A ‘new generation’ of Iranians is turning to board games for comfort and community during conflict

A 'new generation' of Iranians is turning to board games for comfort and community during conflict

Day 69:33A ‘new generation’ of Iranians is turning to board games for comfort and community during conflict

Amidst current protests and strict morality laws, a “new generation” in Iran is finding connection, escape, community and fun through board games — and inside board game cafes — according to Kamiab Ghorbanpour.

The Iranian journalist and author says board games have become popular because they let players explore ideas that couldn’t be spoken of publicly, and provide young people with a vision of a society they’re willing to fight for. 

Last month, protests flared up across the country after the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini. She died after being in custody of the Islamic Republic’s morality police for not covering her hair adequately with a hijab.

Ghorbanpour says board game cafes offer rare occasions for young Iranians to be free from the gender apartheid that is practiced throughout the rest of the country. 

“It is a very safe space that the government hasn’t targeted yet, but it provides this sort of community that you might have a hard time finding anywhere else,” said Ghorbanpour.

Here’s part of his conversation with Brent Bambury, host of CBC Radio’s Day 6.

When you walk into one of those board game cafes, who’s in there? 

Mostly very young people ranging from 15 to 25, 26 or even 30. Sometimes you can find the older people there as well, but generally very young people. 

And they are men and women together. How unusual is that in Iran? 

Cafes in particular are some of the rare places in Iran where girls and boys, and all the other genders, can hang out with each other without worrying about the issue of segregation, which isn’t the case for most other places, such as pools, gyms and schools. 

Are these communities exclusively urban or are they only in Tehran, or does this phenomenon happen throughout the country? 

It’s not just in Tehran. I was under the impression that it was only in Tehran myself.

But after talking to a lot of people, especially the owners of these cafes, as well as people who are content creators around board games, they told me that there are all kinds of cafes in other parts of the country in much, much smaller cities, towns.

It’s not exclusive to just the metropolitan cities like Tehran. 

So, we have a national phenomenon: young people, people of mixed gender, playing games that require imagination, that bring people together. What is the potential for a space like this to be a driver for social change? 

I do believe there is potential for these cafes, and these board game communities, to bring about social change. Because just gathering and doing role plays, playing the role playing games, is in itself a motive for change, for progressive change and for social change. 

Kamiab Ghorbanpour is an Iranian journalist and author. (Submitted by Kamiab Ghorbanpour)

What about the culture of board gaming itself? Do you think that it is connected in some ways to the current protests? 

It’s really hard to say. But I think because this protest is a movement — and many are calling it a revolution — and it is very different from previous uprisings in Iran. 

Now we are seeing a revolution that is led by the youngest generation in Iran, the generation a lot of people are calling the “new generation.” 

This generation has been brought up by games, board games and all these phenomenon that weren’t accessible to the previous generations, to the older generation. So in a sense, it can be connected. 

Do you think that the culture of gaming, the culture of board games, has influenced the young people who are protesting now? 

I think it’s hard to determine, but I can give you an example. I was part of a campaign in one of these cafes designed around the political climate in Iran. So, the characters were gathering to fight against a tyrannical king. And the king was basically a reflection of Iran’s supreme leader.

The issues, the challenges that they were facing, were based on the challenges that Iranians are facing today.

It was either you can interpret it as a way for Iranians to relate, themselves, to escape from what’s happening to you; because they can’t bring down the real supreme leader, so they would role play as people who are bringing him down. It can also be a potential for change and being motivated to do the actual work because they are role playing this story. 

I believe that there is influence, both from the sociopolitical conditions surrounding them and communities, as well as a tabletop gaming experience onto the sociopolitical conditions surrounding them. 

They see people playing with these pieces, these colourful pieces, and they don’t really understand the potential it has. They don’t understand that it could be a threat to them.– Kamiab Ghorbanpour, author and journalist

Why do you think board games and game cafes aren’t under the same kind of repression as all these other social activities? 

I’ve actually asked that from a host of Iranians who are into board games, and they told me it’s because they haven’t got caught up in it yet and they don’t know what board games are because the ruling class in Iran are extremely old people. 

They see people playing with these pieces, these colourful pieces, and they don’t really understand the potential it has. They don’t understand that it could be a threat to them. 

Playing games does seem like it could be an innocuous pastime. But how important do you think this subculture of board games has been in giving young Iranians a sense that maybe their country could be changed? 

Oh, absolutely. I think so. Through role-playing and through games, this idea that you can bring about change has been part of it. I believe that this has given a lot of people the opportunity to think beyond what’s currently taking place, beyond the Islamic Republic. 

In fact, there was a video a while ago of some Iranian youth fighting back against the police. And a lot of people were commenting that this is the generation of gamers. They know that you can defeat the enemy. So they’re fighting back. They are doing what you do in games. 

With files from Padraig Moran. Produced by Mickie Edwards. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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