Q&A: Can card games can help us understand each other better?

Visit one of our city’s many gaming lounges — like Cafe Mox in Ballard or Raygun in Capitol Hill — and it’s obvious: Card games are hugely popular in Seattle.

Playing can offer more than just a chance to unwind and relax. For people like Seattleite Jonathan Tomhave, games are a way to find common ground with folks from different backgrounds.

Jonathan is one of three game designers and researchers behind the N.D.N. Players Research Group, a collaborative project that seeks to build understanding of Native American culture and beliefs through gaming. (N.D.N. is a slang shorthand term for “Indian,” Jonathan explained.)

The group will host a Native American card game showcase at Crossroads Mall in Bellevue this Saturday, Aug. 3. Potlatch, a card game that Jonathan and his collaborators designed, will be one of the games on display.

Potlatch is based on the local indigenous tradition of gathering together to freely exchange goods. The premise of the card game goes against many other games where the object is to collect the most resources and defeat other players, Jonathan said.

“For the Salish people, part of their safety net is that they have potlatches where they redistribute goods and items,” he explained. “So [in the game] the wealth is your ability to give it away and maintain that system.”

We caught up with Jonathan for a quick Q&A about the intersection between gaming and culture. 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do you play Potlatch the game?

Jonathan: Potlatch is a game for two to six players, and the objective is for everyone to have their big house’s needs met via the potlatch system, known as the sharing economy via gifting resources from one big house to another. 

Since it is a cooperative game, the players only win if everyone has their needs met. Otherwise, all the players lose.

Most people find the game very difficult when they first play it, because it forces them to do something that they’re not used to doing.

Q: As a game researcher, you’ve consulted with game creators on issues of race and stereotypes. How can games help us better understand people from other backgrounds?

Jonathan: The truth is is that we all generalize. We all define people along the same spectrum. More like us, and less like us. The reason we do this is to conserve energy, but we tend to forget that we are hardwired this way.

We all stereotype, so we’re working on answering the question of “Well, what can we do about it?” That’s why I think these board games and card games are interesting: because they give you an opportunity to be creative and re-think the ways to solve problems.

Q: Why do you think collaborative games are popular right now?

Jonathan: We’re social creatures. Also, I think the division and strife that is presented on social media and in the news has amplified a need to engage with other humans to remind ourselves that what we are being shown are aberrations, and not the norm.

Plus, playing collaborative games where you fulfill another’s needs or save people from a burning building are restorative to one’s soul.

We’re starting a new Q&A series featuring interesting Seattleites who can help us understand our city in a new light. Know someone else we should talk to? Send ‘em our way: [email protected].

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.