Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Our Family Plays Games

I’ve returned from my meditations at the Hermitage at the Edge of Oblivion having had some time to relax, reflect, and re-focus, though not as deeply as I would have liked. I haven’t managed to deal with the events and feelings that sent me packing to the Hermitage in the first place; but I don’t think any amount of meditation can or even should resolve those feelings. I have taken some solace, however, in games, books, history, media, and other distractions. A friend pointed me to the Our Family Plays Games channel on YouTube, a fulfilling combination of games and media. While I haven’t watched as many episodes as I would like, I realize it’s a welcome invitation to explore today’s numerous board games from a more diverse perspective.

I don’t spend a lot of time watching television or online videos, especially about games. If I’m interested in a new game, I might check out some review videos, but I prefer to consume my game-related content via the written word so I can skim text for the key points without spending some much time watching a linear video, then read more carefully those sections I find relevant. But in June those calling attention to African-American voices in the adventure gaming hobby steered me toward some new content to check out; a friend recommended Our Family Plays Games...and it didn’t take long until I was hooked.

The show consists of Starla and Mik Fitch – sometimes joined by their son, Grant, who takes care of the technical aspects of production – talking about board games, walking through rules and play, and even interviewing folks from the gaming scene. Their unscripted commentary, peppered with good-natured banter, offers honest assessments of games with notes about aspects that potential players might or might not find appealing. They don’t always agree with each other, but they always get along with some rolled eyes, a laugh, and a smile. They remind me not every game is the right fit for every player; that it’s good to try new games, but also important to understand what we don’t really enjoy...and respect others when they opt out of games they might not like. Their generous, eager personalities compliment each other. Although many episodes focus on lists of their favorite games of various types, their discussion topics range from games with particular mechanics to visits to local game conventions and conversations about other issues in gaming.

How is this different from any other videos reviewing board games? As African-Americans, Starla and Mik offer a more diverse voice about games, even if as viewers we discover we share similar tastes in what makes a great game experience. We need more minority perspectives in gaming, from players on up to designers and publishers. As they mentioned in one video, they’re not primarily content creators but first and foremost a family that loves playing games. And that enthusiasm shines through every video. Viewers get the sense Starla and Mik are a fun couple to hang out with, the core of a wonderful family that’s bonded and grown around board games. They demonstrate enthusiasm, friendliness, and sheer heart in sharing their love for games. Watching them is like meeting folks welcoming you into their home to try some new games. They invite viewers to join them in exploring the games their family loves.

They’ve recently received some acclaim and greater visibility thanks to efforts to recognize diverse voices in the adventure gaming hobby. A feature on Good Morning America helped boost their subscribers and give a more general audience a peek inside the board game hobby. In all these opportunities to reach a larger audience they demonstrate their genuine welcoming attitude and vast enthusiasm for games. Watching Our Family Plays Games helps me realize we’re no different that Starla and Mik: we love games and want to enthusiastically share them with the family and friends who mean the most to us. It helps to see that from a more diverse perspective; hopefully it can encourage us to seek out other points of view to expand and improve our own experiences. And it helps us realize that, for all our differences, our love for games and the enjoyment we share through them can bring us all together.

Until the onset of the pandemic I regularly attended various regional conventions, mostly featuring wargames, but some in my distant past that focused on fandom and roleplaying games. Searching through the dusty halls of my memory, I can only recall a few occasions where I noticed African-American attendees – or even other minorities – among the crowds of gamers. They mostly amount to “that guy.” There’s “that guy,” the sole African-American fellow running a game at the wargaming club’s annual game day. “That guy” at the fan convention who loves talking about Green Lantern. “Those guys” who welcomed us into their Star Trek: Attack Wing and X-wing miniatures games, gave us a rules refresher, and cheered with us with our victories (and a few notable defeats), among some of the best games we played at wargaming conventions. Check out some of the post-event photos many cons upload to online venues and look for diversity. How can we change this? Certainly the pandemic has impacted live events like conventions and even local and friendly game gatherings. With our social interactions limited by pandemic precautions, we don’t have as many opportunities to change the makeup of the gaming population. But I look to Starla and Mik for inspiration. When we have the chance we must channel our enthusiasm for games into creating a welcome, accepting, friendly environment for everyone who’s interested...especially those who aren’t like us.

I can’t help but smile every time I think of Our Family Plays Games or I see Starla and Mik’s friendly videos. Their genuine, positive enthusiasm inspires me to try new games. It reminds me how much games can enhance our lives, provide a respite from the world’s tumultuous events, and offer a chance for us to share this bond with family, friends, and all newcomers interested in the hobby.

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