Board games for life skills: the bad and the good

The following letter appeared in The Times on Saturday.

“Sir, I am saddened to hear a leading educationalist encourage computer games as a form of learning (“Angry Birds teaches pupils life skills, says schools chief”, May 6). I agree with everything Angela McFarlane says about games, but the same is true of Snakes and Ladders, Cluedo and Monopoly – with the advantage that the life skills are not a superficial coating on an aggressive, conflict-led platform and the interaction is social and face to face.

“Nor is there a marketing strategy to get our children addicted by rewarding them with a dopamine fix every six seconds (usually when they destroy something). This erodes their attention span and their ability to persevere and to learn the value of delayed gratification. Professor McFarlane says she became hooked, ironically, on a game called Lemmings. This is what marketers employ psychologists to do – to get our children hooked. I do not want our 6-year-old to be encouraged to use computer games to develop his life skills.

“Violence and death are trivialised in so many games and we may well ask whether acquiring superficial life skills justifies anaesthetising our children to death.

“I would encourage your readers to sit down with their teenage offspring and watch Beeban Kidron’s film In Real Life to get a more balanced view of the insidious nature of these seemingly innocent “games”.

London SW6″

While I don’t necessarily disagree with Caroline Silver’s cynicism about the addictive design mechanisms of computer games, and her scepticism about their educational value, and I enthusiastically second her championing of board games as an alternative, I do find it surprising that she chose to recommend Snakes and Ladders, Cluedo and Monopoly as her examples. As a self-admitted board game nerd, this suggests to me that Ms Silver doesn’t know much about board games.

Which life skills exactly does she believe are taught by Snakes and Ladders: a game in which players make no decisions and simply roll dice, and are rewarded or punished at random, until someone wins or becomes so bored they give up?

Or Monopoly: a notoriously ‘broken’ game which lasts indefinitely, with few investment decisions and a lot of luck? The main life lesson most people learn from Monopoly is, at best, never to play board games, or at worst, that when the super-rich own all the property and you’re being squeezed by extortionate rents, the safest option is to get yourself thrown in jail for a cushy free ride.

Cluedo is the least awful of the three, but it takes a half-decent idea (deducing the identity of a mystery person) and implements it in an uninspiring skill-free way (rolling dice to move slowly around an open-plan area, ‘deducing’ the identity by the brute-force method of ruling out guesses one by one).

The past two decades have been something of a Golden Age for the board gaming hobby, partly facilitated by the ability of enthusiasts to come together on the internet (presumably one of Ms Silver’s bugbears) via community websites like Indeed, BGG’s comprehensive reference database of games currently shows that, of the 100 top-rated board games of all time, only 5 were released prior to 1995, and none of those are in the top 30. All three games cited by Ms Silver are extremely poorly rated.

Starting with the 1995 release of the ground-breaking Settlers of Catan (in which players make genuine investment decisions and learn about supply, demand, value and trade), there has been an explosion in the development and sales of new, innovative games, from which I could recommend any number of superior alternatives for Ms Silver which would teach life skills far more effectively than those she mentions.

There’s the now-classic Settlers, of course, which is considered a ‘gateway game’: good for introducing new players and non-gamers, with relatively simple and easy-to-learn rules, but enough variation and tactical depth to keep people coming back for more. No family will ever regret investing in a copy, unlike Monopoly which is regretted every time it’s opened.

Then there’s Carcassonne, which teaches everything from pattern-matching for young children, to the nuances of when to throw resources into a contest and when to concede and focus on easier gains elsewhere – a business skill most adults would benefit from developing.

Another excellent alternative to Monopoly is the popular Ticket to Ride, which shares its set-collecting aspect and capitalist theme, but adds a number of improvements: it has a predictable and reasonable duration, it exercises geographical awareness and route-planning skills, and it promotes a socially preferable form of capitalism in which the aim is to build infrastructure and provide a service, not just to amass wealth and crush the unfortunate.

Finally, I think Ms Silver would also be interested to know of the recent development of a whole genre of co-operative games, in which players work together as a team to defeat the game itself, not each other. One outstanding example of this type is Pandemic, in which different roles and abilities must be combined cleverly to fight simultaneous outbreaks of deadly diseases across the globe. It is both more presciently educational, and far more fun to play, than trying to guess whether or not it was Colonel Mustard, in the Billiard Room, with the lead piping.

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