Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming

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Luck and Illusion in Jaipur

Corey Butler
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After reading several recommendations for the two-player card game, Jaipur, I decided to give it a try and ordered it on Amazon. I've now played three times, which certainly doesn't make me an expert, but it has given me a pretty good sense of the game. I've noticed that a particular experience keeps recurring. Something sort of psychological, one might say...

Jaipur is a highly detailed simulation of trading and camel swapping in the city of Jaipur, India. Ha, just kidding. Jaipur is actually a light, set collection game that involves taking turns flipping over cards, drafting them, and eventually trading them in for victory points. But here's the thing about Jaipur. It feels like you are often in the position of taking a somewhat crappy card like spice or cloth, and then revealing a much more valuable gold or diamonds card for your opponent to take. This happens incredibly frequently, so much so that you get in the habit of flinching and saying "ack" (or something like that) when setting up your opponent with some good cards. The sense of luck can feel overwhelming. In fact, the only negative comment I've seen about this game is that there is too much luck in it. And in one of the three games I played, my opponent quit halfway through in disgust, saying exactly that. Too much luck!

Board Game: Jaipur

Look at that red diamonds card. One of these players just got lucky!

All right, let's think about this. Abstract strategy games involve little or no luck, and "games of chance" are based entirely on luck. Both can be enjoyable under the right circumstances. The vast majority of games involve a certain degree of randomness. Finding that sweet spot, that ideal combination of skill and luck, can mean the difference between a very good game and one that is excessively random and frustrating. The question is, where on this spectrum does Jaipur fall?

I believe that the way Jaipur is played makes the luck appear to be greater than it actually is. When a card is flipped over, both players are focusing their attention on the card. If it is an average card, attention quickly moves on, but if it is a good card, and especially if it is my opponents turn, I will definitely notice and have a strong emotional reaction. "What the... You get gold again? Are you kidding me?!" People will pay less attention to average cards, and good cards they get to draft, but they will vividly remember every time their opponent gets a good card. This heightened salience is going to lead to a certain cognitive bias called Illusory Correlation.

Illusory Correlation is the perception of a meaningful relationship between two unrelated events that are highly salient and occur in close proximity. Illusory correlation accounts for the common belief in police officers and emergency room workers that the full moon brings out crazy behavior. There is no actual statistical relationship here, but the illusion is caused by us being more likely to notice and remember the coincidence of a full moon and something crazy happening. We tend to forget about all those times when nothing happened while the moon was full.

Illusory correlation is caused by our brain's natural tendency to look for patterns and meaning. Evolutionarily speaking, it is probably better to have a few false positives (potential superstitions) than to miss actual correlations among events (yes, those berries are poisonous). Illusions of correlation and causation have led to common but mistaken beliefs about joint pain predicting the weather, gay men having high pitched voices, and adoption leading to pregnancy. In each case, we tend to remember the combination of occurences and forget all the times that one event occurred without the other.

The same mechanism occurs in Jaipur. If it happens to be your turn and I happen to turn over a particularly nice card, I will notice and remember the event. If it happens a couple of times, I will be convinced that you are a lucky person, or that the game is ruined by an excessive amount of luck. In reality, there are many opportunities to get cards in Jaipur, especially since each game is a set of three matches. The laws of probability tell us that "luck" should even out.

Now that I've written this, I think I've only scratched the surface on the effects of illusory correlation and other cognitive biases on our perceptions of game play. Stay tuned for more blog entries like this one.
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Mon May 7, 2018 5:35 pm
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Psychological Types of Magic Players

Corey Butler
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So here's something new. I recently did an interview with Gabe Barrett for the Board Game Design Lab podcast. Gabe heard about my blog from another BGG user and was interested in talking about the psychology of board games, especially as the topic pertains to game design. I agreed, somewhat reluctantly. I'm most comfortable in the structured environment of a class lecture or an academic article (or blog), when I've had some time to think what I'm saying. The interview was fun, but I'm not sure I had anything really insightful or even coherent for all of Gabe's questions. Hopefully he won't release the podcast if it is too terrible!

Anyway, at one point in the interview, Gabe asked me what I thought of the three types of magic players. I had never heard of this, but he explained what he meant, and I found a couple of online articles on the topic after we finished the interview. Apparently, it is a pretty well known phenomenon within the Magic community. These psychological or "psychographic" types have even influenced the research and development of new card sets for the game. This is because you need to have a good balance of cards with something for everyone. What follows is a description of each type, plus my own speculative, psychological analysis...

From gallery of shotokanguy


First we have Timmy. Timmy (AKA Tammy) is the power gamer who wants to win big by crushing his or her opponents. Naturally, Timmy likes cards with big creatures and big spells. For this type of player, the magnitude of the win is viewed as more important than the number of wins, so they don't mind losing a few games if they can get one really epic win. From what I read online, Timmy tends to be younger in age, or at least that is the common stereotype of them in the Magic crowd.

Johnny or Jenny has a completely different type of personality. He or she likes to win with style, by playing creative and interesting combinations of cards, for example. The experience of building the deck and thinking up the potential combos may be just as important as playing the deck. Like Timmy, Johnny cares about the quality of the victory more than the quantity of victories. For this player, the game is all about artistry, self-expression, and the discovery of interesting new themes and ideas.

The third type of Magic player is Spike. Spike is the competitive player who just likes to win. The magnitude and the style of the win is not important, but the thrill of victory is. Deck design is all about optimization and efficiency, not big creatures or interesting ideas. This kind of player tends to be drawn to tournament play, where he or she will probably do very well because of this emphasis on winning over other aspects of the game.

From gallery of shotokanguy


I thought I would try to map these three types onto the Big Five personality factors that I've discussed on previous occasions. It seems to me that people who are high on Openness to Experience would be most likely to become Johnnies. The creative, intellectual exercise of designing a cool deck should be appealing to them. On the other hand, people who are high on Conscientiousness (and achievement motivation) may be more likely to become Spikes. This is a more practical approach, about victory rather than artistic expression.

I'm less confident about Timmy, so I'm trying to be careful here, but Timmy is often described as a younger, less mature gamer, correct? Timmy has neither the intellectual sophistication of Johnny, nor the mature pragmatism of Spike. This suggests that Timmy has an immature or developing personality. If Timmy plays big creature cards in compensation for inadequacy, then neuroticism could also be indicated. Wanting to win big and destroy one's opponent could suggest low agreeableness. All of these thoughts are mere speculations, begging for an empirical study to support or refute them.

If these three types reflect universal personality styles, and not just some idiosyncratic artifact of playing Magic, then we should see them appearing in other games. I don't know about you, but I think I've seen all three while playing roleplaying games like D&D and Pathfinder. Timmy wants to be a hulking barbarian with a two-handed sword, or a wizard that can cast big spells like Fireball. So called "Munchkins" would fall under this category too, though some of them could be Johnnies. Johnnies love mining the Pathfinder rules for interesting character ideas, and clever combinations of skills and feats. And there are Spikes, though they are probably less common in RPGs, where you don't really "win" the game, and the whole point of playing is the experience. Still, some players tend to focus mostly on completing the adventure and leveling up, rather than exploring and roleplaying.

Chess players show some of these same patterns. Spike is very common in tournaments, where the only thing that matters is scoring a point, or half a point for a draw. Johnny is less common, but some players do like to play interesting and unusual openings for aesthetic reasons, or look for checkmates with unusual combinations of pieces. Johnny likes to mate with Bishops, whereas Spike only cares that it is checkmate. Timmy also makes an appearance in chess, especially in the scholastic crowd of younger, less experienced players. Timmy's favorite piece? Usually the Queen, but possibly the Knight, which can be unpredictable and ferocious among beginning chess players. Spike's favorite piece? Whichever one is strongest in a given position.

Have you ever met Timmy, Johnny or Spike? What other games are they playing? Thanks for reading!
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Wed May 2, 2018 3:00 pm
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The Persistence of Memory

Corey Butler
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A couple of Sundays ago, we had a big snowstorm in Minnesota where I live. It seemed like a good opportunity to stay home all day and play a monster board game, preferably something we hadn't played in a long time. My wife and I decided to brush the dust off of Axis & Allies and reenact World War II.

We received Axis & Allies as a Christmas present some time in the late 1980s. Barb and I have always played games together and I'm a bit of a WWII buff, so this was a great gift for us. I remember being so impressed by this giant box full of little plastic pieces. Sure, it's not a very accurate simulation of the war, but I always won at chess, Barb always won at Scrabble, and she wouldn't play Squad Leader, so what else were we going to play? We must have played a couple of dozen games of Axis & Allies over the next few years, well into the 1990s. Then we found Settlers of Catan and that was the end of that. A&A has been languishing at the bottom of our games cabinet ever since. We hadn't played it in about a decade.

From gallery of shotokanguy

Our game collection, circa 1990. The astute observer will find a copy of SPI's War of the Ring in this picture. Not to mention my wife holding a plate of scones.

I got the game out and started setting it up. Then I started reading the rules. I always look over the rulebook before playing a game I haven't played recently because I don't have a great memory for rules. But this time I remembered all the rules. I remembered how combat worked, how armor can blitz through an undefended area, how subs get a sneak attack, and everything else. After we started playing, I noticed that I even remembered the prices of everything. Infantry costs 3, fighters cost 12, transports cost 8, and never buy battleships.

From gallery of shotokanguy

The British attempt an early invasion at Normandy. It failed, several times. Such a senseless waste of life.

But wait a minute. As I said before, I don't have a great memory for rules. Just a month ago I brought out Reef Encounter and I had to re-read the rules from beginning to end. I couldn't remember how to play at all, despite the fact that I've played Reef Encounter at least as many times as I've played Axis and Allies. And it's a more recent game in our collection. Are the rules for Reef Encounter that much more difficult and complicated? I don't think so.

It turns out there is a well documented memory effect at work here. Proactive interference is the tendency for previously learned information to inhibit memory for information learned later on. As the following graph shows, memory for word lists is worse for people who have already had to learn other lists of words. In these studies, every list is memorized equally well. Yet there is a powerful effect on memory when the lists are recalled after a delay, and this is a function of the amount of previous learning.

From gallery of shotokanguy

Data showing the effect of proactive interference on memory for lists of words (Underwood, 1957).

My memory for Axis & Allies is very good even after a long delay, because it is deep in the left part of the graph. Research also shows that the more similar information is, the more interference there will be. A wargame will interfere more with another wargame than it will interfere with something completely different, like Pictionary. The exception would be if the two games use identical elements, like A&A style dice rolling, or common hex and counter mechanics. Then memory could actually benefit from the prior learning.

Now that I'm writing this blog, I can think of lots of game related examples of proactive interference. Consider the mess of information in my brain about how to play Dungeons and Dragons. It would be different if I played regularly, but I have a terrible time remembering which rules apply in which edition. When I'm playing, I sometimes even default back to the old AD&D rules, which I haven't used for years, but which were the first rules I learned.

In psychology, the memory advantage for early information over later information is called the primacy effect. Of course, there is also a recency effect, but it tends to be temporary. Now that I've learned how to play Reef Encounter again, I should be able to remember the rules for a few months. But if I wait too long, I'll have to read the rulebook again. On the other hand, I'll probably always remember how to play Axis & Allies.

I'd like to end this post with some suggestions for game designers to help us avoid proactive interference. First, consider designing game mechanics that are either very distinct or identical to mechanics in other games. Rules that are similar but just a little different will lead to the most interference, confusion, and mistakes. Second, it's clear that meaningful, logical, and intuitive rules that fit the theme of the game will be remembered better. In lab experiments, meaningful words are remembered far better than nonsense syllables. Third, whenever possible give us reference cards and memory cues on the board. Even little symbols can be surprisingly helpful. Most memory loss is from retrieval failure, so cues and reminders can make a big difference.

Thanks for reading, and don't forget to give me a thumbs up or write a comment below if you've ever experienced any of these memory effects!
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Wed Apr 25, 2018 3:05 pm
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Flow: Gaming for Optimal Experience

Corey Butler
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The concept of flow was developed by psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (that's pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High). It describes a state of deep enjoyment and total immersion in a particular task or activity. Flow involves highly focused attention, which in turn leads to some interesting psychological effects, such as reduced self-awareness and altered time perception. Time flies when you are having flow, when you lose yourself in what you are doing. The state of flow can be viewed as the opposite of distracted mindwandering-- you know, those moments when you are flipping back and forth between your cell phone and that show you are only half watching on Netflix. Importantly, flow is associated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than other states of mind.

In some of the pioneering research on flow, participants were paged randomly during the day and asked to report how they felt and what they were doing. Often, the highest levels of meaning and satisfaction were reported in people who were completely absorbed in something. A variety of activities can produce flow, including sports, playing music, making art, and naturally... playing board games! Csikszentmihalyi talked mainly about chess, but other games should also be capable of producing flow. In fact, anything that allows us to experience a high level of challenge matched by an equally high level of skill should be conducive to this experience. According to Csikszentmihalyi, clear goals, ongoing feedback, feeling in control, and intrinsic motivation all increase the likelihood of flow. These are common ingredients in many board games.

From gallery of shotokanguy


This is my interpretation of Csikszentmihalyi's model. I've often experienced flow while playing chess, other abstracts, heavy Euro games, and sometimes wargames. The frequent delays of having to wait a long time to take my turn, and the interruption of having to look up rules tends to limit my flow during wargames. If I'm losing at chess, or really any game, I'm likely to end up in the upper left corner. In that situation, my skill is not up to the challenge. If I'm playing something mindless like Bingo or Yahtzee, I'm probably going to be sitting in the lower left "apathy" zone. Finally, there are games like St. Petersburg which are not really challenging enough to lead to flow, but still pleasant enough for relaxation and socializing. For me, that puts them somewhere in the lower central part of the graph.

I'm not the first person to apply the theory of flow to board games. Marco Arnaudo started a thread on this a couple of years ago and it is definitely worth a read. The discussion there suggests that games are more likely to produce flow when they are well learned and have minimal downtime. One person even mentioned that the flow experience of playing board games helped relieve a chronic pain condition. However, several people said that video games were more likely to produce flow, and that board games do not always produce enough of an immersive experience. I'm sure that, as in all things, it depends on the game and on the gamer.

The highest rated games on BGG should be pretty good at eliciting a state of flow in people who play them, right? I'm pretty familiar with both editions of Through the Ages, so let's take a closer look at that one. Among skilled players, there should be minimal downtime as cards are laid out and drafted. The goals are clear and there is ongoing feedback in terms of generated resources, science, and victory points. On the other hand, the complexity of the rules might inhibit flow, especially in people who are less familiar with the game. But that complexity makes the game challenging, which should contribute to flow as players develop their skill at it. I've experienced flow while playing Through the Ages, but I definitely lose that feeling if I have to wait too long to make a move.

For me, the game that leads to flow most consistently is blitz chess. It's challenging, provides instant feedback, and constantly requires my full attention. I can lose myself playing blitz and completely tune out what's going on around me. And it's incredibly addictive. This makes me wonder if games that involve time pressure, or playing in "real time" like Galaxy Trucker and Bananagrams, are especially likely to produce flow. They certainly demand one's complete attention. Someone really needs to do a study on this...

Have you experienced flow during board games? What games have done it for you? Let me know in the comments!
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Wed Apr 18, 2018 3:05 pm
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Grading the Rating Scale

Corey Butler
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Do game ratings mean anything? Would they be more meaningful if we changed the rating system? These questions have probably been asked since the very beginning of BoardGameGeek. Let's see if we can illuminate the debate with a little behavioral science research.

Games have always been rated on a 10-point scale at this website, though the verbal descriptions of the ratings have been edited at least once. A 10-point scale has a lot of intuitive appeal. We have ten fingers, use base 10 mathematics, talk about 10 yard intervals in football, and rate lots of things on a scale of one to ten. But some gamers think we need more choices and add decimal points to their ratings. "A rating of 6 would be too generous. Let's make it 5.5..." These folks might prefer a scale of 1 to 20, or even 1 to 100. On the other hand, we could go in the opposite direction and use a 7-point scale, or perhaps a 5-point scale, which is actually the most common range in personality testing and attitude measurement. We could make it even simpler and follow Netflix's lead with a 2-point, thumbs up vs. thumbs down rating. Which is best? Does it matter?

From gallery of shotokanguy

The BGG rating system in action!

Let's decide right now that it matters. I think there is plenty of evidence that, although not perfect, ratings tell us something important about quality and popularity. The difference between Tigris & Euphrates and Connect Four is meaningful, and the gap between their average ratings is a reasonable quantification of this difference. The fact that BGG rankings correlate with independent game reviewer's rankings is further evidence of their validity. And you must agree that ratings mean something, otherwise why would you be reading a post about the rating system? Let's move on to the other half of the argument. Exactly how many response options (or points) on the rating scale would be optimal?

I'm pretty sure that a 100-point scale would be overkill. There is evidence that too many choices actually inhibit judgments, and we might also mention George Miller's (1956) classic paper on the limits of cognitive processing. Miller found that across a variety of sensory judgments and memory tasks, people can only make sense of about seven "plus or minus two" options or categories before performance is impaired. This seems like as good a yardstick as any for approximating how many degrees of judgment are appropriate. I suspect that if we did have a 100-point scale for game ratings, most people would think in terms of the nearest ten, e.g. 70, 80, etc. Trying to decide if a game was a 7.1 or a 7.3 could be an exercise in measurement error.

Like Goldilocks, I will argue that more than ten points is too much range, and under three points is probably not enough. It is a truism in attitude research that you have to give people some kind of middle ground, typically something like "neutral, not sure, or can't decide." To do otherwise is to artificially compel people who would rather sit on the fence to go one way or the other. This is called forced choice, and it's not used much anymore, for good reason. But then why did Netflix switch to their current thumb ratings? I can't say for sure, but it could have been to make the system simple enough for the broadest possible audience. I believe I also read something to the effect that people might give more authentic preference ratings with thumbs up or thumbs down, rather than acting like movie critics with a rating scale. "I didn't really enjoy the movie, but all the critics like it, so I will say it's a 3..."

Psychometric research indicates that a relatively larger scale range generally gives higher statistical reliability, especially among informed and motivated raters (like us Geeks!). Bob Altemeyer did an extensive investigation of this in his studies on authoritarianism, comparing 5-point, 7-point, and 9-point attitude scales. He found that 9-point scales were superior. Preston and Coleman (2000) asked people to rate their experiences with a recently visited store or restaurant on scales ranging from 2 to 11. They found that the 2-point, 3-point, and 4-point scales performed relatively poorly, whereas the most valid and reliable scales were those with 7, 8, 9, and 10-point response options. Interestingly, participants liked the 10-point scale best overall, suggesting as I mentioned before, that there is something intuitively satisfying about a 10-point rating scale.

From gallery of shotokanguy

A valid and reliable, short measure of happiness developed by Fordyce, 1988

In light of all this research, I have to conclude that the 10-point rating scale we currently use is either nearly optimal, or entirely optimal for our purposes. Furthermore, the verbal anchors embedded in the scale provide additional psychometric benefits, helping people to determine roughly what a 6 means and how it differs from a 7. Consider the 10-point, oops 11-point, emotion scale by Michael Fordyce, provided above. It has been used effectively in many studies on the psychology of happiness.

There will always be subjectivity and measurement error, but the 10-point scale is a good one. I'll give it a thumbs up. thumbsup
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Wed Apr 11, 2018 3:00 pm
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Don't Worry... You Can Trust Me

Corey Butler
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Trust is a big deal in psychology. According to Erik Erikson and the attachment theorists, the first task of childhood is the development of a healthy level of trust in others. Later in life, trust is critical in the formation of friendships and romantic relationships. Failure to trust others can contribute to anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

Behavioral economics researchers have studied trust in the laboratory with a procedure called the investment game, or trust game. It goes something like this. Two anonymous strangers play the game in different rooms in the lab. The first player is given an amount of money and may then decide how much (if any) will be sent to the second player. Whatever is sent to the second player is tripled in value, and then the second player can decide how much (if any) will be sent back to the first player. The amount of money sent by the first player is the critical dependent variable, and the question is, how much will this person trust a stranger?

Classic economics theory suggests that, since these people will never actually meet or interact with each other again, there is not much reason or incentive for them to trust each other. Therefore, if everyone makes decisions purely by rational self-interest, the first player should send no money to the second, and the second player should send no money back. But that's not what happens. Consider the following histogram based on data from a meta-analysis of 162 separate empirical studies (Johnson & Mislin, 2011).

From gallery of shotokanguy


The X-axis shows the average proportion of money sent to the second player, aggregated across studies. People typically send about half their money to the stranger in the other room. That's a fairly high level of trust, certainly more than would be expected by players attempting to maximize their own gains with the assumption that everyone else was doing the same. It's also worth noting that the distribution for the amount sent back was very similar (though a little lower) meaning that people are both more trusting and trustworthy than the assumption of pure self-interest would suggest.

How does trust manifest itself in board games, like Diplomacy for example? The situation is a little different because there are multiple players interacting over a longer period of time, and they are not usually strangers to one another. Then again, at least some degree of uncertainty about trusting another person is still there. The Diplomacy player is always going to wonder, can I trust this person at the critical moment to help me, or is he or she going to stab me in the back? Likewise, the sheriff in BANG! may have to decide: can I trust this person sitting next to me who claims to be my deputy, or should I just shoot everyone and sort them out later?

In the laboratory, most people display some level of trust, and in board games too, most people eventually end up trusting someone. There are exceptions. I used to know a guy who treated all game interactions as zero-sum competitions. He usually refused to cooperate, collaborate, share, or trust anyone in the game. He wouldn't even trade cards in Settlers of Catan. He didn't often win at Settlers of Catan either. Social interaction and trust are necessary features of human life, and this includes a lot of board games. My friend was a real outlier because most people are willing to work together and trust each other up to a point. The Trust Game shows this happens even when, arguably, the most reasonable choice is to not trust the other person.

Here’s a postscript. I spent a little over a year playing around with the trust game. My student research assistants ran about 100 participants while I looked at possible associations between trust and authoritarianism. I figured authoritarians might be more likely to trust a designated authority figure but less likely to trust a random stranger. What did I find? Nothing but nonsignificant results. At least I got a blog post out of it!
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Wed Apr 4, 2018 3:00 pm
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There are Two Kinds of Gamers in the World

Corey Butler
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Everyone knows there are two kinds of gamers, those who arrange their bits neatly in front of them, and those who leave them in a disorganized pile. The interesting psychological question is whether or not this particular quirk of expressive behavior reveals anything deeper about underlying personality traits. In contemporary personality theory, the trait in question is called conscientiousness, but it wasn't always known by that name.

Sigmund Freud was the first psychologist to identify this pattern of behavior. He called it the "anal retentive" personality type and linked it to toilet training experiences in early childhood. According to the theory, children treated too forcefully during this stage will develop a lasting preoccupation with being excessively neat and orderly. The opposite path is also possible, and labeled anal expulsiveness, a tendency toward disorganization and carelessness. Neil Simon's The Odd Couple was centered around the conflict between these two diametrically opposed character types. It makes for an interesting story, but not many psychologists believe in Freud's psychodynamic explanation anymore.

The theory may have been false, but the personality description was spot on. According to the Big Five approach, people who are highly conscientiousness tend to be organized, punctual, ambitious, and hard working. Those lower in conscientiousness are more laid back, perhaps a bit lazy, disorganized, and irresponsible. Are gamers who neatly organize their playing pieces also more likely to show up on time for game day? That's the prediction, but remember these conclusions are based on correlations and averages, and there are exceptions to the rule.

From gallery of BaSL

A highly organized game collection

In addition to organizing their bits and showing up on time, conscientious gamers are more likely to neatly organize their game collection, more likely to take good care of their games, and more likely to buy specialized organizational systems, like those plastic boxes with all the little compartments. They thrive on keeping things tidy. Gamers who score lower on the trait might be more likely to toss their games haphazardly in closets and in the backs of cars. But then again, we are gamers. Dirty clothes might be strewn all over the floor, but if anything gets special attention, shouldn't it be the game collection? Well, maybe...

In guild The Messy Game Room Guild

A somewhat less organized collection

When I was thinking about this a few weeks ago, I hypothesized that highly conscientious gamers might be more likely to record their Board Game Plays than more laid back gamers. Recording plays is another way of organizing our experiences. To investigate this, I correlated game play statistics to people's answers on a GeekQuestion I posed about conscientiousness some years ago. I found no significant association. Maybe the question I asked wasn't a reliable measure. Or perhaps there is too much variability in people's play records. Of course it's also possible that board game plays are not influenced by conscientiousness. Maybe I'll wait another twelve years and check again.

Is there anything else we can say about conscientiousness? In my BGG survey data, there was a tendency for conscientious gamers to enjoy Euro games over Ameritrash games, gambling games, and video games. That makes sense since Euro games allow us more opportunities to organize our little boards without interference, whereas the other types of games could be considered somewhat messy and unpredictable. Conscientious respondents also showed a slightly lower preference for games featuring direct player conflict. Again, that's just people messing with your stuff, isn't it?

I'm curious about what my readers think (all N=5?!). Do you consider yourself a generally conscientious type of person? Do you tend to organize your games and game pieces? Let me know in the comments!
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Wed Mar 28, 2018 3:00 pm
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Dealing with your Inner Sore Loser

Corey Butler
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If you play games, you have to accept the fact that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. This doesn't have to be a big deal, but when people are highly competitive and achievement oriented, or when they are more neurotic and fearful of failure, then losses can be problematic, maybe even to the point at which games are no longer fun. Sure, there are always party games and cooperatives, but we don't want to restrict ourselves to one small side of the hobby, do we? In this blog post I want to venture a little further into applied psychology and examine how to deal with the pain of losing.

The first step is admitting that you have a problem, that you might be a sore loser. At this point I must confess that I have sometimes feel a little annoyance or resentment when I lose a game. It was worse when I was younger, but I still get a twinge of it from time to time. As a psychologist, I can tell you that there is no magic fix for this situation, but there are things you can do to minimize it.

The first thing to do is to watch for what psychologists call Antecedents, which are stimuli or events that predictably trigger the problem. Obviously, losing could be considered an antecedent or "activating event," but we want to be more specific if we can. Most of the time I don't actually mind losing, but if I'm having a losing streak, or if I lost a game I feel I should have won, or if I'm irritated at someone at the table, then I am more likely to feel dissatisfied with the game. Often just being aware of these activating events can be helpful in avoiding the problem. At the very least, you know when its time to take a break.

Many people assume that situations lead directly to emotions. The cognitive perspective in psychology has demonstrated, however, that there is a mediating step, our Beliefs or interpretations about what happened. For example, if I lose a game of chess, I could conclude that I don't have the ability to play the game. I might even decide that I'm hopeless and will never get any better. These beliefs could make me feel depressed, or even lead me to quit playing chess. But what if I think to myself that it's ok to make mistakes, that my opponent played well, that I can't always win, and that next time I will do better? Albert Ellis suggests that this is more a rational and healthy way of thinking. When we correct negative thinking habits, we will tend to feel better about almost any situation. Ellis even wrote a book with the amusing title, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything-- Yes Anything! The point is that adversity is inevitable but suffering is not.

From gallery of shotokanguy


The third step in this ABC model is emotional and behavioral Consequences, which follow from one's beliefs about the activating event. It's really best to avoid the negative emotion altogether if we can, by controlling the situation or our thoughts about the situation. But what happens if we can't help ourselves and start feeling unhappy after a game? The best thing to do is to take a step back, readjust your beliefs, and dispute those irrational, negative thoughts. I'm also a big advocate of using relaxation methods, which intervene directly at step C. A few moments of slow breathing from the diaphragm can work wonders to relieve anger and anxiety. Mom was right when she said to count to ten.

So, if you feel bad when you lose, remember the ABC model. If you feel "mean" and guilty when you win, you can use the ABC model on that too. It's not perfect, but it works.
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Wed Mar 21, 2018 3:00 pm
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Further Thoughts on Winning and Losing

Corey Butler
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Ever since my last post on personality differences in emotional stability, I've been thinking about the psychology of winning and losing. It's a classic approach-avoidance conflict. There is the potential satisfaction of winning a hard fought game, but also the strong possibility of loss and failure. As we saw last time, gamers who are high in neuroticism are particularly motivated to avoid losing. Such experiences are likely to trigger a cascade of negative emotions like frustration, disappointment, anger, and resentment.

My BGG survey data showed that the desire to win and the desire to avoid losing were only moderately correlated. I was reminded of a pioneering study on achievement motivation and fear of failure, two relatively independent motivations that interact with each other to influence behavior (Atkinson & Litwin, 1960). In the study, participants were asked to play a ring toss game and allowed to choose how close they stood to the target. As the graph indicates, there was a tendency for high achievement, low anxiety participants to stand at a moderate distance of 9-10 feet, making it a good game with a reasonable level of challenge. Low achievement, high anxiety participants were more likely to make it easy on themselves by standing much closer to the target. Finally, on the right side of the graph, low achievement, low anxiety participants often chose to stand at the maximum distance. They probably didn't much care about the game or their performance in it. The fact that a few low achievement, high anxiety participants stood far away has been interpreted as "self-handicapping," sparing the ego with a good excuse for poor performance.

From gallery of shotokanguy


Do these motivations influence people in the board gaming community? I know chess players who are driven by achievement motivation and spend long hours studying the game and preparing for tournaments. I also know players who quit the game because their failures became intolerably painful. In the fourth round of the 2013 Bloomington Open, I misplayed the middle game, lost a minor piece for a pawn, and was in a clearly lost position. But Caissa is fickle, and my opponent let his guard down and reciprocated a few moves later by blundering his Queen. I remember both of us shaking our heads at the absurdity of the situation. I managed to pull myself together, win my final game, and push my rating to an all time high over the next couple of tournaments. My opponent walked away from the board and never played another tournament game again.

I'm tempted to assume that I persisted at chess because of my relatively high achievement motivation, and that my opponent quit because his aversion to failure got the best of him. But truth be told, this is just an anecdote, and I don't really know what the motivational state of my opponent was. I also don't know how I would have reacted if the table were reversed and I had made that horrible blunder. What I can tell you is that my data support the hypothesis that people who like to win also enjoy a cognitive challenge. They like to "use their brains" and prefer to minimize luck. This sounds like achievement motivation. People who said they dislike losing did not show this pattern of preferences, but they did score higher on neuroticism. This sounds like fear of failure.

Some final points. Gamers who enjoy winning reported a greater preference for abstract strategy games (tau = .11) and less interest in cooperative games (tau = -.13), but otherwise there was not much of a relationship between game preferences and type of motivation. It seems that these motivational styles influence how we play, more than what we play. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to find the board game version of the ring toss game...
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Wed Mar 14, 2018 3:05 pm
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Winning, Losing, and Neuroticism

Corey Butler
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One of the earliest "big" personality traits identified by psychologists through factor analysis was Emotional Stability, often labeled Neuroticism in its inverse. Like the other Big Five traits, this one is defined as a continuous dimension of personality, ranging from neurotic or emotionally unstable on one end, to calm or emotionally stable on the other. The trait influences one's vulnerability to all kinds of negative emotional states, such as anger, frustration, guilt, jealousy, anxiety, and depression. Emotional Stability is at least partly the result of a heightened sensitivity to threats in the autonomic nervous system. It is also, to a large extent, genetic in origin. The trait is normally distributed in the population, though the TIPI data from my BGG survey show a distinct skew and a rather truncated distribution.

From gallery of shotokanguy


So what can we say about the emotional stability of hobby board gamers from the data I collected? As a group, it appears that we are a little more stable than the norm, which ranges from 4.07 to 4.92 depending on age and gender. We should remember that it is hazardous to make inferences like this from a self-selected, convenience sample! Nevertheless, there is certainly no evidence that geeks are less psychologically healthy than the rest of the population.

How does emotional stability relate to gaming motivations and preferences? I found no associations between stability and people's reported enjoyment of any particular style of game. Neurotics are no more or less likely to prefer euros, wargames, abstract strategy, or any other type of game. I did, however, find a few correlations between stability and gaming motivation. Perhaps the clearest finding involved the association between stability and people's motivations regarding winning and losing.

For the sample as a whole, the desire to win and the desire to avoid losing are significantly correlated with each other, Kendall tau = .32, p < .001. Emotional stability, however, correlates with the desire to avoid losing, tau = -.14, p < .001, but not the desire to win, tau = .02, ns. Thus people who are a little neurotic don't necessarily need to win, but they really don't like to lose. This makes sense. It's not fun to lose when you are relatively susceptible to negative emotional states. The potential ego threat from a loss will only add to the difficulty.

The following boxplot compares the most neurotic 100 people in the sample to the most stable 100. Higher scores indicate higher agreement with the item, "when I play a game I want to not lose" on my survey.

From gallery of shotokanguy


There were similar size correlations between emotional stability and the desire for challenge, the desire to use one's brain, and the desire for conflict. Taken all together, it looks like people who are less emotionally stable are a little more averse to getting into the thick of a competition and putting their egos on the line. We might reasonably speculate that folks who are low on emotional stability are also more likely to be sore losers. I didn't measure that directly though, so we can't say for sure.

Can psychology help sore losers to better regulate their emotions and enjoy their gaming experiences? That will be a topic for a later date!
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Tue Mar 6, 2018 5:45 pm
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