That's an indication that people are getting back into board games.

"Very honestly, people are finding the bombardment of video games and the like too much; they're too isolating," says Orfanos, the store manager. "People are going stir crazy. They're realizing that they need human contact."

Internet isolation

It's a conclusion that many academics have reached, too. "Being able to meet and keep in touch with hundreds of friends on the Internet is new and great and interesting, but it's not the same as sitting face to face with someone over the holidays," says Harvey Waxman, director of the Project on the Internet and Human Behavior at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge.

Still, the Web has its share of defenders. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Communication Policy at the University of California in Los Angeles refutes the notion that the Net causes social isolation.

Jeremy Sylvan is proof of that. The medical researcher from Charlestown, Mass., has stayed in touch with his high school friends over the Internet. And recently, they all decided to meet once a month for a night of game playing in their hometown of Simsbury, Conn.

"In part, it's about the game," he says. "But the game is also an excuse to get together and socialize."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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