Bring Back Playing Cards
One of the defining themes of the 2020s has been the disconnect that people of all ages feel from one another. Older adults are suffering through a loneliness epidemic, compounded by a slow return to social activities from the pandemic and inadequate home health care. Younger adults are stymied by a general malaise mainly caused by social media. Throughout the country, people are yearning for connections to one another, both shallow acquaintances and deep friendships.
The solutions offered for these problems are vast. One set of lawmakers and pundits has embraced a plan to. Others have focused on publicly-funded healthcare or a universal basic income as solutions to the malaise of the 21st century. The hope is that people who have their basic needs met will have more time to socialize and make connections outside of the home.
One potential solution is not as drastic as reshaping our economy or banning billion-dollar products. It may be as simple as dropping by the local corner store and picking up a set of basic playing cards.
Playing cards were a staple of American society for centuries. They were used frequently throughout the colonial period and were one of the items affected by the hated Stamp Act of 1765. As paper production became cheaper, cards made it into more and more hands throughout the country. Card games were a great leveler: cheap, easy to play, and pictorial so they appealed to the illiterate. Bridge clubs were so popular that their proceedings were profiled in local newspapers.
But the ubiquitous nature of playing cards decreased in the late 20th century. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam includes a section about playing cards as an indication of deep social connections. He notes that in 1940, 87% of all American households had a set of playing cards. The rate of regular card players plunged by more than half between the 1970s and the late 1990s. It was steadily replaced by radio and television, which kept the sources of entertainment for American families inside.
Playing cards offer a potential antidote to our current feelings of alienation and loneliness. Physical cards bring people together in the same location, often for an extended period of time. Unlike some board games and tabletop games, they are simple enough to facilitate extended conversation during play. Furthermore, playing cards are not siloed into one exclusionary subculture or another. One does not need to have read a blog or seen the other 15 movies in the series to play poker or bridge with a group of their friends.
More card games will not solve our social problems on their own. They may not be able to compete with the established dopamine sources of social media and streaming television. However, more card games in person might bring people together, stimulate new careers, and forge new bonds. These bonds have a chance of reducing the loneliness and depression that seems to have affected so many people in this new decade.