The Future of Board Games … Or Not?

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Interactive Board Game HexesInteractive Board Game Hexes

Interactive Board Game Hexes

What does the future of board games look like? Ten years from now, will we still be playing with silly cardboard hexagons and wooden meeples? Or will it look more like something out of science fiction?

Science Daily reported last week about an experiment predicting the future of board games by associate professor Roel Vertegaal, from Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab. Currently the system uses white cardboard hexes and a camera and projector system which calls to mind the Surfacescapes Dungeons & Dragons demo. The video demonstration shows them joining hexes to send an army to attack, “pouring” a ship from one hex to another and bringing up contextual menus based on the relative positions of the hexes.

The idea is that when thin-film OLED screens become more practical, you’ll be able to play this sort of game without the elaborate camera setup. Instead, the hexes themselves will be screens and computers, able to respond to movement and position and taps. What really caught my attention, though, was Vertegaal’s comment: “This is no doubt the future of board games.” Also adding to the hype is the sweeping statement that this “groundbreaking technology … may make traditional board games a thing of the past.”

Really?

Part of the joy of board games is the cardboard tiles, the colorful wooden pieces, shuffling the cards. It’s moving little miniatures around, akin to playing with toy soldiers, I suppose. I can’t help but think that the old ways are never going to completely die out. Sure, this technology looks awesome and will make new types of games possible, but is it going to replace traditional board games? That’s like saying that high-quality electronic keyboards will eventually completely replace pianos, or that nobody will bother drawing on paper with messy pencils and paints because of Photoshop. Why would you ever play Scrabble manually when you could play online and have it add up your scores instantly? Until the singularity arrives and we really are living in a digital construct, the analog world will always have its appeal: paper books, cardboard-and-paper-and-wood games, LEGO.

I think Vertegaal and team are thinking too small, and it reminds me again of that Dungeons & Dragons demo: you’ve got this amazing table with some very cool interactive abilities, but you’re simulating rolling dice. The reason we use dice in games because it’s a good analog method for randomness; but there’s a reason videogames don’t usually include them: it’s a different environment, with different rules.

If Vertegaal thinks some fancy screens and moving images will make board games obsolete, he’s probably playing the wrong games.

Related Links:

The Human Media Lab’s original press release (for some reason, in all lowercase)

For the Love of the (Board) Game

SurfaceScapes Revisited: Maps and Dice and Orcs (Oh, My!)

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