I hear you: What the hell is this woman rambling on about now? What is this, “Play like a European business?” Stick with me and you’ll see. First, a couple of definitions:
In board games, a distinction is drawn between “Ameritrash” games and Eurogames. While the differences can be nuanced (and vary from person to person), generally speaking the core distinctions go like this:
Ameritrash is known for combativeness in play and a well-developed theme. (Components are usually miniatures and the game features over the top artwork.) Players are usually encouraged to attack each other and make moves that directly impact (or screw over) other players. Dice and luck feature prominently. Players may end up eliminated before the game is over.
Eurogames are more streamlined, the theme may be abstracted (if present at all), combat is indirect (think competing to be the first to get a resource, rather than stealing that resource from someone else), and players are not eliminated from the game. There is little randomness and luck, giving all players an equal chance to win if they strategize well.
While these classifications are useful in boardgames, I think they also speak to how Europeans as a whole view play. (And much else about life, but that’s another post for another day.) And they speak to why I’d rather play like a European and why I’m constantly looking to inject that vibe into my American life.
I lived in Europe once and the thing that struck me was how much emphasis they put on playing together. Long before board games enjoyed a resurgence on American shores, Europeans were playing at home and in gaming cafes. Yes, there were people who played video games alone, but the idea of using leisure time to cut yourself off from others and hide behind a screen was foreign to them.
(Things might have changed in this era of social media and streaming, but based on what I hear from European friends, I don’t think it’s changed that much.)
Playing together is part of the culture there in ways it isn’t in this country. I suspect it has to do with the American ethos of, “Every man for himself.” We are conditioned to be comfortable on our own. The notion of depending on others for our fun doesn’t jibe with our sense of individualism.
That every man for himself attitude also makes us much more comfortable with the notion of attacking others during play. It’s not a game if there’s no clear winner, if I can’t wipe the floor with my opposition! We’re a culture of winner takes all, survival of the fittest, etc. The idea of giving everyone an equal chance to win and play nice seems odd to us.
Even odder to some Americans is the notion of cooperative play. I remember the first time I tried to explain a co-op game to a group of Ameritrash fans. (In cooperative games, you win or lose as a team. There is no one winner.) They could not understand that it was possible for everyone to lose. (Or win.) There had to be clear winners or losers!
I also suspect our value systems a little different, as well, leading Europeans to more highly value time with family and friends over work. Americans seem to love to work. We work all the time and we often forfeit our vacation time. Even when we’re home, we’re often not “at home.” We’re checking email, or working well into the night. We can’t put it down.
We’re also more addicted to busyness overall, opting to forego much of our leisure time. It’s like the idea of playing or being idle is somehow dirty, or something to be ashamed of. We need to be working, or if not working, studying, driving somewhere, running errands, taking our kids to some constructive activity, fixing something, or in some other way being seen to “do” and “contribute.” There’s just no time to play when you must maintain a facade of busyness to avoid being seen as a slacker.
Europeans, on the other hand, have a much more thoughtful work-life balance. They work less, take more vacation time, and many companies encourage employees to leave work on time. (Of course, some of this goes to their better-developed social policies which guarantee a better work-life balance through mandated shorter workweeks and personal leave. Again, a post for another day.) While there is a focus on education, kids are also encouraged to build skills in other ways by playing or learning how to entertain themselves. Europeans don’t knock themselves out to constantly entertain kids or standardize their upbringings. In many countries, they don’t even start school as early as they do here. This leads to kids having more time and inclination to play.
And adults in Europe seem to want to play with their kids. I saw more parents willing to sit down over a game with their kids, or with a box of Lego, coloring books, or other toys than I do when I’m in America. They don’t fob kids off on the TV or iPad, or “play” with them while really working or checking out their phones. They are present and invested in the activity. Board game night is a family activity and everyone joins in wholeheartedly.
Smaller cities and more close knit communities play a role, as well. It’s much easier to get a game night going in a pub where you know people than walking into a bar as a stranger. The farther north you go, the bad weather has a role, too. What else are you going to do when it’s sub zero and dark by noon?
There are lots of reasons for the differences between Europeans and Americans when it comes to play. (And yes, I’m aware that some of this is a generalization. Individuals are different, countries are different. I’m simply speaking to differences I’ve observed.)
So when it comes to play, Europeans have it figured out. At least more so than we seem to in America. I suspect that my time in Europe is at least partially responsible for my love of board games. I had an interest before I went over there, but it solidified when I got to play with like-minded individuals. When I wasn’t being vilified for “wasting time” or being an anti-technology Luddite, I completely fell down the board game rabbit hole. Once I saw how pervasive this style of play is in Europe, how healthy, and how fun, I wanted more.
It helps that I’m not a huge fan of the glorification of busyness that pervades our culture. Neither am I a fan of screens. I find too much TV detrimental to my mental health and much of the internet/social media is just a huge distraction from the things I should be doing and things that make my actual real life better.
I want to play and relax in my free time. And I guard that free time like a tigress, fighting the good fight to keep it positive and fun. Heck, when I was working for “The Man” I was one of those nuts who took all of my vacation time. I push back when bosses or clients ask me to work beyond what is reasonable, or put off a vacation. No is a complete sentence and I wield it well. I don’t have much fear about what others will think of me because I know I’m arguing for something that is basic to human nature and happiness: The opportunity to relax and de-stress while bonding with family and friends.
Spending time with my family is important to me and one of the ways we can do that is through play. We play games, work jigsaw puzzles together, or build Lego together. In nice weather, we go outside and play ball or have picnics and frisbee games. Yep, all of this makes us huge anachronisms in the world of screens, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ve learned so much about my family and friends through play that I would not have otherwise known. Play has a way of dropping defenses and giving people an opportunity to actually talk to each other rather than at each other. When you play like a European — together, focused on each other, and immersed in the activity — surprising things happen. I’ll take that approach every day over generic busyness and distracted time together.