Earlier this year, the U.S. government played host to an awkward confrontation: scores of politicians and traditional media distributors coming face-to-face with the reality of their digital ignorance. Ostensibly while discussing online piracy, the powers-that-be of today displayed their inability to understand anything other than the modes and methods of the past.
But I’m not writing to re-hash the SOPA/PIPA debacle. Rather, I’m looking at something slightly tangental: that media distribution is at a moment of upheaval. Like DVDs and cassette tapes, or cable TV, the Internet continues to shake up media distribution. The big difference is that the ‘Net is proving to be a much more disruptive (or revolutionary) means of distribution.
It isn’t only that Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and their ilk are getting media to us instantly and on-demand. It’s also that the differentiation between media producer and distributor is blurred to the point of indistinction. “We are becoming more like them in doing some originals, starting that journey,” stated the CEO of Netflix, comparing his company to HBO, “and they are becoming more like us in creating an on-demand interface.”
And these types of ‘new media’ production & distribution can have tangible effects outside of the Internet. Because I enjoy silly juxtapositions, I’m going to look an example of this distribution + effect that mixes digital with analog: a Web show that focuses on a subject far removed from the digital and online world — tabletop games.
(Yes, I know that board games are on my iPad; I’ve been waiting for a bloody update to the Small World app for at least a year. And, yes, I know Skype and Google+ hangouts are used by gamers to play tabletop RPG’s when not in the same vicinity. But go with me here, it seems like a juxtaposition.)
When we talk about tabletop games, we’re talking about an activity that is about as social and in-person as can be (yes, with the exception of board games you play online, though that’s still social. Stay with me here). Where was I…? Ah, yes: in-person-ness, juxtaposition, tabletop gaming
I’ve got a long-time love for playing games around a table. Children born into our branch of the Bestul clan learn cribbage and auction pinochle before they matriculate from elementary school. My brother and I spent the long car rides during family vacations designing tabletop games (yet never finished any of them, really). When it came time to write my Master’s thesis… yup. Games showed up there, too.
Despite my self-professed and alleged knowledge, the proprietor of my local game store had some very sage words for me: namely, that Wil Wheaton has more influence (even amongst my friends) than I do.
That is, even if I am geeked about a game, I’m not going to have an effect beyond the friends I can convince to come over and play at my table – if I can convince them to do so. Wil Wheaton, on the other hand, can convince complete strangers to seek out a game. See, I had stopped by the shop to pick up a copy of Small World (the actual board game, not the app), which turned out to be the last copy of the game in stock. The rest had disappeared off the shelves due to what might be termed the “Wheaton Effect.”
For those unfamiliar (or who didn’t click on that last link), here’s what I mean: a few months ago, nerd icon Felicia Day (along with other such icons) started a YouTube channel titled Geek & Sundry. On this channel, Wil Wheaton hosts a Web show called TableTop, where he invites friends over to play board games. The first episode featured the game Small World. Consequently, copies of that game flew off the shelves.
The show itself is a bit silly, and a bit dorky, both positive qualities in my opinion. Most importantly, it’s also fun. Simple, silly, and unabashed fun. It’s one of the few TV shows that I make it a point to sit down and watch as soon as it’s released.
(Sure, it may be a ‘Web show,’ but since I have the technology to watch it on my television, I therefore dub it a TV show. Behold my fallible logic.)
While I may be a devoted viewer of TableTop, I’m also a pretty easy demographic for the show. But that’s part of what’s interesting – it so readily displays the strength of ‘new media’ distribution in not only targeting niche demographics, but also large swathes of viewers who are tangental to the niche. To wit:
A lot of people like board games. They may not go out of their way to become well-informed board game consumers, but they still like (or love) playing board games. They may not approach the level of ‘geek’ – hanging out at game stores, spending hours on BoardGameGeek.com, reading trade publications & blogs – but if you put something fun in front of them, they’ll play for hours.
This is where TableTop shines: it’s an accessible, entertaining sub-30 minutes every other week that showcases new & old games for the viewing pleasure of geeks & non-geeks alike. Because the trick is not in finding people to like board games – the trick is to prove to potential players that some game they’ve never tried will be a good time.
Enter TableTop. As a Web series, it’s pretty easy to find or stumble upon the videos. And once you do, you see people playing a board game and having fun. A lot of fun. And, hey, you could do that, too. You’ve got friends, you’ve got time… all you need is a copy of that board game. Heck, maybe one of your friends already has it. You can easily replicate what you see on TV – erm, on the Internet.
Therein lies the “Effect.” Wheaton’s Web show about board games has a pronounced and demonstrable effect upon the market. Small World, for example, has been around for a few years, now. It’s won awards, garnered critical praise, and one of your friends might already have it on their shelves. But folks may have never had the chance to see or play the game, which is a bigger obstacle than it might seem.
I’ve personally hooked a fair few folks on a board game called 7 Wonders. It’s a ridiculous amount of fun, but like any geeky board game, I had to overcome obstacles. Namely, the prejudice of: “that looks way too complex to be fun…” If you can get past that erroneous preconception, you’ll be playing it for hours, over and over. But you still have to get past that first big speed bump.
TableTop is a fun and entertaining way to bypass that bump. You see people playing & having fun. You may not know the rules, but that doesn’t matter – it looks fun. Once that mindset is in place, that preconception is overcome, it’s much easier to get people to sit down for a game.
And getting various and sundry folks to gather together & sit down for a game is a laudable goal and achievement. Especially when that goal is achieved by simply showing a few (hundred thousand) people how damned fun a game is.
Which, while I’ve got you here, let me tell you about this game called 7 Wonders…