Putting the Holidays Back Together and 15 Tips for Selecting the Right Games | Casual Game Revolution

Putting the Holidays Back Together and 15 Tips for Selecting the Right Games

Happy Holidays from the Game Market Guru!

Why do bad things happen?

We don’t wish such things on our worst enemies, and yet we all know people impacted by the terrible situations around the world. Hurricane Sandy, wars around the world and all the incomprehensible forces of nature and of humanity’s inhumanity.

In the midst of the catastrophe, people respond communally. We grow together, reach out to help, share what we have with our neighbors that don’t. We do what humans do. We become, at least for a little while, the truest definition of community.

In the midst of all the challenges and difficulties we face, there still remains the indomitable spirit of the individual. Our social nature draws us together, and in order to prepare our young for the difficult, the dangerous, in ways they can accept, learn from, and adapt, we help them learn how to play. Games, for the most part, are learning tools where the basics of society literally play out.

"Learn to wait your turn. Loss happens sometimes, and learning leads to victory". All these lessons are provided by the different games we play. Each game has its life lessons, from the most rudimentary, to the more challenging, to the extremely sophisticated.

With the holidays and family time ahead of us, let’s discuss the merits of sharing game play with our loved ones during this season, and how these times actually become in our memories perhaps the most cherished of the gifts we share.

Games are the gateway to community.

When I speak of "games", there are characteristics I generally use to define the term. Social interactivity, communal experience, skill appreciation, intellectual challenge, and specified duration are the specific identifiers that differentiate game play and other experiences.

Because these concepts are so specific, allow me to elaborate a bit, to share a better understanding. Social interactivity is the necessity of the game to be played in an environment of person-to-person connection. Such games, as defined, require the players to be face to face, directly interacting with each other during the game. While the many Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) environments may arguably include social interaction, the fundamentals of play are too individualistic, too solitary in execution, to meet this requirement. Basically, socially interactive play demands the players to be in the same room.

Communal experience, as a characteristic, requires the participants to be a part of the game, engaging the opposing players either through strategy, tactics, diplomacy, or adversity. This identifier pits the players against one another, or against the game itself, in terms of dynamic interaction. In other words, the players, as a group, are competing, whether directly or indirectly, whether against one another or with one another, to accomplish some condition of success or failure, and utilizing the rules of the game as a shared vocabulary for communication.

Skill appreciation, fundamentally, means that the players are recognized in some fashion for their relative activity in the game. Perhaps the game has a specific winner, awards players for their individual actions during the game, or collectively provides an award to the whole of the participants for being a part of the action. Activities that qualify by this characteristic as games give a positive feedback for good performance, and are in themselves an enjoyable experience for the others, simply because they engaged in the activity of the game. The very message of the game may be as simple as “there are times you win, and times you lose”, or “you made a terrific effort, so you earn this many points for participating”. The point of requiring skill appreciation in defining something as a game is to differentiate one such from the more vicarious experiences of watching sports events, motion pictures, or even live theater.

Intellectual challenge, in the narrow definition of games as I define them, can be as simple as “which piece do I move on the board?” to “What is the capital of Assyria?” Game play involves decision-making, timing, and all the sophistication of cause-and-effect, action-counteraction, and resolving consequences. As sports challenge the body, so games challenge the mind.

The final category, limited duration, divorces the actual definition of games for me from sheer engagement of imagination. By putting a beginning and an ending on the game experience, the aforementioned skill appreciation can occur in comparison between state at the beginning, and state at the end, of the experience. Winners may be defined; scoring can be determined, by having end-game procedures that help identify when the game experience has reached its terminus. We can know that we have played a game when the duration of the game has been reached.

Given these defining characteristics for what constitutes a game, let’s consider what subjects a parent should consider when identifying which game products are suitable for their children, or what they might want to consider when choosing what games they might want to play themselves during the gatherings of family and friends over the holidays.

How do I know which games I should play during this holiday season?

1. Is the game age-appropriate? Most game products give an age-range on the product label, but even in the cases where it is not identified, many times, the text on the product packaging will outline at least some of the game’s characteristics, playing pieces, and perhaps subjects or topics involved in the product.

2. How many players can the game accommodate? When attending large family functions, it might be advisable to bring multiple copies of a particular game,or, for more variety, perhaps several different games whose other characteristics are similar (number of players, duration, etc.) so that players can try each in turn, and determine which they prefer. Do note that some games use a strategy of requiring booster product, or game supplements, to increase the number of players accommodated.

3. How long does the game take to teach/learn? In many cases, games can be played in rapid succession, allowing many different players to take advantage and learn to play the game. Others, however, may have a more significant “ramp time”, and new players may become disconnected, disinterested, or disengaged, which will dampen the game experience.

4. How long does the game last? Even an enjoyable game, if it outlasts the family gathering, or if it hinders the festive ambiance by taking longer than others may expect, can hinder the overall fun of the game. I recommend, for holiday games, not to choose those that have longer than hour duration. While it may be that your crowd appreciates a marathon game session to determine a winner, most would prefer shorter games with many possible winners instead.

5. What is the quality of the game itself? When you break out your worn-out copy of a beloved game, it either brings sighs of nostalgia, or sighs of disgust, depending on the audience. Again I recognize that this perhaps is an issue of taste, my personal recommendation is to desire to present a game copy that is functional, complete, and that engenders an excitement in the players. Sometimes, for example, though I have decades-old versions of popular titles, I also own more recent versions, and I discriminate before we play using the version that will engender the response I want, depending on my audience.

6. Which set of rules will you use for the particular game? Just about every gamer is also a would-be game designer, and either has a favorite “house rule” they would want to include, or have specific expansions, versions, or alternative play options they might want to include. Again, consider the persons playing, and their ability to adapt to such rules changes before instituting. And keep an eye out as to whether the change in rules will cause the game to move too quickly, too slowly, or otherwise dampen the overall game experience.

7. What kind of “replay value” does the game have? Some are what I consider “one-shot”, wherein the winner of the game is the only person who wants to replay it, while others are “encore products”, meaning the players will want to indulge in that title until they cannot game anymore. Do keep an eye to the other issues—duration, ramp time, etc—so as to not “burn” a game from the player’s perspective, wherein they would never again want to play a title you have overplayed.

8. Does the game fit the ambiance? While some people love “shoot-em-up”, a festive holiday party may not be the place to break one out. There are seasonal versions of many titles, so consider picking a few up to share, to ensure the players—and those who may observe, but not play—are comfortable and amused by the experience.

9. Does the game add to, or detract from, the social nature of an event? A quiet dinner party environment can be hindered by a noisy party game, while a serene but engaging board game may bring down the thrills of a holiday bash. Choose games that meet the expectations of the participants in this area, and the party need not ever end!

10. Choose games that are readily available for purchase. If you love a game, you will engender that same love in others. Don’t leave them in a “brought down” mood at the end, by having to tell them that what you have, they cannot have, or be prepared to give them your copy.

(As a personal aside, I try to bring games I know I can replace, because when I find someone who truly loves a game I own, I give them my copy—because  I know they will play it. I am aware of folks that love a game, but when given a new unopened copy, don’t want to sully the pleasurable experience by cracking open the product. By giving them my copy, I ensure they won’t feel bad about opening it, and I can always replace it later (or I know where to go to get to play it again!).

11. How easy to set up and tear down is the game? With the bustle of holiday events, you don’t want a game that eats up too much time setting up or afterwards takes too long to put away. By keeping an eye on these characteristics, you let your players know that the fun of play is more important than the playing pieces or the board it is set up on.

12. Can children below the age limit in any way play the game? With family gatherings, you never know who might be interested in engaging in the games, so either be ready to replace with a more age-appropriate title, or know what possible alternative play options you might have to institute to keep the game fun for everyone.

13. What is the message of the product? Like the aforementioned theme issues, a game that reflects the downfall of humanity might not be appropriate at certain family gatherings or festive situations. Keep an eye to what the players may walk away with from the game, as well as how it might be perceived, to keep the right tone throughout the game and its aftermath.

14. Do you know where the players can get a copy, if they want their own? Game stores, mass market stores, and specialty shops all may carry the games you choose to play. By providing your input, you help that player continue the experience, you assist the retailers, and ultimately, you add a new player to the population and community. Good job!

15. How much does the game sell for? Believe it or not, you are the frontline of all game sales. Whether it is to a player directly, who will purchase for themselves or a relative or loved one who sees the value in the product, by letting them know the value of the game, and its price to purchase, you help grease the wheels, and outreach beyond the game event in which you are participating.

Why would you want to bring games to family gatherings and holiday parties?

People who play games are almost continuously seeking others who share their passion, or those that might open their minds to the possibility of including games in their activity repertoire. By bringing and playing games at such events, you not only invite others to participate, you validate game play as a social norm, increasing participation, awareness, and acceptance.

There is a time and a place for games…

All the time, and everywhere. Titles and styles of play run the gamut, and every gamer out there knows what I mean. Move away from the flat screen, and step away from the remote. When we game, we open the doors to social interaction, and invite fun, excitement, and whole new rafts of friends into our lives. When adversity strikes, it is through the escape—and the community—of gamers that we not only begin to understand what it means to be there for each other, but we also take the gloves off, and fight the discouragement, isolation, and emptiness of a disconnected life. Organized play, in the form of games of this nature truly transforms lives. And that will brighten anyone's day, even amid the storms of life.

© 2012 Jonathan Albin, the Game Market Guru.