Throwing big parties, as many Americans will do this Labor Day weekend, is a great way to express affection for your friends, discharge multiple social obligations at once, get to know your co-workers better, and indulge in match-making (romantic or professional). It’s a real treat to see people from different parts of your life mingling and laughing together—but first you have to break the ice.
Most of the people who come to my parties are scientists or journalists or other bookish types. Lovely, fascinating people once you get them going, but attending parties can be a real chore for the introverts among them. Many of them bring children who are shy about playing with strange kids, or irritated teenagers who keep getting told how much they’ve grown.
The best way to cut through all the intergenerational awkwardness, I’ve found, is lawn games. And the best summer party lawn game of all is badminton.
Lawn games draw people outside and away from your crowded kitchen. (It helps if you set up your bar, and a cooler full of Sunkist and Hawaiian Punch for the kids, outside as well.) They keep poorly supervised children from tipping over your tomato plants. And they give everybody something to do or watch or talk about while they’re finding common interests.
The beautiful thing about badminton is that anybody can play, but almost nobody plays that well. Even people who have never picked up a racquet can get the hang of it after whiffing on the first few tries. Badminton is disarmingly silly; people naturally make sound effects and yell at the birdie. The game is engaging enough that people forget their self-consciousness, but not so much that they take it seriously. (With the exception of my colleague Will Saletan, who at one of my parties hit smash shots at middle school kids.)
The only rule in badminton is that you have to hit the birdie over the net. (Oh, sure, there are real rules, but don’t let people who know them enforce them.) You don’t need to bother marking the court boundaries or limiting how many people can play at once. Just set out a bunch of racquets and encourage anybody to jump in.
Logistically, badminton sets are easy to set up, and they roll up into a small bundle for storage when the party’s over. You don’t need much lawn space at all—you can buy sets with 30-feet-wide, 20-feet-wide, or even 7-feet-wide nets. Most of the sets are flimsy but good enough for backyard use, or you can get a little fancier with a pro set. (Buy extra shuttlecocks because they will get snagged in trees or on roofs; glow-in-the-dark birdies are great for night games.)
It’s hard to hurt oneself or others playing badminton. You can hit the birdie as hard as you like and probably not do any damage. You can make heroic lunges, but it’s also perfectly possible to play badminton with a racquet in one hand and a beer in the other.
There are plenty of other reasons to enjoy the game. Badminton is the only sport I know in which top players who are not paid off by some mafia betting ring still try to throw their own matches. (We’d share video of the “oopsie missed again” badminton debacle at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but as Business Insider points out, the International Olympic Committee is run by world-class jerks.)
Other lawn games make decent icebreakers, of course, but they’re no badminton. Whiffle ball is safe and easy, but it has fewer active players at any given time. Bocce takes a lot of explanation for young kids to catch on. With Frisbee, it’s just a matter of time before somebody gets hit in the back of the head. (I was guilty of a wild throw at a party years ago and still feel awful about it.) Ping-pong is a great crowd-pleaser, but you need space to store a table and have to haul it outside during a party.
Best of all, it’s impossible not to laugh while playing badminton.