Okay, maybe that headline’s a bit sensationalist, but hear me out.
I’M SERIOUS. Quit typing! Just… just wait a second, okay?
“Gateway Game” as a term seems to be used a lot to refer to light to medium weight games (mostly German games or euros, but not always) which have simple some-say-elegant rules that are easy to explain, but whose gameplay is at least somewhat interesting to the more serious gamer. (For this reason, it’s sometimes used as a bit of a pejorative, a back-handed compliment on par with “Filler” which I’ll get around to hating on in the future I’m sure.) The ideal situation for such a game (it is told) is when a serious gamer is with a typically non-gaming crowd like their family, someone’s kids who are around for some reason, or their better-mannered co-workers. A game seems like a thing that could fit into that social situation, and someone suggests playing “Apples to Apples” and everyone starts to agree, except the gamer, who has a wonderful new thing planned for everyone.
The implication with the term (similar to “Gateway Drug”) is that people who play such a “Gateway Game” will become more interested in STRONGER STUFF, the types of games that REAL gamers play. By playing “Gateway Games” with people, it’s implied that we’re trying to hook them into our hobby, to get them so hopelessly addicted that they start listening to PODCASTS (gasp) and eventually you’ll find them on the street fiddling with a empty frame of cardboard looking for just one more tile to punch out. A lot of recommendation threads back up this assumption, things like “games to play with my non-gamer S.O.” in particular, how can I drag someone into all of this with me (or at least make them tolerate it a bit more), and “Gateway Games” are often the prescription. It seems like the idea is, there is a “gamer” in everyone, and it just takes the right thing to draw it out, and that thing is “Lost Cities” or “Ticket to Ride” or if your thread is visited by a curmudgeon, an 18xx game because “by golly it worked for me” but wait a minute… maybe that curmudgeon is onto something, there.
Here’s the thing: I play a lot of “Gateway Games.” Sometimes I even play them with the fabled “non-gamer” crowd. They seem to have an okay time of it, but, in all my plays of Carcassonne I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone become a gamer where there was no interest before. To be more specific, I don’t think I have ever seen someone who was ambivalent or negative towards the idea of playing board games develop a positive attitude about it. (I do, though, know one woman who bought a ton of Carcassonne stuff and ONLY Carcassonne stuff. Confusing.)
The situations I HAVE seen with Gateway Games are as follows:
A: You play a Gateway Game with someone who is interested in games, but has not played a hobby board game before. They like it! But then again, they already liked games, so any game they haven’t heard of could be a “Gateway Game” so long as they like it. In that case, isn’t “Gateway Game” actually “Good Game” or the more subjective “Game that this person would like but hasn’t heard of?” (I understand that’s not as catchy.) If that’s the case why aren’t the most popular (or most representative) games “Gateway Games?” Why all this fuss about “easing them into it” like that old parable about boiling a toad or crab or whatever animal people like to boil… anyway isn’t that parable about tricking people into doing something they DON’T like?
B: You play a Gateway Game with someone who isn’t that interested in games. It’s easy to learn so they don’t squawk too much at being asked to retain the rules. They tolerate the experience and have a bit of fun, but they aren’t going to seek out a copy, or probably ask to play it again. At best, playing the game was an equivalent to binge-watching Trailer Park Boys or griping about co-workers or whatever other things people who aren’t playing board games all the time do. In this case…
…well it’s not really a “Gateway” either way, is it? In the first case, the player was sort of already THROUGH the gate, and you’re just showing them around. In the second, our non-gamer was content to like… stare at you through the gate, or maybe through a little window in the gate, and then leave when they got bored of that?
My conclusion is that “Gateway Games” are mostly for the benefit of GAMERS, not non-gamers… and it’s a bit selfish, isn’t it? If I’ve got a thing from my collection that I’m going to sort of impose on social situations to make myself a little more comfortable, because I don’t want to put up with playing Apples to Apples again? So I’ll select a game that I’m willing to bet I’ll be able to explain before somebody says “Why don’t we just play Apples to Apples again?” and hope for the best… but other people don’t tend to inflict their obsessions on others, maybe because their obsessions don’t strictly REQUIRE others. In that case maybe what we’re calling “Gateway Games” aren’t chosen because people who might be gamers are more likely to ACCEPT them, but because people who definitely aren’t gamers are less likely to REJECT them… making the process of identifying which of our acquaintances might be interested in learning Troyes a little bit less socially risky, a little bit more painless.
There’s also a tendency toward games that are “easy,” probably because of the dreaded
but the implication this has on my guests’ mental capacity is more than a bit snobby. A lot of hipster-esque baggage always seems to come with “accessibility” (yuck) in any form of entertainment. (“This is Sonic Youth’s most accessible record!” said the music store clerk, referring to Sonic Youth’s worst record.) Anyway, I know plenty of brilliant folks who just don’t want to put up with learning any new rules in their leisure time, because they have just spent all day learning how to integrate some new library their boss wants to use with a 20-year-old PASCAL application, and that’s quite enough new and fascinating rules for them, thank-you-very-much.
So, I think I’ll stop calling them “Gateway Games” since that doesn’t exist, and start calling them “Games that don’t take too long and have really easy to explain rules” or “Good Games” for short.
Or, maybe I’m totally off-base here. Do any of you have an example of a time when a “Gateway Game” actually functioned as a Gateway? Where someone said a sentence like: