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An observation about why some people don’t like board games (and how to cure them of that terrible affliction)

October 14, 2013

table-flipper

As a hopeless board games nutcase, I have a hard time understanding how anyone, ANYONE, can avoid being compelled, as if by some behemoth unseen force, to spend every waking minute of their lives thinking about, playing, and designing table games.

Being an inquisitive nutcase, about two years ago I began looking for people who claim not to like board games (as if that were possible hahaha no seriously that’s not possible) and asking them about why. I’ve learned some things which may be of interest to anyone keen to cultivate new game partners or expand the game market. Notably, there appears to be one dominant factor in turning people off board games. Ready for it?

Folks who dislike board games care more about board games than than the rest of us

What I mean is, those who dislike board games invest themselves more heavily in their outcomes, to such an extent that their identities are affected. When they lose, they feel they’ve endured a public demonstration of their ineptitude. When they win, they feel they’ve subjected their opponents to the same.

Game outcomes influence such folks’ sense of themselves, their social status, and the social status of others. That’s stressful.

I call this Over-investment Syndrome and a strong majority of the haters I’ve spoken to have it, which has surprised me.

But now that I’ve thought about it, it makes a tiny bit of sense. Board games may be the most intimate kind of games. The players are in the same room, at the same table, looking right at each other, as one eviscerates the others. It’s like that scene from Saving Private Ryan where the American and the German are wrestling on the ground and the German manages to get on top and slowly sinks a knife into the American’s chest over his whimpering pleas to stop. By the way don’t click that link unless you’re the opposite of squeamish.

There appears to be two distinct types of sufferers:

Type 1: these sufferers dislike competition generally, in games and life, because it feels like a needless kind of one-upmanship, which inevitably and pointlessly makes someone feel bad. A lot of women seem to fall into this category.

Type 2: these sufferers (mostly men) are the opposite: they’re not opposed to competition, and even relish it, but they don’t want to unleash the competitive beast in an endeavor which seems to them unreal or unimportant. My dad is the canonical example: he’s one of the most competitive people on Earth, and secretly believes everyone is out to screw him and that his only recourse is vigorous preemptive screwing (which sounds bad but he’s actually awesome). He’s like “Why agonize over a mere game when I can go out and fight someone to the death in real life?”

How to cure Over-investment Syndrome?

Now, you may argue: “Why should you want to cure it? Let people do what they will. No one likes a missionary, especially one on a dumb mission” Or at least that’s what the hemisphere of my brain that’s always trying to save me from myself whispers just before I shut it down like I’m a dolphin. I’ve no idea why I should care but I do. Let’s roll with it.

First, it’s important to make sure your subject does in fact suffer from this malady. Although it’s a common problem, there are other reasons people fail to play board games, notably:

1. The subject has never played board games before and so doesn’t have any opinion about them at all, or maybe thinks they’re just for kids.

2. The subject thinks there’s something unseemly about them. She suspects they’re a disreputable indulgence. I’m guessing this is a byproduct of the Protestant Ethic which has so greatly shaped our culture, and I’m not sure it’s wrong (I shudder to contemplate how much more I could do for the world if I spent as much time designing say, better solar panels, as I do designing games; alas I don’t know how to pick my obsessions).

So ask your subject questions about how playing games makes her feel. Maybe even present the three factors I’ve described. and ask which description fits her best (one thing I’ve learned, however, is you won’t always get an honest answer, because some people don’t want to cop to the embarrassing idea that game outcomes affect their sense of themselves. You’ll have to be subtle. The best option, if possible, is to try playing a game with your subject. If losing makes her agitated/sullen, you have your diagnosis).

Assuming your subject does suffer from Over-investment Syndrome, then what?

Answers:

1. If strategy isn’t important to you, play party games.

2. If strategy is important to you, play co-operative games, like Pandemic, where everyone wins or loses together.

3. If strategy is important to you but you don’t like cooperative games, suggest a game which feels like “multiplayer solitaire”, like Fits.

All three genres avoid triggering Over-investment Syndrome to one extent or another (and I’ll wager that they all owe at least some of their popularity to that fact).

Note, you won’t be playing these kinds of games with your subject forever, and that shouldn’t be your goal. The best cure for Over-investment syndrome, in my experience, is simply to get someone to play games a lot. The more someone plays, the less invested she’ll feel in the outcome of any one play. She’ll realize that the outcome is insignificant and forgotten as soon as the next game starts.

For hard cases, you might consider a progression: start with party games, move to cooperative games, then multiplayer solitaire, then whatever you want.

4. If you can get into a conversation about the nature of games and the appeal they hold for you, try telling your subject this: when you take your turn, don’t think of the purpose as to beat your opponent. The purpose is to present to your opponent an interesting, challenging puzzle for her to mull. You’re really taking turns gifting puzzles to each other.

5. Buy a game you think you will be terrible at, introduce it to your subject, and resolve to play it only with her and never anyone else. Handicap if necessary or otherwise set things up so that your opponent will win more than you. Losing is harder than winning and you, as a game-lover, don’t mind losing nearly as much as your game-resistant subject. So find a game where you will be forced to struggle and your opponent will thrive. Then be sure not to ever, ever get upset about losing. If you ever seem less than perfectly sanguine about losing, it’ll reinforce in your subject that idea that there’s something real at stake.

I have a brilliant friend with whom I played games early in my obsession, and for years, without telling me, he made it his goal not to win, but to lose as narrowly as possible without my discovering his intent. Nearly every play was a barn burner and I came out on top more often than not and I think I owe much of my obsession to that experience.

Of course I was a bit embarrassed when he later told me what he was up to, but he needn’t have told me, especially because as I improved it got to the point where he no longer needed to try to make it narrow. It just happened because we were evenly matched. He could have just seamlessly transitioned to playing with normal intent. That’s an ideal script for turning someone onto games and I urge you to give it a try.

6. Finally, whatever else you do, proceed slowly and never press your case. Again, no one likes a missionary.

Nick Bentley

From → Essays

32 Comments
  1. Great article! I have come to similar conclusions over the years. Driving the knife home is exactly what I enjoy most about a good board game. It allows me to indulge in the sort of behaviors: lying, manipulation, and utterly cutthroat aggression, that I keep under wraps in real life. Games represent a positive outlet for such negative actions and at the end of the whether I won or lost matters less to me than if I got to play “hard” against quality opposition.

  2. I have encountered several other “types” —
    The persons who consider table-top games (other than “gambling” or traditional card games) to be strictly a “nerd” activity and do not want to be associated with same. A game that requires sitting (except for racing) and is not associated with teams, tracks, and stadiums is somehow reserved for the “brainiacs.”
    And speaking of brains, there are folks intimidated by the idea that they would be required to think, or claim not to be able to think, several moves ahead. My wife is one of these. She’s very intelligent, but seems to suffer deeply from Analysis Paralysis (sp?) even with the simplest roll-and-move. Purely tactical. And even in cooperative games, she prefers to do what she’s told and not actively influence the flow of the game.
    And there are also those who are so ADHD that their attention drifts easily from any game that requires more than four or five turns to get to the end. A single round of blackjack is about all they can handle. They just want to share. Cards with words? Forget it.
    And finally, I have invited some friends to play what gamers consider the “light gateway games” who get overwhelmed easily at the thought of “actions” and “turn order” and “special abilities.” These folks are satisfied with LCR and SlapJack (barely on the edge of the game spectrum, IMHO).

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I’ve seen all of these as well. Two things about them:

      1. they seem not as common as the Over-investors, especially when we consider that…

      2. Often people are Over-investors but *pretend* to have other objections, because they know implicitly that being an over-investor makes them look lame.

    • Don’t forget the other types, the people who have played with those who get too invested and no longer want to play. There’s nothing worse than playing at a table with people who get a horrible attitude when they aren’t winning.

    • I also have a friend that she doesn’t want to think cause she does so much of that at work so just dice rolling games such as Fill or Bust (which is fun) and Cribbage (all time favorite) but she loves to play Scrabble cause that is what she grew up playing with her mom.

      So guess the point is, some people’s jobs seem to leave them burnt out on the thinking spectrum and it’s just not relaxing for them to think to play a game. (This is my own theory based on said friend)

      • Laura D permalink

        This is a huge, huge part of why I don’t like playing games — and this is coming from someone who grew up playing board games and spent a large part of college playing D&D. It’s just massively stressful for me during the game play to have to think through things. I’m also an introvert, so interacting with people is already sucking a lot of those thinking resources. It’s bad if it’s a new game or a new group of people and absolutely awful if it’s both. It’s not worth the stress for me, so the author would probably have to work pretty hard to get me to try something. Although games like apples to apples (or Cards Against Humanity) are not terrible because they maintain the player’s anonymity, so if I decide I just want to hang out and not invest too much in the game I can just pick a card and toss it in.

      • gamesb00k permalink

        Interesting. I also consider myself an introvert. But games provide me with a structured mechansim in which my interaction with other people takes place in a “safe environment” where I don’t have to desparately dream up social ‘small talk’. Of course, if you don’t enjoy thinking at all, then you also probably don’t enjoy reading (because that requires thought) or other activities requiring use of your imagination. Maybe gambling-style board games would appeal more? Just bet randomly and don’t be “invested” (strange term to use in the context of boardgaming which, by definition, has no connection with the ‘real’ world) in the outcome?

  3. FauxSloMo permalink

    choice weber drop yo

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      haha. thx. I almost put an actual photo of the man in, but then realized nobody would know who he is.

  4. Tim R. permalink

    I appreciate the observation you are giving, but it immediately came across as biased. It presents the subject material with the view that everyone should enjoy board gaming and if they don’t, it explains how you can get them to enjoy board games. This premise is inherently flawed.

    I do not enjoy music. At all. I’m imagining someone trying to introduce me to something they think I will enjoy, then slowly expanding out from that until they’ve somehow made me like music. The problem? I just detest the very nature of music. But there’s a board game for everyone? You could say the same thing about music but you would be wrong.

    My point is that, while it’s fun to share hobbies with others, the very idea that the people who dislike board games do so because they simply care more than everyone else is silly to me. Think about something you dislike: do you dislike it because you care about it more than everyone else? Or do you dislike it for other fundamental reasons? This, to me, is my main objection to the observation. It comes from a biased perspective since you obviously love board games.

    Not everyone enjoys everything. Sports are also competitive and many people don’t enjoy playing sports, either.

    Having said all of this, I do appreciate what you are trying to say. Your observation and suggestions will work some of the time, and if they bring more people into my chosen hobby, then great!

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I totally agree that lots of people dislike lots of things for lots of different reasons. It’s just that, when I interview game-dislikers, a lot of them have this common reason for not liking them. I’m not making it up out of thin air. I’ve asked lots and lots of people.

  5. patrick permalink

    I’ve found this to be true as well, but i boil it down to the “don’t want to look stupid” affliction. It seems to be more common among Americans, and maybe the nature of competition in America affirms this attitude. People are curious about the idea of these games, until the explaining of the rules begins, and what it takes to play the game is explained, then the eyes open wide in a fight or flight response. To which i say, lighten up Francis.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Yeah, it would be cool to question game-dislikers from other cultures to see if they give different reasons. All my respondents were American.

  6. Sigh permalink

    As a female hardcore strategy gamer, I greatly disapprove of your choice of “she” as a default pronoun for someone who has this over investment syndrome. You could have avoided offending anyone by just using the gender-neutral singular “they” for this.

    As for the actual topic of this article – I don’t understand why you would even want to force board games on someone that doesn’t seem to enjoy them. Playing with such people sucks; what would you yourself get from this? I have my group of fellow hardcore gamers for playing, and lots of other friends for just socializing, and I have absolutely no need to mix these two. If my non-gamer friends insist that we play something, like they sometimes do, I’ll just pick some non-gamey party thing for us. After all, they just wanted some social thing, not a three-hour Agricola marathon. I reserve the “real” games for times when I’m with people that are suited for playing such games. I also don’t feel any need to “educate” people to become board gamers; if they are unable to not overly invest in the outcome of a mere game, that’s their problem, not mine, and it’s up to them to want to fix this. Who am I to force them to change? I believe change and enlightenment are something that can only work if they come from within you, not from an outside source.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      My apologies w/r/t the pronouns. They/them are ungrammatical when used to refer the singular (plus they sound ugly to me when used in that way), and I decided as a policy some time ago to use she/her, not just in this post, but in most of my essays, as you’ll find if you look through some of my other pieces. My choice had nothing to do with the specific content of this essay.

      As for your second question: some people find they *do* enjoy board games if they’re introduced to them well. And then it’s more fun for everybody.

  7. From the way Nick is talking in this article, I want to assume the use of “she” more than likely relates directly to an individual in his life. More than likely his wife, as he mentions this of her in the article. I don’t think there was any intent of sexism.

    Which brings me to another point; “I don’t understand why you would even want to force board games on someone that doesn’t seem to enjoy them. Playing with such people sucks; what would you yourself get from this?”

    If it is your significant other, your investment in bringing them over to board games means having one more thing that the 2 of you can share together. Also that you always have someone to game with when your regular gaming group is not around. I will say that it is good to have things that you do separately from your significant other, with friends and what not. However, if there only problem with tabletop gaming are those mentioned in this article, then why not try to convert them over?

    • patrick permalink

      I don’t want to speak for Nick, but for myself, it’s just interesting to learn about people. It’s always about the people, and not the games ultimately. But there is a tendency that some share about games that is interesting, and Nick is on the right track.

  8. Well, boardgaming is a hobby like many others. I like it, but I don’t like role playing, playing golf or cooking. Many of my friends (who are all perfectly normal and not lacking anything in their lives) enjoy those other activities. No need to trick or manipulate them into playing games with me. I don’t want to be taken to the driving range either to slowly start playing golf… Play games with your gaming buddies and do other fun activities with the rest of your crew. I tell you one thing: not everyone can be coerced into playing games, some people are bored with them, no matter what you play. I am fine with that.

  9. Bill Taylor permalink

    It’s significant that far more ordinary people are prepared to play card games rather than board games. That way they can easily blame their losses on luck rather than poor play – both to themselves and others. This gels perfectly with your main points. — kiwibill

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I agree. Richard Garfield is given to saying that when a player wins, he should feel his decisions were responsible, and when he loses, it wasn’t his fault. A similar sentiment. That’s probably right when you’re trying to create games to be sold, although personally I prefer to know that I’m at fault no matter what the outcome, because then there’s something for me to learn.

  10. Good post – Some interesting strategies for trying to recruit non gamers. I’ve had good success with games involving a degree of luck when introducing non gamers. I’ve found that those who take the outcome personally are less likely to do so when they have obviously had an unlucky run.

    This especially works with shorter games, as there is an opportunity for multiple plays and a greater chance of having some good experiences in the first session. Suitable games would include battle line, love letter, king of Tokyo, Incan gold, guillotine.

  11. I am profoundly impressed by your friend’s strategy, Nick, to deliberately lose by a narrow margin without getting caught. I would never have the patience for that. I couldn’t keep a morose expression off my face after losing in such manner. But there are others worse off than I am. Let me regale you with a story.

    I was playing Hex on Ludoteka. My opponent and I did not chat during the game. Most of the players there speak Spanish, which I do not. I believe my opponent took offense at a move I made, which may have seemed superfluous, like I was telling him “I can play this move and still beat you.” It was actually a strong move, securing my connection to both sides of the board at the same time. But later, when I visited a game he was playing, he immediately threw me out. When you are so concerned about how losing affects your self image, insults may be perceived where none are intended.

    I would like to be able to cultivate and nurture an interest in games among people I know, but it might be more practical for me to find a group that already shares my interests. Maybe I should move to Europe, heh.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Yeah, my friend is a profoundly impressive person. Just the kind of friends I like.

      As for your story, I don’t even know why such people even play games. What’s the point if it’s such a tooth-grinding experience?

  12. Great post. I have one more suggesting for you that I’ve found conspicuously absent is board gaming though my family and ‘clan’ used it extensively, handicapping. It’s an long standing tradition in my family that the more experienced players play with a handicap to level the field. In chess either moves or pieces are provided; my grandfather played at 2100+ level so he would give up a knight and bishop and sometimes the queen; he would still win 60% of the time. The focus here is not on win/loose but on play. The longer the play/struggle the better. Of course this may be a cultural perspective (Mexican-Basque) but I’ve seen the practice in golf. It seems that there is a misplaced arrogance is some circles with the focus being the satisfaction of ego and not in the enjoyment of the play/struggle/challenge. These days, with my kids (10 and 12), I’m trying to instill an appreciation for play/struggle/challenge attitude towards game play. The more experienced player has a responsibility to provide a long and level play to the less experienced player. We consider quick wins just this side of cheating for not establishing an appropriate handicap; something akin to having an ace up your sleeve.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I love handicapping, though I’ve noticed it doesn’t fix the problem for some people, for whom it feels like an admission of inferiority or something. I think. I haven’t quite figured them out :)

  13. Speet permalink

    I’m one of those people who doesn’t enjoy playing games of any kind. I like participating in everyday life and accomplishing things, but I dislike competition and contests. I find participating in a game makes me feel stress, not enjoyment, only relief when the game has ended. This probably goes back to team sports of gym class, when other team mates would give me a hard time for not being good at the game and weakening their team. I liked physical activity, the point of gym class, but I disliked that it had to be structured as a competition.

    A game of catch, played with a frisbee, is challenging enough over a few dozen yards. You get exercise and even develop a little skill and dexterity. There’s no score to keep. I objected when someone suggested to make it a game of frisbee football, a win/lose situation. The notion of making it a competition immediately removed the joy from what I was doing.

    Have you ever played poker? I haven’t. I don’t think I’ve even ever seen a real game of poker being played. But I have seen many fictional poker gamers played in movies and TV shows. Allegedly, the characters playing the game are friends, but the game play is seldom friendly, it’s usually intimidating, and does not look like anything I would enjoy.

    What you’ve identified is a differing personality type, not an affliction to be cured, and I have to say that I find the suggestion that my personality type is a disorder to be insulting.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I definitely have some sympathy for the “unalterable personality type” argument, but I’ve seen enough people transform from one “type” to the other that I think there’s a lot of malleability there. And if it’s possible to think differently about games, it might be worth it for some to try?

      • gamesb00k permalink

        ” I like participating in everyday life and accomplishing things”

        Sounds like role playing is more what they would enjoy. Its not a “contest” and the fun is in the participation.

  14. Smough permalink

    I don’t like board games. Not because I feel like if I lose I will seem inept. I don’t find them interesting, and I don’t have the attention span. Not that I have a problem with people who do like board games.

    • gamesb00k permalink

      The missionary in me would say – the BGG website lists over 50,000 games; I really struggle to believe that not *one* would interest you. Its like sport – I find many sports very boring but there are some I quite enjoy. I am certainly not a “sports geek” but can understand the appeal – *especially* when I know more about the nuances of the sport in question.

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