Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming

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Game Design, Vikings, and Batman

Corey Butler
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Hey everyone, I'm back! Well, sort of... I don't actually have a new blog post (and am still officially taking time off), but I wanted to say hi and let you know that you can listen to my podcast interview about the Psychology of Board Games over at the Board Game Design Lab. Isn't that exciting? If you check it out, you will have the chance to listen to Gabe Barrett and me talk about some of the stuff we've covered here at this blog. And be sure to check out some of his other podcasts while you're there.

Speaking of games and game design, the most recent game I've been playing is Raiders of the North Sea. I've played a couple of times now and am pretty impressed. The game is beautifully illustrated, has a nice twist on worker placement which minimizes downtime, and captures the theme of Vikings and raiding in a fast-playing, Euro style game. Conflict is present in the cards, but is not excessive. So you get a little tension and interaction, but not too much frustration or resentment. It works well two-player, which makes it a good couples game (for us anyway), but is flexible enough to accommodate up to four players. And I really like the cards and the way you can either use them as an action or hire them as crew.

Board Game: Raiders of the North Sea

Raiders of the North Sea

It's a fun game, but the main reason I'm bringing it up is that at the end of my podcast interview, I suggested that good games need to tap into one or more of the following key motivational preferences: 1) opportunity for strategic thinking, 2) a strong theme, and 3) social interaction. These appear to be the three biggest things people are looking for when they play games. Well, Raiders of the North Sea hits all three of these bases pretty well. There is a lot of strategic planning in the cards and the theme is also good- who doesn’t like Vikings? Well, maybe 9th Century Englishmen... It may be a little light on social interaction, but we’ve certainly got two out of three. It's probably no surprise that Raiders is the highest rated game in the North Seas trilogy.

That's about it, except for Batman. If you like Batman and are planning on attending the Minnesota Fan Fusion convention this weekend, come to my talk on Friday at 3:00. My title is Who’s the BEST Batman? A (Brief) Historical and Comparative Analysis of Batman in Television and Film. It should be a fun time.

That's all for now. I hope you are enjoying your summer and getting the chance to play some good games.

From gallery of shotokanguy

He’s Batman, in case you were wondering.
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Mon Jul 30, 2018 8:17 pm
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Implications of Dunbar's Number

Corey Butler
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Dunbar's Number is 150, which is the "average maximum" number of friends with which a typical individual can sustain meaningful social relationships. Yes, this is how many actual friends you can have. None of this Facebook friends nonsense! The number, which is actually 148 if you don't round up, is based on a statistical analysis of brain size and social group size across various species of primates, along with other sources of data. It is believed to be a cognitive limit, based on the assumption that the human brain evolved mainly to manage and keep track of social resources and alliances. Dunbar’s number is an extremely interesting idea. I'm not sure I entirely believe it- and it ignores the issue of individual differences in cognitive ability- but I find it intriguing. In fact, I've spent plenty of time wondering if I could come up with my own number about something, but no luck so far.

From gallery of shotokanguy


Robin Dunbar and his colleagues have further suggested that various levels of relationship exist within a nested hierarchical structure. The smallest subgroup is 3 to 5 individuals, which corresponds to our closest friends and family members. Beyond that is a "sympathy group" of 12 to 20 individuals who we see on a regular basis. Beyond that is another clustering of 30-50 individuals which is a typical "band" of hunter gatherers, according to anthropologists. Then we have Dunbar's number of 150 "friends," followed by a larger group of acquaintances of roughly 500 people, followed by the "tribal" group of approximately 1500 individuals. Beyond that, people are just strangers to each other. Note that these levels differ by a scaling ratio of approximately 3. Coincidence?

From gallery of shotokanguy


This research has been influential and somewhat controversial, but the bigger question that has inexplicably been ignored by scholars up to this point is this: How does Dunbar's principle apply to the board gaming hobby? The core, innermost group of 3-5 people is just right for an afternoon of gaming. This might represent the ideal number of close gaming friends. Any more than this, and it starts to get difficult to schedule and organize a session of gaming. The range of 3-5 also happens to be ideal for playing most games, and about the right number of people to fit around most tables. Coincidence?!

You might have a small group like this that meets regularly, probably in somebody's home. Another way to do it is to have a larger, less tight-knit group that is more likely to meet in a public place, such as a library or a coffee shop. How big is this group going to be? There is a group near me that meets twice a month in the local community center. Attendance varies, but it is usually enough to have two or three games going at once. These people are all friends, but they are in that next layer out, perhaps that sympathy group of 12-20.

As you keep going outward in increasingly larger social circles, friendships become less close and intimate. These are still people you know and are willing to play games with, but I would imagine that you are less likely to loan them games, or invite them over for dinner. I don't know for sure, but I would imagine that Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends maxes out at about 500 people. It's by invitation only, so it is a different kind of event than BGG Con, or really any other gaming convention you might name. At a certain point, you don't really know people anymore. Interactions are governed more by rules and broad social norms, rather than informal friendship arrangements.

Dunbar's Number of Games?

I feel fairly confident that Dunbar's number applies to different kinds of gaming groups and meetups. I wonder if it has any relevance to the number of games you can have a relationship with. Sure, you can collect games and own hundreds or even thousands of titles. But I don't think you will be able to play them all, much less know the rules to all of them. You don't really have a relationship with them if they are just stored in a closet somewhere. These games are like all those Facebook friends we never interact with. Why do we even have them?

If we follow Dunbar's reasoning, we might be expected to have a core group of games which we know well and play often. These are our favorite games. How many is this going to be? I don't know about you, but I can think of maybe twenty or thirty games that would fit this description. That's something like the sympathy group level in Dunbar's taxonomy. If I go higher than that, I have games that I don't play as often, that I might have to read the rules for if I were to play them again. They are in my collection, but they are just friends, not my closest friends. For me, this is about 100 games. I actually own more games than that, but a lot of them are just taking up space.

Is there any way we can calculate a maximum number of games that would correspond to Dunbar's number? This could be useful in helping people to avoid excessively bulky and expensive collections, which is a frequently discussed problem on BGG. In fact, Daniel Karp recently posted a GeekList on how to keep game collections manageable. He has kept his collection at about 300 games by following the policies described in his list, even after many years of playing and buying games. That actually seems like a pretty reasonable number. Obviously if you go much higher than 300, it becomes difficult to play them all every year, assuming an average rate of one game per day, which is a pretty high standard.

I did an informal survey on this recently and found that the median number of games people have in their collection is between 125 and 150 games, whereas the optimal number of games people say they would like to own is between 150 and 175. Could we actually use Dunbar's number here as our frame of reference and call it an even 150? It's worth noting that there was a huge amount of variability in people's responses.

Another way to go about this is to look at the average number of unique games people play per year. If I don't play it every year, do I really need to own it? That seems excessively strict. How about every three years or every five years? We don't need a precise number. Just a range that could serve as a guideline for what constitutes a reasonable collection.

I'm going to keep thinking about this. If you have any ideas, let me know. I'd really like to call this Butler's Number, all right?
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Wed Jul 11, 2018 4:00 pm
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The Psychology of Cheating

Corey Butler
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Why do people cheat at games, and how common is it? That's our topic for today. When I started looking for articles on the psychology of cheating, I found quite a lot of research on infidelity. Ok, interesting... but not exactly what I had in mind. Then I remembered reading Freakonomics several years ago and the economic analysis in that book about honor systems. Dubner and Levitt's case of the Bagel Man is a useful place to start. This is a guy who made a living selling bagels by dropping them off at office buildings with a box for people to put their money in. He did this for years, kept careful records, and found that most of the time he received about 90% of his payments. This correlates nicely with an informal study done by The Honest Tea Company which has also found that 90 to 95% of Americans are honest in low-stakes transactions.

The data we have about cheating at board games tell a similar story. According to one BGG poll, 93% of us are basically honest, reporting either very little or no cheating. This is reassuring for people like me who would rather focus on playing the game and not have to worry about keeping watch on everyone else at the table.

From gallery of shotokanguy


But what can we say about the 5.3% that report having cheated "many times", not to mention the frightening 1.2% that claim to cheat "regularly"? Antisocial Personality Disorder might be a factor in some of these cases. These are individuals who act deceitfully, have little regard for the rules and laws, and lack remorse for their actions. Fortunately, they make up only about 1% of the population, but it's interesting that this matches the statistic we have for regular cheaters. People who are not at the clinical level of Antisocial Personality Disorder may still have a Big Five personality profile characterized by low agreeableness and low conscientiousness. That might account for a few more percentage points.

I think we are making a mistake here if we focus solely on personality as the cause of cheating. As a social psychologist, I like to think about behavior in terms of Kurt Lewin's equation, B=f(P, S). This tells us that behavior is always a function of both the person and the situation. For example, anonymity (playing with strangers or online) and opportunity can tip the scales toward greater cheating. When strong incentives like money or grades are on the line, otherwise honest people might be tempted to cheat. Academic dishonesty is endemic in high schools and colleges, with a prevalence rate of 75% or more. These students are not all sociopaths. Situational variables are clearly important in determining the likelihood of cheating.

Now board gamers are generally not playing for money or grades, or bagels for that matter. Their motivation is psychological, related to self-enhancement and impression management. We all like to feel good about ourselves and look good in front of others. Indeed, self-esteem is a powerful motivation in social psychology, right up there with other core human motives like food and safety. We might predict that when people are feeling bad about themselves, they will be tempted to cheat. If their self-control is a little low, they will be more likely to act on this temptation. These fluctuating psychological states can help us make sense of the middle 29% in the poll, gamers who may have cheated a few times in the past, even though they are not habitual cheaters.

From gallery of shotokanguy


Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that once players make the decision to cheat, subsequent cheating could become more likely. Ironically, this could be the result of a guilty conscience. We can't go back in time and not cheat to rid of the guilt, but we can make ourselves feel better with rationalizations. "I only cheated a little, everyone else is probably cheating, I'm just evening things out..." Likewise, people using programs to cheat at online games could tell themselves it's not really cheating, or doesn't really matter, or it's just a way to play the game. These cognitions can become habitual, creating a vicious, escalating cycle of dishonesty.

But let's keep things in perspective. The vast majority of gamers don't cheat, at least not with any regularity. If you are playing a) in person, and b) with your friends, cheating should be very rare indeed. And if you do know someone who cheats, it should be easy enough to avoid them on game days.
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Wed Jul 4, 2018 4:05 pm
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Why Board Games are Better than Comic Books

Corey Butler
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Uh oh. The last time I suggested that something was better than something else, I got a whole lot of arguments and controversy. Actually, it was an interesting discussion, so let's do it again. Or, if you are very unhappy with what I write, feel free to visit my new Complaints Department. It's right --> Here.

And now, back to our previously scheduled topic: Comic Books, and Why Games Are Better, Even Though I Really Do Love Comic Books.

They often go hand in hand, don't they? My favorite game shop is also my favorite comic shop. It's The Source: Comics and Games in Roseville, MN. That's just down the road from the Fantasy Flight Games Center, by the way. Minnesota is THE place to be for games, dontcha know.

I love visiting The Source because I love comics and I love games. I've spent a fair amount of money on both. I have cabinets full of games and boxes full of comics. This is a serious problem because I aspire to be a minimalist at some point in my life. But as I've been saying, I really love both of my collections, and I don't want to sell either of them any time soon. I am especially attached to my collection of Batman comics. They go back to wrinkly old issues that I've had since I was a kid, back when I didn't know anything about bags and boards. I get a warm feeling just thinking about them, all sealed up and neatly stored in chronological order in my closet.

But I love my game collection more. Why, you ask? Because games promote experiences conducive to happiness, much more than comics do. There is an emerging scholarship in psychology on materialism and happiness. You may have read about the issue of money and happiness, and how they are only weakly correlated after you have a certain amount of wealth. There's also research on what we buy with our money, and whether we put it into things or experiences. Consider the following graph:

From gallery of shotokanguy


Material possessions last longer than experiences, so people assume they will lead to higher levels of satisfaction. Research by Ryan Howell and others, however, shows that people actually get more out of experiential purchases (e.g. a good meal, taking a trip) than material purchases (e.g. buying clothes, a new car). One methodological problem in this research is that there is often a blurry distinction between the two. If I buy a new boat, for example, that is a material thing but it also leads to enjoyable experiences on the lake, so how do I classify it? And more importantly, which lake do I visit? Did I mention we have 10,000 of them here in Minnesota?

Psychologists distinguish between these types of purchases by looking at the goals and intentions of the consumer. Is he or she thinking about having the thing, or doing the activity? This is somewhat inexact and subjective, but it has worked well enough to collect data in several empirical studies.

In my case, both games and comics are physical objects which I own. They are also both linked to experiences, those of playing and reading. But they are not equivalent. When I think about my games, I think about playing them. When I think about my comics, I am more likely to view them as a stationary collection of objects that I own. So for me, games are much more experiential. According to the research, they should provide me with more satisfaction and happiness.

What do you do with your games? Do you get them out and play them at restaurants and coffee shops, even if there’s a chance of getting food spilled on them? Or do you keep them safe at home, still in their shrink wrap? Wouldn’t they give you more happiness if you experienced them more often? If you mainly collect games and don’t get much chance to play them, that is a lot of underutilized potential. I’ve collected all kinds of things in my life. Comics, coins, rocks, you name it. Owning the thing is surprisingly disappointing. It’s never as exciting as looking for the thing. Come to think of it, I probably enjoyed my comics more when I was a kid, not just because I was a kid, but because I wasn’t so preoccupied with keeping them in mint condition. I focused more on the experience of reading them and re-reading them.

One last advantage for games is that they are inherently more social than comics, providing opportunities to make new friends and spend quality time with them. There is considerable research linking happiness and life satisfaction to social relationships. This might be even more critical amongst the geek community, which often tends toward introversion. Comic books are simply less likely to provide these social benefits. Personally, if I’m reading a comic, I usually want to be by myself.

The lesson is clear. I should sell off my comics and buy more games. Better yet, I should sell off my games and my comics and spend the money travelling around visiting people and playing their games. Anyone out there interested in having a house guest for a few months?
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Wed Jun 27, 2018 4:00 pm
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Frustration in Board Games

Corey Butler
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When I was a kid, Mom often told a story about when she was young, and her experiences playing games with her Uncle Butch. This was more than forty years ago, and the events in the story must have occurred at least ten years before that. Over the years it evolved into a kind of moral or cautionary tale, as well as a bit of family lore, which I will now pass on to you.

My Great Uncle Butch was a regular, working class guy- a Chicago bus driver, married to my Aunt Hattie. Incidentally, I never met either of them. Or if I did, I was too young to remember. Uncle Butch and Aunt Hat never had any kids, but my grandmother stayed with them when she was young, and later after my mother was born, the two of them would visit. I'm not sure if Mom was there when these events took place, or if it was just Grandma. It doesn't really matter. Anyway, Butch was an upright guy and worked hard all his life. His one character flaw was that he hated to lose and became quite famous in the family for it. One day, some time during the early 1960s, Butch brought home a new game for them to try.

Board Game: Aggravation


Well, Aggravation wasn't really new. It was just the latest Pachisi variant, a mechanic that goes all the way back to ancient India. We had an old copy of the game in my family when I was growing up. Maybe the very one that Butch brought home that fateful, hot summer day. By the time I got ahold of it, it was already a little old and worn. Most of my friends wanted to play a newer game called Trouble which featured the innovative pop-o-matic die roller. But it's still the same old game.

Back to the story. The distinctive thing about Pachisi games is that you have to move all your pawns (or marbles) around the board, from your starting place to your goal area. This can take a long time. And during that time, if another player lands on your piece, then back to the starting place you go. Very frustrating. Aggravating, in fact.

Board Game: Aggravation

Being aggravated is fun? Yeah, right.

You must have already guessed what's going to happen in the story. All of this was related to me in great detail by my mother, all those years ago. Uncle Butch was doing pretty well with his die rolls. He got all of his marbles home except for one. Tap, tap, tap. An opponent landed on his last marble, and back to the start it went. Then it happened again. And again. After the third time, Uncle Butch saw his victory disappear and exploded in anger. His face was red, he shouted, he swore, and he swept the game from the table, little marbles bouncing everywhere. As I understand it, this was the first and last time they ever played Aggravation.

As I said, Uncle Butch was a bit of a sore loser. But the social psychologist in me knows that we need to look beyond personality traits at the instigating, contextual, and situational factors that helped to trigger the events in the story. Aggravation is a highly frustrating game. If they had only chosen a different game to play that day, it's possible that Butch wouldn't have gotten so angry and lost his temper.

Social psychologists define frustration as an unpleasant state of emotional arousal caused by being blocked from obtaining a goal. It’s not just about inaccessibility or deprivation. The critical issue is that we think we are making progress, and then that progress is taken away. Frustration is considered to be a kind of motivational drive. It is classically linked to aggression in the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis, first proposed by John Dollard and his colleagues back in 1939. Research has generally supported the idea that frustration leads to hostility and aggression. Furthermore, levels of frustration and aggression increase if we invest more time and effort into trying to achieve our goal. Social psychologists used to test this in "real life" field experiments by cutting into lines in front people waiting to get into theaters and sporting events. The verbal responses of the people in line were the primary measures of aggression.

Board Game: Aggravation

Social psychologists must have worked on the Spanish edition.

Aggravation has all the elements needed to produce frustration and aggression. You slowly work toward your goal, but you have very little control over the fact that anyone can ruin your progress at any moment. Uncle Butch was almost there went he got sent back, three times! The line cutting experiments indicate that this is the critical point at which frustration will be maximal. Attribution, or the way we think about the experience, is also important. The fact that someone chose to set you back when they could have moved elsewhere is going to trigger more frustration and anger. Why are you picking on me?

Any game can lead to frustration, especially in a situation when you expect to win and then you don't. Games that involve direct player conflict are probably going to be the most frustrating. It will be worse if you perceive the person thwarting you as being unnecessarily, or arbitrarily nasty. The Take That mechanic is a good example of this kind of situation. Games in which you work a long time to build something that can suddenly be taken away from you should have the highest potential for causing frustration.

On the other hand, Euro games should be less frustrating. If only Uncle Butch had been playing The Princes of Florence. There is a lot less opportunity for players to block each other in a game like that. Sure, he might have been disappointed with his final score, but I doubt he would have lost his temper quite so badly.

Postscript: a few days after writing this, I blew the final auction in Princes of Florence, causing me to miss out on a prestige card and tie for last, instead of coming in first. It was a little frustrating!
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Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:00 pm
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Don’t Read this Blog: How to Win Games with Reverse Psychology

Corey Butler
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Hey, it worked. How about that.

All kidding aside, is there any way to use reverse psychology in board games? Does reverse psychology even exist? Or is it just a myth or an urban legend? It's probably nothing more than pop psychology nonsense. You should stop reading now.

Reverse psychology, advocating the opposite of what you would like someone to do, is an attempt to manipulate behavior by exploiting the principle of Reactance. This is the common tendency for people to resist persuasion attempts by reasserting their freedom and control, "reacting" against an authority figure, and sometimes even doing the opposite of what was being suggested. Reactance is a legitimate psychological phenomenon, but it is somewhat inconsistent and unpredictable. This makes reverse psychology an inherently dubious technique. It sometimes works, but it probably fails just as often. In games and in life, proceed with caution.

That said, reverse psychology is potentially useful in any game that involves communication between players. This would include games like Settlers of Catan, where players discuss things like trades and where to put the robber. It would also include about half the Fantasy Flight Games catalog. I'm thinking of Twilight Imperium, Game of Thrones, and other multiplayer wargames with a diplomacy component. Any time players are suggesting actions for other players to take, there is an opportunity to use reverse psychology.

But how do we use it effectively, or at least as effectively as possible, given it's obvious limitations?

1. Choose your target wisely. Some of your friends might be more susceptible to reverse psychology than others. You probably already know which ones. Use it on them.

2. Create awareness. Let's say you want your opponent to make move X, but he or she isn't even looking at that option. It's worth a try saying something like, "Well obviously you don't want to make move X." This draws your target's attention to the move, and also might elicit some reactance. "You can't tell me what to do!"

3. Set the stage. You might need to establish a context to maximize the effect. For example, if you want to get wood while playing Agricola, first suggest that your opponent get wood. But make sure you make the suggestion immediately after a couple of ridiculous, joking suggestions. This may prime your opponent to see getting wood as an equally useless thing to do.

4. Exaggerate your preferred option. Maybe you are playing an auction game like Power Grid and you really want to win the auction you are initiating. You could try transparently praising the qualities of the plant. "Best coal plant in the game. The BEST. You want it, don't you?” Your opponents will sense you are trying to push them into something and back off, letting you purchase it cheaply.

5. Push your bluffs. This shows confidence and makes people doubt themselves. Say you are playing Scrabble and you just played a word of questionnable validity. If your opponent is looking suspicious, you should immediately take control and use a reverse suggestion. "Oh, you don't think that's a word? Ha, are you challenging? Go ahead and challenge it!"

6. Don't overuse it. Only use reverse psychology once or maybe twice during a game. If you do it too much, people will catch on and then it will probably be worse than ineffective. It will probably backfire. Then you'll have, wait for it... Reverse-reverse psychology.

7. Don't use it at all. Reverse psychology is sneaky, manipulative, and ethically questionable, as well as being only inconsistently effective. Maybe you shouldn't be using it. Honestly, I feel a little slimy after writing out these suggestions.

Reverse psychology has been used from time to time in marketing, often in an ironic or clever way. Patagonia ran a campaign a few years ago suggesting that people should not buy their jackets. Instead customers were encouraged to reuse and recycle, promoting an environmentalist message in the context of a novel and humorous sales pitch. As a consequence, Patagonia sold a lot of jackets.

Reverse psychology is used very infrequently by actual psychologists. One exception to this is a highly unusual counseling technique known as Provocative Therapy. The idea is to "attack" your clients and put them on the defensive, inspiring them to stand up for themselves and thereby get better. "You're right, your life is pretty much ruined, isn't it?" This is supposed to be done with exaggeration and humor, in a way that should lead clients to develop a healthier perspective on their problems. Interesting stuff. But like reverse psychology itself, I'm not convinced that it should be used very often.

Thanks for reading, but please don't subscribe to this blog. It's better to live your life by luck and not get notifications about updates, don't you think?
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Wed Jun 13, 2018 4:05 pm
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Game Day or Game Night?

Corey Butler
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When do you typically get together with friends to play games? Evenings or afternoons? Afternoons allow more potential game time, but they usually need to be scheduled either Saturday or Sunday. Evenings can be scheduled any day of the week, but how much energy do you have to game when you've spent a long day at work? Because gaming is a social arrangement, this decision will likely be a compromise about what works best for the majority of the group. But which time would be your personal preference?

I like afternoon gaming. Yes, I'm willing to play games in the evening, especially card games, which seem to pair well with beer. I also enjoy light, two-player games with my wife after dinner. But by 9:00, I'm starting to wind down. My eyes glaze over, my conversation disappears, and my strategic thinking drops too. I definitely don't like playing long epic games in the evening, or learning new games. I suspect I'm not alone.

It's been estimated that about 15% of the population falls under the category of morning person. That's me. I've even got the microbadge to prove it. I'm not saying I can't be tempted by the snooze button, but I do tend to get out of bed pretty easily, and within a half an hour or so I am fully alert, feeling good, and ready to go. My wife is a little more sluggish in the morning. It takes her an hour or more to really get moving, but she can stay up much longer than me in the evening. She's an evening person, in that other 15% on the opposite end of the distribution. Most people are somewhere in the middle, with perhaps only a small, inconsistent preference in one direction or the other.

From gallery of shotokanguy

If your score is ten or more, you might be a morning person.

Circadian preferences, like morningness and eveningness, are heritable traits, showing quite a lot of stability over the lifespan. You can retrain your rhythm to some extent, especially if you do it gradually and consistently, but at some point you will be fighting against nature. Incidentally, if you read any of my earlier blog entries on personality, you might be interested to know that morningness is correlated with the Big Five trait of conscientiousness. Morning people tend to get more done and be more achievement oriented, though this could simply be the result of their schedules lining up better with our culture's work norms and expectations.

Although people tend to maintain their relative positions on morningness and eveningness in comparison to each other, there are also longitudinal changes that occur over the lifespan. Preferences for an evening schedule peak among adolescents, who have a great deal of trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Ask any parent if you don't believe me. Later in life, after age 50 or so, people tend to shift toward a greater preference for earlier activities. Senior citizens tend to be more interested in the early bird special for dinner, and an early bedtime too.

Poll
1. What is your circadian preference?
2. When does your gaming group normally meet?
      46 answers
Poll created by shotokanguy


If you are a morning person in a game group that usually meets in the evening, you are going to be at a slight disadvantage. Not only will you be more prone to mistakes, but you might not even enjoy a game as much if you are learning it in the evening. This is something to be aware of when you go to rate it on BGG the next day. If you found the theme lacking, or the mechanics overly fiddly, you might want to consider your circadian preference and what time of day it was when you learned the game.

Caffeine is a well known cure for morning people who have to stay up later than they would like. Caffeine activates the cerebral cortex and improves alertness and cognitive function when you are drowsy. But be careful! Caffeine is not a complete fix and will not necessarily make you play or feel 100%. Caffeine also has a long half-life (maybe 5-6 hours) and can keep you from falling asleep long after game night is over.
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Wed Jun 6, 2018 4:00 pm
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Heavy Games are Better Games

Corey Butler
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Last week I suggested that game weight, rated on a 5-point scale here at BoardGameGeek, could be best conceptualized as cognitive load. This is the amount of information that we need to hold in working memory while we are performing a task. Simply put, heavy games require more thinking (information processing) than light games. This week, I wanted to examine the association between game weight and the perceived quality or popularity of a game, as operationalized by average user rating. It looks like there is a pretty substantial, linear relationship between these two variables. As a general rule, the heavier the game, the better the rating.

According to an analysis done by Chris Wray and Jeff Lingwall at The Opinionated Gamers, heavy games and newer games are rated higher than light games and older games. A look at their graph below indicates that the very best games (rated 8+) tend to be relatively recent heavyweights. Really, all you have to do is check out the top ranked games and you can see this for yourself. Illustrative examples include Gloomhaven, Through the Ages, and Terraforming Mars.

From gallery of shotokanguy



Another recent analysis done at Ludometrica found a nearly identical scatterplot, though this one is broken down by weight and playing time, rather than weight and publication year. Heavy, longer games are rated higher, and unsurprisingly, there also seems to be an association between weight and playing time. Take a look at the next graph, which looks like it includes the entire BGG database.

From gallery of shotokanguy


Incidentally, if you haven't checked out Ludometrica, do yourself a favor and click on the link. His principle components analysis of Gamer Genotypes dovetails nicely with the work on gamer motivational styles I've discussed here. Briefly summarized, he found that in addition to a large, general factor loading on all types of games, there were distinct preference profiles for thematic vs. strategy gamers, wargamers, and social gamers.

Now back to the topic of game weight and game ratings. I put together my own analysis exploring the association between these two variables for over 300 games I had data on. My scatterplot (below) replicates the previous two, but I also computed the Pearson correlation between the variables, which turned out to be r = .62, p < .001. The correlation between game rating and playing time was quite a bit smaller, r = .32, p < .001. The partial correlation between game rating and weight rating, controlling for playing time, was only slightly reduced, r = .58, p < .001. It seems clear that heavier games receive higher ratings on BGG, and this relationship does not appear to be the result of other variables, like publication year and playing time.

From gallery of shotokanguy


Why would heavy games be better games? Heavy, meaty, "thinky" games might provide a more challenging and engaging experience with more opportunity for flow. Light games are fine for socializing and diversion, but they tend to be fillers. Often, their main purpose is to kill time while people are waiting for the main event to begin. I don't care how much you love Azul, I doubt you would want to spend the whole afternoon playing such a light game. Truly memorable, epic gaming experiences that motivate high ratings are most likely to come from big, heavy games in big, literally heavy boxes.

Two Objections Considered...

But wait a minute. People do love Azul and they rate it highly, putting it in the Top 50 here on BGG. Personally, I love Bananagrams and that is about as light as a game can get. Don't these two games refute the hypothesis? No because we are talking about a general pattern, and until the correlation is 1.00, there are going to be exceptions. Some light games are quite good, and likewise, some heavy games are utter garbage. The third edition of Twilight Imperium, for example. devil

Well what about sampling? Obviously this result only applies to people who rate games on BoardGameGeek. The vast majority of the population will not necessarily enjoy heavy games more. Therefore, my conclusion, heavy games are better games may only hold true among hobby gamers, that is, people who love to play games. But that is probably the best group to judge how good a game is, don’t you think?

Whew, all this talk about weights and heaviness has been quite a workout. Next week we will relax a bit and talk about a different topic related to games and psychology.
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Wed May 30, 2018 4:00 pm
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What do we mean by Game Weight?

Corey Butler
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If you visit a game page at BoardGameGeek, you'll have the opportunity to make two different kinds of ratings. One allows you to rate the game on a scale of 1-10 in terms of how much you enjoy playing it. This rating is THE rating, the one that determines the rank of the game. The other rating, over on the right side of the screen, is the weight rating, which is on a scale of 1-5. This somewhat neglected metric has always been problematic, and there have been long discussions on what it means, if anything. "Weight" is just a metaphor, but intuitively it seems to refer to something that we should be able to measure. Today I'd like to take a closer look at game weight and see if we can understand it a little better with some input from cognitive psychology.

Game weight has been subtitled "complexity" in an attempt to clarify what it means. Complexity could be quantified in terms of how many rules, mechanics, or components are involved in the game. It could also refer to how difficult the game is to learn. The BGG wiki page offers the following additional suggestions...

For different people weight means different things, usually a combination of things like:
*How complex/thick is the rulebook?
*How long does it take to play?
*What proportion of time is spent thinking and planning instead of resolving actions?
*How hard and long do you have to think to improve your chance of winning?
*How little luck is in the game?
*How much technical skill (math, reading ahead moves, etc) is necessary?
*How long does it take to learn the rules?
*How many times do you need to play before you feel like you "get" the game?
Etc...


Are these descriptions helpful or do they just muddy the waters further? Should we try to conceptualize weight as a single, unidimensional entity, or are we stuck with this multifaceted kitchen sink? The trouble with the kitchen sink approach is that weight ratings might not be very meaningful if people are thinking of different things and comparing apples to grapefruits. But how do we achieve a consensus definition when there are so many different opinions?

Coming at this from a psychological perspective, I believe that game weight is best conceptualized as cognitive load, which refers to the quantity of information held in working memory during the performance of a task. For example, adding 76 plus 47 in your head involves more cognitive load, and thus more effort, than adding 6 plus 7. Trying to calculate three moves ahead in chess involves more load than visualizing only one move ahead. Likewise, playing Agricola involves more cognitive load than playing Yahtzee. Cognitive load is closely linked to complexity, but only incidentally linked to other features mentioned in the wiki article, like presence of luck and playing time.

Cognitive load can be a good thing if you really enjoy getting into a game and thinking about it. But if it becomes too much of a burden, player aids and cheat sheets are a great way to remove the tedious parts of load so you can focus on strategy and tactics. The main problem is that working memory is a limited capacity system. It can only hold about five items at a time. Fortunately, with the development of expertise, much of the work in a game is outsourced to automated habits and schemas in long-term memory, lessening the cognitive load one experiences while playing.

From gallery of shotokanguy


Let's test this idea further by looking at some sample weight ratings...

Rise and Decline of the Third Reich (W=4.32)
Gloomhaven (W=3.75)
Chess (W=3.74)
Agricola (W=3.63)
Axis & Allies (W=3.04)
General Quarters (W=2.30)
Carcassonne (W=1.93)
Ticket to Ride (W=1.87)
Yahtzee (W=1.19)

These ratings represent how "heavy" the games are in the minds of the people who rated them. We have no idea what the raters were thinking about when they made the ratings, but they seem to line up reasonably well with the cognitive load model. Third Reich has many, many rules and pieces to keep track of in working memory, whereas Yahtzee clearly does not. The naval miniatures game, General Quarters is a problem though. I would rate it considerably heavier than Axis & Allies in terms of complexity and cognitive load. Were these games rated by the same population of gamers?

Muzafer Sherif's social judgment theory proposes that people make judgments according to internalized standards or anchors. All judgments are subjective, according to an individual's particular frame of reference. Thus, weightlifters judge test weights as lighter than watchmakers, and wargamers may well perceive certain games as lighter than nonwargamers. For a wargamer interested in historical naval miniatures, General Quarters is fairly lightweight. A euro gamer who has played Axis & Allies a couple of times would almost certainly rate General Quarters a 4 or a 5. This is a real measurement problem for weight ratings, regardless of whether or not we tie the concept to cognitive load theory.

When I came up with the idea of weight as cognitive load, I thought it was a pretty original concept. Naturally, a google search revealed that others have used this same terminology. User Joel Wolski even suggested a nice approach for handling individual differences in perception of weight. Rather than using gaming background as I suggested above (e.g. wargamer vs. nonwargamer), his formula proposes that weight could be viewed as a function of cognitive load and gamer's strength...

[Game weight] = [game's cognitive load] ÷ [gamer's strength]

It's a nice solution and can account for how games could receive the same weight rating despite having objectively different levels of cognitive load. Now all we have to do is figure out what "strength" means.
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Wed May 23, 2018 2:05 pm
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Game Theory, Intelligence, and Strategic Thinking

Corey Butler
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I recently read an article titled "Do individuals with higher cognitive ability play more strategically?" by Juan Benito-Ostolaza and his colleagues, published in 2016 in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics. As a strategy board gamer and a psychologist, how could I not take a closer look?

The participants in the study played a perfect information, Nash equilibrium game (the Schelling segregation game) in which they made decisions about where to move in respect to the positions of other players. At the beginning of the game, players were given either a black or white scarf, and a starting place within a circle of other players. The rules of the game indicate that players will be "happiest," and make money at the end of the game, when they are standing next to at least one other player of the same color scarf. Each player gets a single turn in which he or she can decide to move (which may cost money) or stay in place. They played multiple games with various different costs for moving. The starting configuration for the game is on the left side of the picture below, and the optimal equilibrium solution is on the right.

From gallery of shotokanguy

Is it rational to assume that everyone else plays rationally?

All right, this is not going to be the hottest new party game on BGG, but it is easy to teach, equally unfamiliar to everyone, and involves a moderately difficult cognitive challenge that can be studied in the laboratory. As moving costs increase, there is greater incentive to play strategically, i.e. staying in an unhappy location with the assumption that the next player in the circle will be forced to move, thus making the person happy. For example, the most strategic move for the first player is to stay put because the last player (#8 in the diagram) will most likely be compelled to move. Yeah, I had to read the procedure a couple of times before all this made sense.

Now here is the interesting bit. After the participants were finished with the game, they were given a test of fluid intelligence, Raven's Progressive Matrices. This test contains 60 items in increasing difficulty which challenge the participant to identify the missing piece to a puzzle, as shown in the picture below. Raven's test has been around for years and is considered to be a valid, reliable, and relatively culture-fair measure of general cognitive ability.

From gallery of shotokanguy

If you like this kind of puzzle, you should probably be playing SET.

The results of the study showed that the percentage of players acting strategically and making the optimal move for their position is higher among individuals with high values on Raven’s test, particularly for players scoring at or higher than the 50th percentile on the test. The authors concluded that general intelligence has important practical applications, not just in abstract games, but in business settings where strategic planning is important. Critics of IQ tests claim that they don't measure anything meaningful, but here is evidence from game theory that they do.

I'll end with a personal story. My IQ is above average, but definitely short of genius level. This is probably why I had to read over the procedure a couple of times and think it through before I could follow the authors' reasoning about strategic play. On the other hand, I've known several very high IQ people in my life, and I can say anecdotally that they are extremely quick to understand game rules and pick out optimal strategies. Some years ago, I taught one of these friends, a physicist by profession, to play TAMSK. Keep in mind that I'm not a great TAMSK player, but I had played maybe a dozen games previously. Anyway, I won the first game, I barely won the second game, and he won every game after that. Intelligence isn't everything, but it certainly helps people to think efficiently, understand systems, and recognize patterns.
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Tue May 15, 2018 8:05 pm
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