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Simple pleasures gain ground

In tough times, people are increasingly turning to activities such as board games and musical evenings with friends.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 9, 2009

GAME NIGHT: To save money, more families are playing board games such as Chinese checkers. Part of the fun is being together and doing something as a group.

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Every Sunday morning, as most people line up outside neighborhood breakfast spots, watch TV news shows, or head for church, Chloris Noelke-Olson is tuning up her fiddle. She's preparing to enjoy bluegrass music the old-fashioned way: with friends, at home, for free.

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"To be able to play with other people face to face and have that sort of connection, it's spiritual," Ms. Noelke-Olson said of the weekly house concerts in Chicago she participates in. "It's like a good conversation with instruments – something that doesn't seem to happen much anymore because everyone is blabbering on their cellphones."

She is among a growing group of Americans who are finding it cathartic to unplug from the digital grid, at least temporarily. While there is no exact data to track how many people are forming knitting groups, hosting house concerts, or organizing family game nights, it is possible to connect the dots between the rising price of entertainment and the rising sales of board games and craft supplies.

Between 2007 and 2008, the prices for restaurant meals, concert tickets, and movie tickets all increased.

At the same time, board games sales rose 6 percent, while total toy sales decreased 3 percent.

Craft retailers such as Michaels and Jo-Ann Stores reported revenue gains in 2008 for home crafting supplies.

These trends are expected to continue because of the struggling economy. Instead of outfitting their homes with expensive home entertainment systems, consumers are more likely to be interfacing the old-fashioned way: eye-to-eye. Families are rediscovering ways to come together that have nothing to do with high tech.

"Conspicuous consumption is out. People are turning inward to build in enjoyment time for family and home," said Linda Bettencourt, an interior designer in San Francisco whose clients typically live in million-dollar homes.

Over the past six months, Ms. Bettencourt has been hired to redesign living spaces to foster the kind of connectivity that doesn't involve wires.

Due, in part, to the phenomenon of "staycations" – vacations confined to the home – homes are being refashioned to be comfortable retreats rather than showplaces.

Homeowners are returning to natural wood, warmer colors, and family spaces designed around one central item: "The big game table is back," she says.

"People want to sit around and see each other's faces rather than facing a flat-screen TV," Bettencourt says. "These days, I'm finding, people want to sit with each other at the end of their day."

Although expensive video-game consoles mostly replaced traditional board games in family living rooms, the toy industry is discovering a renewed interest in less-expensive games.

A major theme at the American International Toy Fair in New York City in mid-February was how manufacturers are responding to the recession by reinvesting in games priced at $50 or less.

"[Board games] provide great play value because you can play with them for years to come," said Adrienne Citrin, spokesperson for the Toy Industry Association Inc. "People are nesting at home and looking for more activities to do. You can spend $30 or $40 on a board game and have them forever."

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