- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

A change in what we do for fun is quietly happening in homes across America: People are playing games again. If you haven't seen it for yourself, a look through newspapers and magazines in the past few months will tell you Americans are craving comfort food, remembering the importance of family, sprucing up their homes and spending more time in church.

What you may not have heard is that this countrywide head-check, prompted by the economic recession and threats to our national safety, extends to a dusty little corner of the entertainment realm. Board games such as Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, once dismissed as hokey, are back out of the closet.

High-tech games like Microsoft's Xbox are enjoying next-big-thing status, particularly among video-game aficionados. But at the moment, the latest whiz-bang gadget may not hold the allure it once did.

At parties, on Saturday nights even, people are dusting off older, more familiar activities like card, board and dice games things you used to play at grandma's house and trying newer social games like Scattergories and Pictionary.

Some say this is purely a consequence of our thinner wallets.

"The worse the economy is, the better board games do," says Bob Schwartz, owner of Games Unlimited in Pittsburgh, whose sales have increased by 25 percent in the past year. In the five recessions he's seen in 25 years in business, the sales pick up is "like clockwork."

Though game-playing at home may have taken on a different meaning since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the trend seems to have begun before September 11. According to the NPD Group, which tracks retail sales for board games, sales were up 23 percent during the first 10 months of 2000, compared with the same time period in 1999.

A press release from Hasbro whose popular classic board games include Monopoly, the Game of Life, Sorry, Trouble and Clue says "the recent surge in the popularity of board games can be largely attributed to the refocus on social interaction, which has led to increased purchases of board games." John Chandler, senior vice president of marketing for Hasbro, calls board games "the perfect antidote to our high-tech, isolated society."

Social scientists and average Americans acknowledge the September 11 scare can't be ignored as a factor in why board games may be losing their nerdy edge. And culture-watchers say in the wake of terrorism, board games have a relaxed, comfortable social aspect to them that we crave even more in times like these.

Unlike the "key parties" of the '70s, game board parties have a wholesome appeal, bringing us back to a more innocent time, in which laughing with friends matters more than, well, with whom you score.

Trend forecaster Gerald Celente, author of "Trends 2000," will even go so far as to say board games can have a rehabilitative quality, which he says is important right now.

"It's no wonder why people are using these games because they're simple. They're ways of reuniting and bonding together," says Mr. Celente, who is the director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Along with the trend toward stay-at-home parties in place of glitzy nights out comes a reactionary rejection of excess in general, Mr. Celente says. "People are looking for the simple things in life."

Simplicity, yes, and security particularly the financial kind. "People have changed their lifestyles. They are fearful of spending beyond their means. They don't know if they're going to have a job next week. It's this reconnecting of the family."

There's little doubt that financial worries are at the top of the list for most everyone right now. "If you have the choice of going out to dinner and a movie with another couple or two versus playing games at one of the couple's houses, the cheaper and still-as-enjoyable alternative wins out," says Randy Cox, a 41-year-old from Clemson, S.C., who has been an avid player of social games for 20 years.

Mr. Schwartz's Pittsburgh store sells everything from Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit (he can't keep "The Simpsons" version on the shelves) to little-known imported games hot with the hard-core gaming crowd like Settlers of Catan (from Germany) and Carcassone (France). The latter is what especially interests him, because he sees a microtrend growing out of this one: cultural influence from overseas.

While he does see something of "a return to old 1950s values," Mr. Schwartz says, "I will say that in Europe, board games are much bigger than they are in this country. Instead of sitting in front of the TV, [Europeans] will still, as a family, play board games."

Among those who have noticed the re-embracing of Risk and sexiness of Scrabble are some for whom gaming has never ebbed, like Mr. Cox. He says he has noticed a slight trend in increased game interest in recent years. He agrees about the financial reasons behind what he terms "the rise of board games" and the importing of European-style social activities. But he also thinks it's silly to link the popularity of games to the terrorist attacks.

"Though it's in vogue to tie everything to [September 11], I really don't think that has diddly to do with the recent rise in board-game popularity," says Mr. Cox. "I think it's just a grass-roots movement."

He's referring to a change stirring in America's social subculture that may be making its way into the mainstream.

"My belief is that word spread that folks overseas like to spend time using their minds in a more sociable way," Mr. Cox said. "So in a few trendy places where patrons spend idle time (coffee shops comes to mind), young adults with exposure to the European games talk up the idea and before you know it, a few 'non-gamers' are sitting down to play games."

Alfredo Lorente, 30, of Minneapolis, also believes popular opinion about games is changing. "I do see a search for shorter, more social and less competitive games," he says. And where his interest in games was until recently met with indifference from friends "I have always worn my 'geek' label proudly," he says now, they are more interested in his latest game discoveries.

To add to that, Mr. Cox theorizes there is a little less mindless TV watching going on. "I've seen that I and many friends, colleagues and acquaintances are shunning TV," he says. "Some are knitting or reading more. Some are taking up ballroom dancing. Some are playing board games."

Of course, not all the games that are out there invoke the imagination. The Boingo Games company has a slightly less wholesome approach to home entertainment with the Wheel of Intoxication, which is, according to its manufacturer, "A Very Social Board Game. THE super-charged, party-in-a-box" that lets players "Obey the Master! Skip the bar tonight and party up."

"Drink while you think" games like that may have their place among college youths, but it's not likely you'll be reading about the Wheel of Intoxication 50 years from now. Games with the staying power to delight through the decades are iconic, part of the American fabric. And both the casual and serious game fans among us are thirsting for reconnection to that.

In talking about the trend, Mr. Lorente, who as a self-professed Dungeons and Dragons-loving "class nerd" was once willing to try out a game with 64 pages of rules, cannot hide his enthusiasm. "Is this because of September 11? Is this because we are growing older? Is this because games are better nowadays? I don't know. But I sure like what I see."

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