Recreation & Entertainment
Looking for nostalgia in the digital age

Robert Cron braced for the worst when he opened a board-game café in a Southern California suburb four years ago. He knew old-fashioned board games were making a comeback, but feared being crushed by the breakneck popularity of video games and other electronic diversions. Would customers really want to push game pieces around a rectangular strip of cardboard when they could be zapping digital foes on pyrotechnics-laden mobile phones?

“Our greatest fear in the beginning was we were going to open the door and tumbleweeds would blow in,” Cron recalls. “It would be too niche or too weird, or a flash-in-the-pan fad like muffin shops. But the first weekend we opened, I had people who came Friday night who returned two days later. It astounded me.”

Cron’s GameHaus Café is thriving today, with a waiting list to get in the door on many weekends. In fact, in an era in which technology permeates many aspects of daily life, old-school amusements — not just board games but vinyl records, pinball machines, paper notebooks and even bookstores — are enjoying a resurgence as fans reacquaint themselves with the simple pleasure of collecting $200 for passing Go.

Electronic pursuits such as online shopping and video games are surging because users prize their convenience and unique attributes. But the ascent of digital is being accompanied by an unexpected revival in old-school analog. Sales of vinyl records, for example, have reached their highest level in nearly three decades. Vinyl sales still pale in comparison with digital downloads, but New York and Chicago each sport more than a dozen record stores. Likewise, both the sales of printed books and the number of independent bookstores have climbed in recent years.

The analog renaissance is partially a backlash against digital oversaturation. But it also shows how a symbiotic relationship has developed between the two over time. Rather than being a zero-sum game in which digital growth is an automatic setback for analog, users increasingly blend the best of both into their lives. Some of the traits that make technology so compelling — speed, ease of use, instant gratification — have stirred an appreciation for the tactile experiences of the past.

“Analog gives us the joy of creating and possessing real, tangible things in realms where physical objects and experiences are fading,” writes journalist David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. “These pleasures range from the serendipity of getting a roll of film back from the developer, to the fun of playing a new board game with old friends, to the luxurious sound of unfolding the Sunday newspaper.”

A major component of that joy is face-to-face interaction that often is absent from the digital phenomenon. “The human aspect is what we crave,” Sax tells us. “When we go shopping when traveling, it is for more than just acquiring goods because we can get goods anywhere. It’s where you bought it, where you were, what the store was like.”

The appeal of old-fashioned hobbies is being fed by a combination of nostalgia and novelty. Members of the baby boom and Generation X are seeking vestiges of their youth, while Millennials are sampling new pursuits. 

“One of our customers is a 14- or 15-year-old girl who comes in for [Jimi] Hendrix bootlegs,” marvels record store owner Dustin Lane. “She wants original pressings, and she was not even born yet when vinyl left the first time.”

Customers at Pop Obscure Records in Los Angeles, which Lane and his wife opened last year, value the experience of thumbing through rows of records, admiring the designs of album covers and reading liner notes. “With a record you have to physically put it on [the turntable] and flip it over,” observes Lane. “You have to know what song is on and know when the records ends. You’re that much more engaged. It comes down to actually being more present.”

Those are the same goals Cron and his partner, Terry Chiu, had when they launched GameHaus Café. The pair were board-game enthusiasts who sensed that the public at large would welcome a gathering spot that mixed the Big Bang Theory wonkiness of a game-board store with the relaxed atmosphere of a coffeehouse and sandwich shop. They based their creation on a successful café in Toronto. For a small cover charge, plus the cost of food and drinks, customers can sit and play for as long as they like. GameHaus is popular among all age groups, including parents trying to introduce their children to Operation, Sorry and other games of their youth.

GameHaus offered 650 board games when it opened in late 2013. That number is now up to 1,450, but there’s one common service that the cafe doesn’t have:

“We specifically don’t offer Wi-Fi because we don’t want people on their phones,” Cron notes. “We want people to be engaged.”

                 The above article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.

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