Americans have nothing like Germany’s Spiel Essen…and we should.
Internationale Spieltage SPIEL has been held in Essen, Germany, since 1983. With more than 150,000 attendees and 750 exhibitors from 30 countries, it is hands-down the largest gaming convention in the world (with GenCon Indianapolis a distant second). It occurs every October, giving German families the chance to try and buy board games for the coming holiday season.
I regret I’ve never attended -- and given that roleplaying games are a small subset of what Spiel Essen does, I’ve never had the opportunity -- but from everything I’ve read and heard, it sounds like one huge game demo. Spiel Essen is a gaming expo geared more toward families playing games than gaming hobbyists, like many American conventions. Much of its vast space is devoted to board and card game manufacturers demonstrating their games, most newly released for the show, first-hand to consumers. Additional areas highlight comics, some computer games, and play areas for kids, rounding out an overall family friendly experience. According to the expo website, Spiel Essen centers on “the idea of inviting the consumer and gamer to play new games and toys and make up his own mind about the quality of the individual game.”
I’m not advocating some organization running an exact copy of Spiel Essen here in America, but I think some group should try, even at the regional level, operating some portion of even an existing convention as a family oriented games expo to encourage greater participation in the hobby.
Americans Versus Games
Americans don’t play games like the Germans; this remains a primary obstacle keeping analog games of all kinds from becoming too mainstream.
Despite occasional campaigns to promote some semblance of a “family game night,” Americans spend more time “with” each other on cell phones, by e-mail, texts, and video chats than we do in person. People who are constantly plugged in don’t have the necessary face-to-face interactions in their social dealings. For games this means learning to show good sportsmanship whether winning or losing, figuring out how to play a game using printed instructions and physical pieces, cards, and boards, interacting with each other spontaneously and not by how quickly we can type or transfer our words and images over the internet. Part of this emerges from our hectic society that emphasizes productivity and money making instead of actually living and enjoying life. (And in these troubling economic times, our society gives us little choice but to obsess on our simple financial survival.) With our encouragement our kids are obsessed with over-achievement and over-involvement in school and sports; as parents we’re often diverted and consumed by our own interests, which we pursue from time carved out of other necessary obligations.
What we don’t always realize is how much recreation -- of all sorts, not just analog gaming -- helps recharge and re-invigorate us, providing a break in the middle of our hectic lives (much like recess used to in elementary school) so we can get back to work with renewed energy and focus.
Family Gaming Options
Occasionally we’re reminded and encouraged, if only for a fleeting moment, of the importance of gathering for games.
Hasbro in particular has long advocated having a family game night, using everything from television commercials to website resources. It’s an uphill battle dependent on the American family, which has more than enough stressors working against it, as noted above. Too often family gaming is relegated to the likes of toy department standards like Monopoly, Sorry, Scrabble, and Risk (including the re-tooled, re-licensed, and re-imagined versions of those games capitalizing on established brand recognition). While I’m an advocate of German-style designer board games (or high-end board games) and other gaming diversions, if a family game night with what many gaming hobbyists would consider “mundane” games is all people get, I’ll accept it.
Gamewright still offers the Gamewright GameNight program for schools, as outlined in a past Hobby Games Recce feature. School groups schedule and promote a game night program, learn to demo age-appropriate games using copies provided by Gamewright, and then run them at the event, selling copies of those games and keeping 50% of the proceeds for their fundraising coffers. It’s a fantastic model for a small-scale family game expo, providing both demo and sale copies as well as financial incentive to the organization administering and promoting the event. Gamewright’s titles are particularly well-suited to families with young children (as opposed to most high-end board games, which often have a minimum recommended age of 8 or 10).
Many conventions -- whether strictly gaming cons or sci-fi/fantasy media cons with gaming elements -- cater more to the gaming hobby, not the family market, and thus their offerings remain more focused to the dedicated hobbyist and not the casual gamer. Some provide children’s program tracks with appropriate games and activities, but they’re not geared toward promoting family board and card games. The most conducive con environment for getting families involved in games comes at conventions hosting open gaming areas supported by a game library; families can check games out of the collection, sit down at an open table (usually in the general board gaming play area), learn the rules at their own pace, and play the game. Right now this remains the closest American conventions get to Spiel Essen’s family friendly game demo environment.
Granted, the cost in attending a convention can become prohibitive (even assuming the entire family is interested in the con’s programming offerings) for what isn’t really an exclusive family event. In our neck of the woods, February’s Prezcon, a huge board gaming tournament convention, offers an open play option; while the adult prices are in the $30-$65 range for one to two days, the convention does offer free “Junior” badges for kids playing in Junior events or the open gaming area (though we’re assuming this requires a paying adult).
Other local family gaming options might exist in your area from two usual sources, the Friendly Local Gaming Store and your local library. Some game shops host events for families and children, but these remain few and far between, with little interest from parents who might not normally visit such “fringe” venues as comic and game stores. They often require more promotion than store employees have time, especially when reaching out to a new market. Occasionally libraries host gaming events, though most remain focused on teens, the most likely sector of the population to play board and card games for recreation. This makes sense for libraries just beginning to explore the role of games and play in their hallowed halls in an attempt to evolve their space more into “community hubs” than hushed repositories for books. Branching out to offer game programs for younger kids, adults, and seniors -- and particularly events for the entire family -- pushes the bounds of the current comfortable (and fundable) paradigm.
Promoting the gaming hobby -- whether tabletop roleplaying, board, card, or war games -- to the general, non-gaming public remains a grassroots effort. So I’m issuing a few challenges focused on you, the local gamer, store owner, librarian, and convention organizer, to make a concerted effort to offer family friendly events to encourage gaming.
Aren’t there gaming-oriented trade organizations that exist to promote this kind of agenda? I’m not going to challenge the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) here, since it already has its hands full running two conventions, one a strictly industry trade show each spring in Las Vegas and the Origins game convention at the beginning of the summer in Columbus, OH (in addition to numerous other duties as a trade organization representing a disparate crowd of creative types). Granted, GAMA would be the logical choice to spearhead such a family gaming expo, but right now it’s too consumed trying to serve the vast American gaming “industry,” much of which is still focused on pen-and-paper roleplaying games (though board and card game publishers have been an ever-growing population of its constituency).
So my challenges go out to more grassroots sources. Not sure where you fit in? Check out my last challenge:
To Friendly Local Game Stores: Make an effort to host well-publicized family-friendly events to encourage families to game together using board and card games purchased from your own shelves. Spread the word in the schools if permitted, local newspapers who are always looking for interesting features, and online websites and social media. Find some incentive to get families into stores: provide free pizza or even raffle off a prize game with one ticket per attendee.
Offer flyers recommending games you frequently stock that are appropriate for families rated by age and time needed to play.
To Local Libraries: Use your existing teen gaming base as volunteers to learn and demo games at a weekend afternoon gaming event for families. Let them help choose games recommended for appropriate age groups, help them familiarize themselves with the games and with effective ways of presenting them, and tap their enthusiasm to promote games to families already using other library resources. Create a brochure available at the event and elsewhere recommending games (particularly ones in your collection) appropriate for families with kids of various ages.
To Game Conventions: Consider increasing your offerings for kids and families. You don’t have to design an entire programming track along these lines, but find and promote some events ideal for young people. At the very least make sure you offer an open board gaming area with some family appropriate games to check out. Perhaps even recruit an area organization like a board game club to help promote this aspect of your convention.
To Gaming Enthusiasts: Get involved, volunteer for existing events, and advocate that local organizations (game stores, libraries, schools, conventions) host family gaming programs. Start with the venues you’re already using, the Friendly Local Gaming Store and local library. If you’re a parent of appropriately aged kids, establish a regular family gaming activity and find some special events to attend…even visiting a gaming store and trying out a demo game counts as a good family, game-related outings.