A Gnome's Ponderings

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Another look at anti-social behavior

Lowell Kempf
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Before I became a board gamer, I spent more than a decade as an RPG-only kind of guy. While Dungeons and Dragons was my game of choice (and, when it comes to RPGs, still is. Guess I’m a vanilla kind of guy when it comes to role playing games), I tried out a number of RPGs over the years. Conventions back in those days, in particular, were a chance to try out new systems.

When I started playing board games, particularly at conventions, I noticed something. The strangers who I was playing with tended to be a lot nicer. Either people who play role playing games just tend to be jerks (term edited for family audience) or there is just something about board gaming that allows people to be more polite.

In the end, I think that the social chemistry of board games as opposed to role playing games creates a very different atmosphere and sense of expectations.

What is one of the factors that makes a difference? Overt competition.

In theory, a role playing game is a cooperative form of play, with everyone working together. While a catch phrase in multiple groups I have been in has been “There is no winning in D&D”, in most RPGs, a group stands or falls together. There are tons of exceptions to that rule (Hi, Paranoia) but it is a good baseline.

However, human beings tend to be competitive and gamers even more so. So you get covert competition. That can take the form of showboating, condescending, ostracizing, and even bullying. For whatever reason, I have found that these tendencies get even worse with strangers, making conventions often a fertile ground for this kind of behavior.

I have also seen the universal rebuttal to accusations is “That’s what my character would do. I’m just playing my character.” I find that an invalid and passive aggressive response. When the point of the game is to sit at a table and play with the other people at the table, intentionally making that difficult is just being a jerk. If you chose to play a character whose behavior upsets other players, then you are being a jerk. (On the other hand, if everyone likes having your sociopathic murderer around, then you are playing with the other players and are just fine)

The social contract of board games is different. We are here to pound each other to the ground. It’s not hidden behind passive aggressive denial. Nope, there’s only going to be one winner and you are going to your best to make sure that you are that winner.

You would think that would lead to nastier behavior. And, on the board, it does, sure. However, I have found that people tend to be a lot nicer and more cordial while they are just to cave your skull in on the board. Nobody is trying to fool anyone that they aren’t competing. So it clears the air and we can have a good time trying to make sure everyone else loses.

Indeed, probably the most anti-social behavior I have seen has been playing Settlers of Catan. I suppose that it because you have to cooperate long enough to actually trade with each other before you try to break one another. On the other hand, the calamities in Advanced Civilization give you a way to hurt each other while trading so it tends to be a more congenial affair. You politely trade while crushing each other empires into the dust of history.

I am not saying that I have never seen bad behavior at a board game table. Oh, believe me, I have. I have played with people that have made the game a miserable experience. A bad Settlers of the Stone Age experience has made me avoid that game for years, despite the fact that I intellectually like how it uses the Catan system. And if I was constantly dealing with passive aggressive bullies at RPG tables, I’d have given up playing them long ago.

However, I do think that the two very different styles of play can lead to very different competitive behavior and I have found that I prefer to above board aggression of board games.
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