Our culture seems to have a very defined and narrow view of what constitutes “acceptable” play for adults. As an adult male over the age of 30 (heck, I’m over 40), the range of acceptable play includes: poker, golf, pick-up basketball, tennis, racquetball/squash, fantasy football, and whatever iOS app has enough critical mass to be considered “OK” (i.e. 2046, Words with Friends, and arguably Candy Crush). Our culture seems to have an ethos that adults should either be working or relaxing (often binge watching sports or Netflix) with little to no emphasis on play. Who knew growing up was going to be so un-fun?

Things were dramatically different for me as a child when my world was filled with play. As a young kid and early teen, I’d make up and play act stories with my friends, shoot short and silly movies (which went to cable access, not Youtube to be commented on, voted, and judged), play my Atari or Intellivision, and at times I’d even sit down and play tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons. There was an amazing balance between school work during the week and play after school and in the evenings.

While many adults will wax nostalgic about this era, very few consider actually sitting down and playing games, especially not on any regular basis. As with the narrow list of acceptable play, there seems to be an equally narrow list of tabletop games that adults are willing play, including Monopoly (which isn’t actually fun, it’s a lesson in Capitalism), Scrabble, and, on the rare occasion when a group of adults gets together and for some reason decides to actually play a game, maybe Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity.

Poker Is Less Play and More Gambling
Poker Is Less Play and More Gambling

Outside of board games, many of the games adults play are often gambling focused. You’d be hard pressed to find a poker game that is “just for fun” – no matter how much they tell you it’s “just a friendly game”, make no mistake, people play poker to win money. The same can be said for Fantasy Sports Leagues which can often have fairly large pots for the winner. Beyond that are recreational sports like pickup basketball, tennis, and golf, but even those have become much more competitive in nature with an ever-increasing focus on league play.

In our culture, play usually comes last after work/achievement, relaxation, and entertainment, not only for adults but also for kids. Since as adults we don’t value play very much anymore, we don’t encourage and support our children’s play. Youth sports have transformed from a fun gathering of neighborhood kids to a serious training ground that clings to the hope of producing competition grade athletes. Parents push their children to fill their non-homework hours with a bevy of extra curricular activities, which are  meant to foster achievement rather than to enable play.  And parents spend a ton of time trumpeting restrictions on video games (which guess what, are play) with a myopic focus on the sometimes hours of work our kids are forced to do after they’ve completed their day’s schooling. It’s no wonder we’ve become a stressed out, basket-case of a society – we’ve stopped playing.

The lust and enjoyment for play is still very much alive: just look at the unbridled enthusiasm that our culture has surrounding any play event. During the World Cup Soccer tournament this summer, I saw more adults cheering and celebrating than I’ve seen in a very long time, and the same was true for the Olympics. We want to play so badly that we’ll spend hours and hours watching other people play and cheer them on in our stead. Now, I’m not saying that every adult should stop what they are doing and start playing D&D. D&D and Role Playing Games are only one style of play, and for some, the ability to don another persona and play is liberating. But I am saying that we, as adults, need to seriously examine why we’ve taken the play out of our lives. Why have we shed one of the very things that makes childhood so magical and fun?

Of Dice and Men
Of Dice and Men

This summer I was reminded of why I love to play so much. My “play awakening” occurred after a combination of events. First, I  brought the book Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt to the beach with me late last year on my vacation. That book planted the seed and reminded me just how amazing my experience with play had been as a child. Then came International Table Top Day in April, where Amazon launched a massive tabletop game sale which prompted me and my 7 year old daughter to do some searching on the Internet to find out more about these games. That search brought me to Wil Wheaton (the guy who played Wesley Crusher in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gordie in the 1986 film “Stand By Me”) whose online show Tabletop showed how fun and easy many games are to play (Wil is also a 40 year old guy who plays games!).

Family Game Night
Family Game Night

All this lead to buying a game called Say Anything and bringing the family together for a family game night. Family Game Night didn’t go off without a hitch. At first our older kids were more interested in texting friends and checking Instagram than playing our game. Our first few game nights were not-so affectionately referred to by my oldest daughter as “The Hunger Games: Family Edition”.  This rough start was a clear indication that we all only knew how to compete and had forgotten how to play. In addition to Say Anything, we began to explore the vast world of tabletop games, adding games like Carcassonne and Forbidden Island into the mix. Forbidden Island was a turning point for us as it is a co-operative game, one where everyone has to work together to beat the game rather than each other. That was our “ah ha!” moment when we realized the difference between playing and competing.

The Uncommons Board Game Cafe in New York
The Uncommons Board Game Cafe in New York

Shortly after this turning point I went down to New York City for business. With a little time to kill, I paid a visit toThe Uncommons, a cafe in Greenwich Village dedicated to board games. I was oddly nervous to go to The Uncommons, as I didn’t know what to expect or who I’d meet. After a few awkward “Hey, are you looking for another player?” conversations, I ended up finding a group of other adults to play with. I originally intended to spend an hour at The Uncommons, but four hours later I found myself dashing across town to make my evening meeting. The Uncommons was an eye-opening experience, and I was able to play a wide range of games like Dominion, Lords of Waterdeep, Love Letter, King of Tokyo, Timeline, and Istanbul. How in the world did I not know about ALL THIS FUN?

Aaron Having A Blast Playing Push A Monster
Aaron Having A Blast Playing Push A Monster

Since those “ah ha” moments, my journey to play has lead me to find a group of other adults who meet up regularly to play games (it wasn’t hard, I just went to Meet Up and tried a few groups until I found the right one). I spend a fair amount of time with my son playing games (he often beats me) as well as my wife (who is good at picking games that she is great at) and we still do the occasional family game night. Through all this I’ve learned some pretty significant lessons:

  • Now, it’s all about play (not competition). Sure, I’d love to win, but I still have fun even when I lose
  • Actually playing games with real people in person is an experience that you can’t replicate with computers or video games
  • Playing games makes me feel like I’ve taken a break – although I love Netflix binges, I feel much better after a great game session
  • Playing games keeps me sharp – the brain likes to be challenged and the impact of playing games is noticeable in other areas of my life
  • Playing games is great for my kids – they need to experience dealing with defeat and reveling in victory, and many good games are rich in STEM development (they also love to play)
  • Playing games has brought me closer to my family (see the smile on my son’s face in the picture above – it says it all).

I don’t know how our culture got to this place where play is so undervalued. Not only is it an essential part of any childhood, it’s an important part of being a happy adult. It’s too easy for adults to dismiss other adults playing games, to see it as childish, nerdy or a waste of time, but the truth is games are the tonic to our stressed out, hyper connected, impersonal, work driven tech lives, and it’s time that more adults get over their hang ups and play more games.