Press Start Hong Kong’s Vince Siu says board games are ‘educational tools’
Does anyone play board games any more? Since the videogame revolution, surely events where teams of players sit around a board, roll dice and come up with strategic moves have been slowly dying off, right? Not so, according to Vince Siu, the co-founder and managing partner at game design, educational consultancy and events company Press Start Hong Hong. He says they’re experiencing a renaissance. Siu has built an entire company around the ethos that board games aren’t only fun and more powerful socially than videogames but they’re also excellent educational tools.
Press Start, based in Central, organises all sorts of board games events with businesses, education providers and public organisations in Hong Kong. It ran one at theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Ying Pun last year which was a big success. The Press Start boys have carved a niche with businesses in terms of team-building and informative workshops but now they’re running events with schools too. They just completed a week-long ‘Design Your Own Board Game’ workshop with The Harbour School in Ap Lei Chau, taking a group of enterprising young kids on a ‘game design journey’. They also created a game-based creative writing workshop in December with Elephant Community Press, a writing centre, that’s to be run again over Easter. And they’re working with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on a game design project that sees participants create a card game for schools across Hong Kong. Plus, the company just led a seminar and workshop on ‘Gamifying Education’ on April 1 as part of Ednovation Fest’s ‘Play in Education’ series. Also watch out for a brewery-and-games event with Young Master Ales on May 6.S
Siu says this new focus on education is key to the company’s success as it expands across the city and, hopefully, beyond. The 28-year-old, who is responsible for business strategy, partnership development, PR and marketing at the company, has a background in management consulting and financial services, as well as education, curriculum development and training. And, here, he tells us his story and why teaching kids and adults through board games is a wholesome, fun and highly educational experience…
So, Vince, how did Press Start come about?
It all started in high school, when my partner Wes and I were roommates and we bonded over a love of games. We enjoyed playing all kinds of games together and when he moved back to Hong Kong with a suitcase of board games three years ago, we wanted to find more people to play with – that’s where it all started really. Our group, which initially gathered at my apartment once a month for what we called ‘board game socials’, quickly grew into a community of 50-plus people, so we had to expand into the clubhouse and start teaching games. People then started asking us if we could put on and host games-centric events for their friends and colleagues.
And then you decided to launch a dedicated company?
Exactly. And since then it’s been an exhilarating ride! We opened our event space in Central, which now doubles as our studio and office, in October 2015 and started hosting after-work events for startups and multinationals while continuing our monthly ‘board game social’ tradition. Within a year we’ve expanded into running game-based after-school programmes, custom-designing games for university curricula, developing a portfolio of team-building workshops and consulting for educational institutions – while doing some cool new things along the way, like hosting Hong Kong’s first Pokewalk event last summer, which got more than 400 Pokemon Go players together out on the Central and Sheung Wan streets.
Where does the name come from?
‘Press start to begin’! That ubiquitous phrase everyone instantly associates with videogames and games in general. When you press start, you’re not only propelling yourself into an adventure but entering a whole new world. At Press Start we’re all about exploring the world through games and unlocking their potential to inspire and educate beyond just having fun. It’s also been an awesome journey for ourselves to figure things out along the way, so it all fits perfectly!
What advantages are there for businesses who work with Press Start?
We work with businesses in a few different ways. The easiest is a games-centric event, whether for a company or a community, like we did theDesk. While we have a portfolio of workshops and event formats for businesses to choose from, we’re also flexible and can customise a rundown for our partners and clients. Games work so well as a social vehicle and we make that process even easier by introducing, teaching and facilitating all game sessions so the focus is always on the social experience. We also embark on custom game or programme design projects with educational partners. These either take the form of a unique board or card game designed for academic and educational use or a co-created and co-designed game-based workshop for adult or child learners. We approach these larger-scale engagements like a consultancy, first understanding our partners, targeting the players and key concepts of their theme, before taking them into the gameplay design.
What board games are your favourite to use?
Depending on the occasion and the nature of the event, we choose between a soft skills-centric session or a topical session – sometimes a hybrid of the two. Choosing simple and casual games removes the stress and effort needed to learn a longer strategy game and puts the focus squarely on the social experience. Co-operative or group games like Hanabi and Dixit work extremely well. Thematic games that require a bit more time to learn and play are sometimes the catalyst for more in-depth exploration. They’re generally a more immersive experience that allow players to get into the theme and world of the game and present some interesting ideas or concepts that are fun educational tidbits in themselves. These work best for a more business-focused session, sometimes even in the area or industry within which the company operates.
You’re working a lot now with education providers…
We strongly believe in the power of play and, in a society that’s more competitive than ever, there’s less and less time for play in a kid’s life, which is a tragedy. With the recent proliferation in ‘gamification’ tools within education, it seems like more people are starting to borrow elements from games, but a lot of them just look like a personalised computer game version of homework. Whether using existing games on the market or developing our own, we always emphasise having fun first over any ‘educational’ experience – if the game itself is fun, the self-driven exploration and inspiration should come naturally. Pulling kids away from a digitally oversaturated world and into a physical, tangible tabletop experience also has enormous merits. As immersive as a video game can be, there’s no experience that mirrors reality as closely as a board game does – making decisions while navigating a challenging scenario and working with others in real time.
What reactions do you get from the kids?
Kids are curious by nature – put a device in front of them and they’ll start playing with it or put a game in front of them and they’ll start fiddling with it and figuring it out. With some guidance on the gameplay and rules, we’ve found that kids get into a game very quickly and stay focused, sometimes much more than adults do! You’d think kids might get bored or distracted easily but they love a shared experience and reacting to someone else’s moves or dice rolls. A couple of months back, we did a birthday party for a room of rowdy 13-year-old boys who requested a whole afternoon of strategy games – we expected they’d be tough to manage and that they’d switch to quicker games soon but they settled down once we got the game going and loved the ride.
How do you marry playing for fun with playing for an educational reason?
If a game is labelled educational then it inherently loses some of its lustre. We like to point out a substantial difference between educational games and games that educate: for the former, education is the first priority – you know that even before you play, you’re supposed to get something out of it. But for the latter, you play it because it’s fun and the learning is just part of the package. There are many companies that want to add gaming elements into a traditional educational setting. For us, we believe that the most powerful form of learning is self-exploration and that you can’t force kids to learn by themselves. A fun experience can prompt them to explore a certain topic or theme beyond the game’s borders – kind of like wanting to research more about the ancient seven wonders after building one in the Civilization computer game.
What about games events for adults?
Just like it is for kids, self-exploration is the most impactful and memorable kind of education for adults. So instead of yet another seminar to sit through or just another karaoke night masquerading as a team-building event, our game events fit right in the middle – a fun experience with some important takeaways. All of our sessions start off with playing games. There’s no need to set a context and dictate how people experience the game because everyone will get something different out of it – and we lead a short post-game discussion with a few questions to get people talking about their shared experience. This more relaxed, fun-first approach lowers resistance towards any ‘formal’ team-building workshop and the result is a more lively discussion and a less artificial and constructed environment. Whether the workshop is meant for soft skills or topical knowledge development, the learning takes place naturally – if you’re inside an actual brewery playing a game, where you’re running a microbrewery on your board, you’ll probably naturally want to learn more about mash tuns and fermentation. Mashing games together with an expert on their themes and topics makes for a unique and stimulating educational experience.S
How do your games events translate to co-working spaces, like the one you ran at theDesk?
Community is at the core of what we do and board games are inherently a social experience. We love doing events at co-working spaces because they’re exactly what board games are about!
Where would you like to take the business in the future?
To be honest, we never thought in our wildest dreams that we’d already be venturing into education so soon into our journey – it was always something that we’d wanted to get into but our initial thoughts were perhaps in five to 10 years! So we’re already way ahead of our projections. We’re working hard to build on our momentum and doing what drives us every day: to deliver first-in-class games-centric experiences, to build a thriving games community in Hong Kong and to educate and inspire through games.
To find out more about Press Start, head to pressstart.com.hk.