A new leisure trend is providing an alternative to pubs and bars for young people whose alcohol consumption has been declining for years.
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Competitive socialising takes the centuries-old idea of mixing food with games (think medieval banquets) and amplifies it. Options range from reinvented versions of bowling, board games, darts, ping pong, shuffleboard, table football, mini golf, cricket, to axe-throwing, escape rooms and virtual reality bars. The common denominator is fun, immersive social experiences served with high quality food and drinks in eye-catching, Instagrammable interiors.
According to market research analysts from Mintel UK, a quarter of people surveyed about their leisure activities in autumn 2022 said they recently played a social entertainment game. And analysts predict that competitive socialising will remain popular despite ongoing economic uncertainty.
Millennials and Generation Z are driving the trend. Not only are they drinking less, they are spending less on commodities and more on experiences.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.
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Competitive socialising venues have the potential to fill empty stores and drive footfall back to the high street. My soon-to-be-published study of the UK’s social board gaming scene revealed just how much this sector contributes to local communities.
Unique leisure experiences do not just create personal memories, they are also the social currency of digital capitalism. Research has shown that being able to impress others with our nights out, holiday trips and festival visits is just as important as the actual quality of these activities.
After months of COVID-19 lockdowns, being offline is the new luxury. The thirst for multisensory fun and in-person social interaction makes competitive socialising increasingly appealing not only to young professionals but also to families and corporate clients looking for fresh team-building ideas.
Reviving local business scenes
Between June 2021 and September 2022, I visited 24 social board gaming venues in six regions of England and interviewed 50 people who own, organise and attend them. I was initially trying to find out what draws people to analogue games in a digital age and why they choose to play them outside the home.
The most popular answers were getting away from the screen, having a tactile experience and being able to socialise without drinking too much. For those who moved towns during the pandemic, visiting a board game social became the easiest and safest way to find new friends. Many people said that board games “add structure to socialising”, which is especially important for neurodiverse people and those dealing with post-pandemic social anxiety.
Long social distancing: how young adults’ habits have changed since COVID
But as I dug deeper, I realised that social board gaming does even more than that – it also supports local independent business scenes.
Most board game cafes partner with local bakeries, coffee roasters and other food suppliers. Some businesses, like Dice Board Game Lounge in Portsmouth or Dice Saloon in Brighton, contribute to urban regeneration by breathing new life into underused buildings.
As the UK’s pubs were closing down at alarming rates in 2022, I saw publicans trying to attract customers by reaching out to local game enthusiasts. Some avid hobbyists host pub game nights in their free time, others have launched small event companies, running socials in independent venues. Mintel’s recent UK pub market report says 20% of their Gen Z respondents “don’t visit pubs often or at all” – but competitive socialising can be the hook that will drag them in.
The cost of socialising
In a world where leisure time and budgets are constantly shrinking, mixing dining with memorable entertainment offers good value for money. But 2023 will bring economic challenges for everyone, and competitive socialising venues and their patrons are no exception.
Mintel analysts suggest that while nights out are likely to become less frequent, they also become more of a special occasion, which means consumers will prioritise quality over quantity. And as Nick Frow, the owner of a cocktails and crazy golf experience in London, put it: “Throughout any period, especially those that require some distraction, people need bread and circuses.”
But smaller-scale, more community-oriented businesses based in less affluent areas are not as optimistic. The fall in consumer confidence is part of the problem. And because leisure operators use a lot of energy for lighting, cooking, heating and cooling, they are particularly exposed to uplifts in energy prices.
If you want to support your local competitive socialising venue this winter, pay them a visit or follow them on social media. But there is a cheaper way to stay on top of this trend. Perhaps throwing an axe in your backyard isn’t the best idea, but you can always organise a game night at home.
There probably won’t be any neon lights, banging beats or a selfie wall, but home parties create a sense of community and relaxation like no other environment. Invite a few friends, cook together, chip in for a takeaway or do potluck. Pick some titles from this list or play party games that require nothing but pen and paper – and have fun.
Alexandra Kviat is working on a research project funded by The Leverhulme Trust.