As I was playing at a game night a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that when teaching games to people you assume that they have some form of board game literacy. So this made me think about what does it mean to have a literacy in board games? How do you expand that literacy and teach it to those not familiar with games. The wonderful folks at Extra Credits did a video on the basic questions about video game literacy (which is definitely worth a look if you have the time for it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNV2xtiBk5U) and, in that vein, I wanted to define basic board game literacy, how do you improve your own board game literacy, and why it is important to the board game industry.
What is Board Game Literacy?
Before delving too deeply into what board game literacy is let's first look at how literacy is defined. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, defines literacy as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” In several ways this directly relates to how we can define board game literacy including the need for understand and communicate (as well as for printed materials). Using this broad definition lets start with a definition of board game literacy as: “the ability to understand, play, and communicate the mechanics and concepts for board games in order to make informed decisions during gameplay.” Loosely, if you can look at the rules for a game and understand how to play it, what the major mechanics are, and what the goal is you have a basic game literacy. In basic board game literacy, a player can easily understand the systems in a game to make informed choices on their turns.
I mentioned mechanics in my definition on board game literacy since that is part of the basic vocabulary required to play some games. If a player doesn’t understand some mechanics it is similar to running across a word they don’t know in a book; to fully understand the text the reader would need to look up or be taught the word’s meaning. With a fundamental understanding of mechanics a player can begin to grasp the game’s systems as a whole and understand how they can win (a fundamental part of learning any game).
This mechanical understanding also leads to the importance of understanding the concepts of a given game. The concept of a game comes from a understanding of both the goal of a game and what can be done on a given turn. This conceptual understanding can be the bridge for players to understand how to win and formulate a strategy as necessary leading to an understanding of the game system as a whole. Without this understanding players can feel that their choices may not matter in working towards their goal or that they cannot connect the mechanics to complete their objective.
Finally, the ability to communicate, as well as understand and play the mechanics and concepts for a game allow for games to be taught to new players. With the ability to teach a game to a new player, a given player demonstrates their understanding of the core concepts of the game at a level that allows for more players to learn and continue playing the game. This communication also allows for players who have played or who are currently playing to discuss the mechanics and come to a deeper understanding of the systems involved to make more intelligent decisions during currently and future gameplay.
How Does One Improve Their Board Game Literacy?
Now that we have defined and extolled the virtues of board game literacy, how does one increase or acquire this literacy. The answer is very simple, you have to play board games. Just like you have to read new books to increase your literacy you have to do the same with games. This literacy, just like with book, does sometime require being taught new games but also the benefit of games is that they are (hopefully) designed to be learned. My personal recommendation is that you should play games that are wide and varied in mechanics and learn from someone who has played before. By playing a wide variety of games, players can experience new mechanics and systems to increase their ability to make informed decisions in both new games and games they are already familiar with. The second way to improve board game literacy is to play a game multiple times. Personally I like playing a game three times. With the first time playing a game you can learn the basic rules, the second round of playing helps build a better understanding of the mechanics and systems learned in the first play and in a final play new strategies and mechanics can be explored to help examine the intricacies of the game’s design and gain a full understanding of the game. This also applies to mechanics and groups of games, if you play multiple different games in the same genre, then you gain a better understanding of the shared mechanics and systems of those games.
Why is Board Game Literacy Important?
So now that we have defined board game literacy why is it important? Why is this concept important for designers and players to think about? There are a couple of reasons we should care about board game literacy and they revolve around the growth and health of board games as a whole. With improved board game literacy we as game designers and players can bring more experiences and questions to the table in the form of games as well as introduce new players to the breadth of games already in existence.
This increase in games and experiences would also bring new players and an increase in understanding games. One of obvious benefits with an increase of potential players is that these players can experience the wide range of games that are already in circulation. This improvement of literacy would also lead to an increased understanding of mechanics and lower the barrier of entry to understand new games overall. These two benefits could potentially help continue and grow this renaissance of board game design and playing we currently find ourselves in.
With the understanding of games, coupled with a larger base of players, the lessons that games can teach in literacy, critical thinking, and decision making will increase as well. While the increase of these skills has obvious benefits overall, there is a secondary benefit to the industry as a whole by increasing the possibility for new innovation, mechanics, and ideas to be expressed for board games.
In short, the reason we care about board game literacy is that with an increase in literacy we have more players and designers able to play and design games. In my humble opinion this can only lead to a good thing as more players experience more games and more concepts get successfully designed into new and exciting games. As with literacy in general, the increase in board game literacy can only provide benefits to those who enjoy the medium.