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It's Just a Game: Bring Your Best You to the Table


It's Just a Game: Bring Your Best You to the Table

Last December, I read an article published by NBC titled "Why Board Games Bring Out the Worst in Us." Frankly, the title disturbed me, and being a sucker for clickbait, I pressed on and gave it a read.

The author, Nicole Spector, spoke to post-doctoral scholars at UCLA, psychological performance coaches at The Aligned Performance Insititute, and clinical psychologists who all provided research analysis that pointed to the reasons that players can become aggressively competitive when playing board games. Ms. Spector herself identifies as a particularly competitive gamer and wanted to know why that might be.

As I read through the article, I discovered that this enterprise was a self diagnosis dressed as public advice and I balked at several of the findings - not because the scientists and behavioral psychologists were wrong (I don't pretend to know better than they do with their years of study), but because a diagnosis is not an excuse for bad behavior, it's an opportunity to look for ways to improve it. 

In her exploration, Ms. Spector addressed the inability of the human brain to separate simulated experiences from real experiences. 

The human brain never evolved a mechanism to separate a game from reality,” says Don Vaughn, a postdoctoral scholar at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “If a lion was chasing one of our ancestors on the savanna, it was real, every time. There were no movies, plays or simulations. Modern neuroscience has revealed that just thinking about imagined situations activates the same brain regions as the actual experience.
— - Don Vaughn, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA

Many actors spend their lives struggling to tap into that feeling - to create a substantial emotional simulation so that they can perform an authentic response to a situation. Some people actually want to experience that type of thing at the game table through an RPG or even chase it by spending entire weekends at a LARP event. In these situations, it's not uncommon to cry over the loss of your favorite NPC or to face down a prince in a heated political argument with raised voices on both sides of the table. The key to healthy play is that everyone is consenting to the experience and is supporting each other's comfort with emotional vulnerability.

A friendly game of  Dungeons & Dragons  by Wizards of the Coast.

A friendly game of Dungeons & Dragons by Wizards of the Coast.

Board games tend to be a different side to that coin. They provide a context and a confined set of rules and behaviors to operate within. Personally, if I'm seeing someone cry, scream, or become withdrawn at a roleplaying table, I'll always check in with the player afterwards to make sure everything is ok, but I'm not surprised by it. This is consensual adult make believe. I've seen best friends fight like bloodthirsty barbarians in character and grab a beer at the pub afterwards.

If I see that elevated behavior at a board game event, I assume that something completely inappropriate has happened at that table. These are not emotional exercises or simulations. These games are built on strategy, turns, and operations. Some, like the soon to be released Thornwatch by Loneshark Games stride that evasive line with light roleplay. Overall, if I'm loosing at a game like Odin's Ravens or Sheriff of Nottingham, I might go as far as an internal Oh well... How disappointing! - I'm not going to a flip a table.

Folks, we're supposed to be laughing at our misfortune, not actually cursing the Old Gods. Disclaimer: I don't want to tell someone how to play or experience a game the right way, but in this case I don't want to normalize the suppression of emotions outside of the table being an excuse to exorcise them at the table. Finding balance is incredibly important and our friends at Greatway Games had a fantastic discussion about that.  

Another assumption in the article is that all board games are, by nature competitive.

By their nature, board games bring out our competitive spirit because they divide us. Whether it’s a family, couples hanging out on a Saturday night or just kids having fun, board games usually are an ‘every man for himself’ scenario, or separate us into teams.
— Dr. Alok Trivedi, psychological performance coach and founder of The Aligned Performance Institute.
Betrayal at Baldur's Gate  by Avalon Hill Games and Wizards of the Coast

Betrayal at Baldur's Gate by Avalon Hill Games and Wizards of the Coast

Yes, there are several competitive games on the market, but there are also co-operative games - even games that feature both styles of play within the same session. However, there's also the experience of introducing a game to players step by step which exercises the use of friendly communication skills and sportsmanly competition. Though you're competitors, you might help the other player through their first few turns and explain strategies to them until they're comfortable to make their own unaided decisions.

There is such a rainbow of experiences in board games and there's something for everyone, but being a sore loser does not make you the victim of some cursed psychological plot! In those cases, I really think players need to look within themselves and figure out how to participate in a healthy way. If you can't, that's your responsibility to address it. Please do it not make it the table's problem.

Playing  Thornwatch  by Loneshark Games with my friends.

Playing Thornwatch by Loneshark Games with my friends.

Lastly, Ms. Spector addresses the competitive drive that kicks into high gear when board games spawn archetypal role reversal. 

One of the more fascinating social qualities of board games is their ability to shift family dynamics. If your big brother is always getting his way, it may be extra satisfying to dominate in a board game, just as it may be particularly humiliating for said big brother to lose to you.
— Nicole Spector, NBC News

Board games have the ability to transport us and transform us, whether that's to the fantasy Candy Land or to the Spice Islands of Century: Eastern Wonders. From Ms. Spector's point of view, the dark equalizing transportation circle of a board game provides a chance to smash down those who deserve it away from the table now that the playing field is equal. This is what I call, non-consensual table therapy.

When you look for these opportunities to address old grudges for yourself at a board game event, you are creating an experience internally that has nothing to do with the awareness or consent of the other players and it's completely inappropriate. For my part, this equalizing transformation is one of the things I look forward to most of all - not because I want to smash the patriarchy, but because I want to bring people together for a shared experience. Board games provide a socially acceptable opportunity for us to step away from politics, prejudice, age, and every other factor that has been weaponized to separate people. Gaming is an opportunity to communicate with your friends. Don't be afraid to stop the game for a minute and deal with a problem. Take a deep breath. If someone is getting aggressive stop and talk about it. The more you avoid it, the worse it gets. If you can't communicate with your fellow players in a healthy way, odds are you probably shouldn't be playing with them. There are deeper issues at work that need to be addressed. 

Nicole Spector ends her article by recommending several balms for competitive board game spirit including:

  • Playing games with less strategy so as not to have to tax "brain power."
  • Drink Responsibly
  • Resolve not to react to others' aggression. 

NBC News BETTER touts that their articles are "obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live." While Nicole Spector ended her article with these "tips," I would say that there's one glaring health-mindful omission here. Avoiding complicated/strategic competitive games is not the problem. The problem is inside you! It's just a game, but your internal life lives beyond the table and you need to give it attention and care.

If you find yourself exorcizing your personal demons during board games, seek help. I don't mean that in a dismissive way. I mean it with all the love and support in the world. Table therapy is unacceptable and it ruins the game for everyone else.

This, above all, is a social event. When your own internal emotional life regularly causes disruption at social functions, honor that and seek the appropriate means to address it. There is a stigma around mental health and therapy is such a powerful tool if you're brave enough to embrace it. It's your responsibility to your fellow players to play safely and be a good sport. Depression, anxiety, and personal hangups can absolutely make that more challenging. The big rule of thumb is, if you're not in a healthy place to play, then don't subject the table to your issues. Be kind to yourself and to your fellow players and you'll find that this hobby has so much more to offer than the thrill of victory.