Drinks and Recreation

All the Grown-Up Hipsters Playing Kids’ Games

All the cool adults are playing children’s games. Our intrepid author ventures into Brooklyn’s hip zone for shuffleboard, Archery, and a look into the new millennial mating rituals.

Robert Stolarik/The New York Times

Even twenty years ago such a title might have promised some one-handed reading, ‘playing games together’ has become a favored pastime for our modern, well-educated professionals. Now, I did ten years in prison, where the games played are usually ones with outcomes either bloody or romantic, so I read about this trend in magazines with suspicion. I assume these games are the pastimes of nerds; sterile substitutions for the real games grown ups play, which start in bars and end in bed. But I was wrong and, hey, it’s a brave new world so why not keep up with the games grown folks play.

Near my own home in Brooklyn an archery emporium has opened up, and the other night it was filled with gorgeous young girls and their admirers giggling over missed bullseyes. Gotham Archery has crowds every night. And there is a shuffle board place in the same hip corner of Brooklyn, which has enough of a clientele to schedule food trucks to come in the evenings. They also charge forty dollars an hour for a court. Clearly not for children.

The space is decorated in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek, old-timesy way. Just like the hip bars that hang up trophy deer heads. It’s saying that we know this isn’t cool, but when we do it, it is. Inside the large space for groups of young people and couples, there was the familiar scene of men showing women how to play, with as much reach-around as possible. It’s a common gesture at bar pool tables. It was the same at Gotham Archery; classes for beginners, but also couples of men intertwined around women, pulling the strings for them. These are mating grounds, no doubt about it, but they aren’t built as altars to the disinhibiting powers of alcohol. And for all their novel appeal to the right-thinking set, the gender dynamic in the mating rituals seemed quaint and old school—the fellas buying their best gals milk shakes at ye olde chocolate shoppe.

Alcoholism is not as cool as it used to be. Charles Bukowski may still be in print, but drunk driving puts you in jail, and frat boy hazing rituals that actually poison people to death with ethanol have put a damper on that scene.

Now, the shuffleboard place does have drink specials, and I’m guessing that after their archery, the couples that meet there seal the deal over a drink. Gotham Archery will never have a liquor license. Thank god; I live within arrow-range. But drinking seems like a sideshow in these joints, not the main event. Folks still like to have a cocktail, but real dedicated getting sloshed, which used to be the national pastime, as Mad Men makes clear, seems to have gone out of style.

We’re living in a weed world now. It’s just not so hip too be a drunk anymore, at least in the progressive parts of the country. And by strange coincidence, that is exactly where grown ups are playing games.

Alcohol still has it’s loyalists, but they’re in the bible belt, the midwest and south, the places where Republicans still hold court and Obama was born in Kenya. It appears, based on this chart, that alcoholism is a larger problem in the red states than in the blue. And as far as my own experience tells me, supplemented by what the Internet has to say, the culture of grown ups playing games to meet and be social is not really very well represented there in red states where the booze still flows.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a Soho loft for a board game day. The host was one of my oldest friends, who had gone sober years ago while I was doing time. He has new friends now who don’t live in bars. These were serious people; business owners, financial consultants, tech guys. Money is not an issue for anyone; the loft alone was worth what I will make in my entire life and the games that took up the table were high-end, imported and very nicely packaged. I particularly enjoyed one called ‘Lightning Reaction Revenge’, which involves four handles and the possibility of electric shock for the slowest to pull the trigger- or the one who pulls it early, as I was shocked to learn. There was also a Russian Roulette game; a drum is spun on a plastic revolver and the loser gets his hearing impaired as the ‘gun’ explodes a balloon. Definitely not for children, unless they are being groomed for ‘The Deerhunter’.

I expected to hate ‘game day’ but found myself thoroughly enjoying this staged return to childhood. The games my friend had were fun enough to hold our interest, the people were all attractive and smart and I figured out how to time the electroshock device.

Nobody drank. As the balloons and electricity scared us, inhibitions were naturally lowered and I saw the flirtation begin. Then the actual board games came out. While ‘Settlers of Catan’ was not out—this is a progressive crowd that is beyond it—there were newer board games that also required teaming up and group strategizing. The financial people beat my creative wife and me without any problem. My old friends in prison would have been horrified at the thought of throwing dice without gambling on them, but they’ve missed the wave too. As we left, I realized that I had laughed an entire afternoon without a Bloody Mary, and this was a weekend! Probably some of the uncoupled participants went home together; everyone had fun. Everyone was also educated, liberal and ‘hip.’ Hip enough to play games.

It’s a an emaressing word for adults—‘games’—but if you look up the reviews of places like Gotham Archery or Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, it is included every time. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area I found over 75 venues for adults to play various games together. Words like ‘singles’ and ‘meet new people’ are prominent in the ads, as are pictures of laughing women. If I lived in San Francisco, I’d go to ‘Bohnanza And Such Game Night’ and ‘The Euro Gaming League of Pacifica’ just for the women; everyone pictured playing at these nicely decked out boîtes is cool and good looking.

Video games. They have nothing to do with this. Adults have been playing video games for years; who else can afford things like the Playpod, for about $100,000. Those are also games that grown ups play, only I would add air quotes to ‘grown ups’, as video games keep one in the house, connected only digitally, and very far from mating opportunities. If this is not obvious to you, then you are not hip enough for ‘Settlers of Catan’.

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The game was created in Germany back in 1995, but it found true popularity in the United States only in the last few years. ‘Settlers of Catan’ was popular enough to sell 15 million units and have a documentary called ‘Going Cardboard’ filmed about it in 2012. You can play the game drunk, but you’ll lose. It requires strategy, thought and time. And less violence and aggression. Unlike the chaste boys club devotees of ‘Dungeons and Losers’ (oops, ‘Dragons’) of yore, women play the new games and like them.

Manhattan’s board game cafe, The Uncommons, is full of young student players, who rent board games by the hour. Many are from NYU, and quite definitely of both sexes. A shopkeeper there speculated that the new games appeal more to women because a roll of the twelve-sided die does not determine which limb the player loses; instead it might be rainfall for that year or the geo-political response to global warming. There are devoted groups of players, many of whom meet for the first time over the cardboard gamespace. Places like this are all over California, New York, etc. But not Mississippi. For the whole state I found only one Meet-Up ad for a group on a college campus there. Although there is a Mississippi Paddleboat board game in which you can play as Samuel Clemens, river pilot.

The motto of Gotham Archery, which is new enough to have the ‘advanced’ sector, where a hunter could theoretically practice with some real yardage (220 feet will be the longest distance possible to shoot) still under construction, has a motto. ‘Archery for all’ is the idea behind the venue. I saw an old lady practicing on her own, two workingmen done with their shift at Vigilante Plumbing renting bows (ten dollars an hour), and a class composed of five and a half people in progress. The extra half was the baby, held in his mother’s hands when she wasn’t releasing a deadly arrow into a target. By the way, the baby may not have shot, but there was a release signed on his behalf. They’re a careful crowd. However, this was the afternoon. In the evening, it’s rather different.

One fellow explained to me that archery has replaced the tired bars and lounges of his weekly ‘date nights’ with his girlfriend. Rather than overspending to get drunk again, they actually have fun. On the night I visited, a singles night was planned, which was probably inescapable considering cupid’s arrows, and men and women were getting to know each other around the bow. Women typically take to archery faster than men, one of the instructors explained, both because of their ability to relax into the moment and better capacity for listening. But I couldn’t hear him very well over the giggling emanating from a party of a dozen or so co-workers, flirting between shots. Strength doesn’t much matter, because the bows, both compound and recurved, are available in all weights. The targets are there so it is possible to get competitive about it, but the impression I had was of a group of people having a bit of fun, somewhat sexually charged despite the dearth of inebriation in sight. Kind of like when we played games as kids, now that I think about it.

For centuries alcohol has been the disinhibiting substance of choice for mankind, foisting men and women into rapid courtship, clumsy embrace, and, sometimes, shuddering regret. Many ugly breakups and happy marriages have started over a drink sent across a bar. But with our new health concerns, and cleverness at an all-time premium (women find my own thoughts on Proust very sexy, I am told), the culture of games for grown-ups claims on the future that may make drunken passes seem like a thing of the past.

There is a cultural change happening, and it is unsurprising that the trend is working its way in from the coasts, sometimes using European board games. In any case, there is a growing number of people evolving mating rituals not based on getting wasted. Perhaps games for grown ups have not defeated alcoholism yet, though if the G-men couldn’t do it during Prohibition, I doubt the powers of Gotham Archery. But clearly, with new venues being built and novel games created that don’t involve electricity, at least in the digital sense, a trend is in the works. The games grown ups play today are actual games, and having thrown my dice and shot my arrows, I can say that they are worth playing, even if I am already married.