When I was young, one of the coolest board games I never got to play was Mouse Trap. There was something semi-mystical about the game of building something. To this day, I don’t quite understand how the game works (I’m pretty clear on the part where you build a mouse trap so elaborate it’d make Rube Goldberg indecent, I just don’t get what happens next) but whenever I think about it, I imagine the weight of the pieces in my hands, the feeling of things snapping together for some greater purpose. I loved Lego, but Lego didn’t have a goal. Lego told stories, sure, but it wasn’t a game. Lego had a magical ability to draw my imagination out of me when it was in my hands, but Mouse Trap, a game I never played and only ever saw in commercials starring multicolored mice and overacting children, captured me.
I’m pretty sure I always found board games with extraneous physicality really attractive. Chess could only be played with chunky physical pieces sure, but the flimsy paper of Monopoly money brought to mind actual sheafs of bills. The random metal weapons that littered the Clue board served no purpose other than to feel heavy in your hand when you pulled them into the room for questioning. Even Jenga, which requires physical pieces to even exist, had a certain tactile pleasure of building and destroying that you don’t really find anywhere else. I love digital board games, they can do things that a physical board never can- but board games always have this upper hand over video games. Physicality does something to us, but only ever in a multiplayer context.
Games have tried to replicated the physicality of board and folk games from pretty much day one. Arcade cabinets were built to replicate whatever was inside them. Space Invaders and Asteroids have elaborately designed control consoles meant to mimic imaginary spaceships, Hang-On gave players motorcycle handlebars that tilted the entire machine, and Atari’s Star Wars cribbed the concept to drop you in the cockpit of an X-Wing. There was this understanding from day one that games could be as immersive as they wanted in theory, but it would all mean nothing without an element of physicality. Whether that’s true or not is a matter for another day, but it’s hard to deny that the basic reasoning doesn’t check out. Having something in your hand and affecting a game world with it just makes it feel that much more real.
There’s a few problems with it though. The first of course being that it’s sort of impossible to get people to buy a fake plastic motorcycle for their racing game. But the games industry found a way around that relatively quickly. Peripherals like the NES Zapper and other light guns have stuck around in the cultural consciousness long past their sell-by date, and they eventually led to other flash in the pan tricks like plastic instruments and various, low-impact motion controllers. The other problem though, is the issue of solitary physicality. There’s a reason handling fake money doesn’t feel ridiculous in Monopoly, and its not because that game has existed since 1933. Seeing someone else do something ridiculous alongside you makes it significantly less ridiculous because you’re doing it together. Virtual reality might be a solo activity, but part of that is because its “physical” element locks you into a world where you literally can’t interact with other people in a standard fashion. One of the common complaint with VR headsets is that they make you look crazy, but that was never so much of an issue with Wiimotes back in 2006. Maybe they were more groundbreaking and thus able to slide past grouches, but there’s a big difference between seeing one guy playing Twilight Princess and seeing a family gather around Wii Sports Bowling.
Perhaps then, it’s not merely holding something that makes up the physicality that video games have been searching for, but holding something with other people. It would certainly explain the huge success of Johann Sebastian Joust, and the relatively shallow impact of touchscreens on multiplayer games. Immersive tactile experiences like The Room use touchscreens and tilt sensors to make smaller experiences, but they lack that shared multiplayer experience that actually makes it real. JS Joust, on the other hand, has you physically bumping up against people, grabbing at them and their controllers. Your motion matters, but so does your ability to reach out and touch something, or better yet, someone. JS Joust isn’t attempting to be an immersive experience, but it’s certainly a more tactile one. At least in my experience, The Room never felt Immersive, while it’s easy to lose hours to Joust matches. Maybe we need other people watching us, touching the same things as us, for a game to truly feel real?
Admittedly, those early experiments in video game physicality I mentioned before were made with the intention of changing the way we experience games. The reason Hang-On had a bike is because it meant more people would look at the machine, which therefore meant more people would drop a quarter in. But I’m pretty sure clean intentions aren’t necessary for proving a point, or at the very least, the results do it for me. People did flock to those machines. The physicality of them, though they were gimmicky at best and arguably bad for the game at worst, made them more appealing to arcade-goers. We want that physical element. We want tactile games. We just don’t want them alone.
There’s no reason board games can’t be played alone. Yes, a computer makes a pretty good opponent, but solo games aren’t an innovation of artificial intelligence. There’s Solitaire, of course, but there are any number of 1 player board games and tabletop RPGs. But for some reason, applying that same solo physicality to a video game feels goofy. Something about physicality lends itself to a shared experience, at least once the novelty of it all wears off. I think it has something to do with the ability to physically connect to another person. Sort of like how sharing a screen is more intimate than playing a multiplayer game on handhelds, or how reach out and slapping someone during a game of JS Joust is so much more effective than hitting a button to slap their avatar. Virtual tag will never really be like real tag, because you aren’t reaching out and touching people. Laser Tag will always have a place over first person shooters in my heart, because all the equipment and the people running around give it a grounding in reality that makes it more fun. And then there are the rules- board games with all their pieces are so much fiddlier and easier to mess around with than video games with their hard-coded rules. Everyone has “house rules” for one game or another, and while that isn’t necessarily intrinsically tied to physicality, it’s definitely something that comes out more when the game encourages a deeper element of communication outside its base mechanics. And then what happens when you lose a piece, but you still want to play the game? Substitutions and replacements make the game a group’s own in a way that just doesn’t happen with a video game.
Some games have accomplished that. JS Joust comes to mind, obviously, but so do Rock Band and Spaceteam. Physicality invites sharing things, it invites creativity and intimacy in a way video games can’t. Video games can be sterile at the worst of time, but something about adding that physical element makes things just a little unpredictable, just a little bit messy. Physicality lends itself to multiplayer, and multiplayer is at its best when we’re together.