Good things come in threes, right? There is the Lord of the Rings, books and films, Reiner Knizia's tile-laying trilogy, Freud's theory of personality... well maybe not that last one, but you know what I mean. Here is the third and final installment of my investigation on attitudes toward competition in board gamers. I'm actually writing a paper on this for publication, so maybe you'll find it on PsycINFO some day if you want to learn more. Wish me luck!
Let's start with a graph. The figure below shows the games people on BGG usually play. Note that people could check more than one type of game, and most of them did.
No big surprises here, though I was happy to see that I replicated my previous study which asked people to rate how much they enjoyed various types of games. Different questions, methodologies, and sampling methods, but in both cases we see Euro games and Cooperative games on top, and CCG's and wargames at the bottom.
All well and good, but remember I am mostly interested in comparing hypercompetitive attitudes with healthier, personal development attitudes toward competition. The former viewpoint advocates winning as the only thing that matters, whereas the latter emphasizes the importance of self-improvement and learning about oneself. In utterly post hoc fashion I examined the relationship between the game preferences listed above and the two competitive orientations. I even threw in my measures of positive and negative affect for good measure. Are abstract strategy players hypercompetitive? Are Ameritrash players grumpy? Do Eurogamers have more fun? Inquiring minds want to know!
And now the results. Drumroll please... I found... almost nothing. There were zero or minimal associations across the board. There was only one correlation worth mentioning. Healthy attitudes toward competition, but not hypercompetitive attitudes, correlated r = -.20 with a preference for cooperative games. This means that people with a healthy competitive orientation were less likely to say they played cooperatives. What are we to make of this?
The most likely interpretation is that the correlation is spurious and means absolutely nothing. Running a multitude of statistical tests without a hypothesis is called fishing, and is likely to capitalize on chance and lead to a false conclusion. Throw enough darts and you will eventually make a bullseye. Play enough games of Wingspan and you'll eventually win. Wake me up when it's replicated.
But maybe it does mean something. Maybe people who score high on healthy competitive attitudes are less interested in cooperative games because they do not allow the opportunity to test oneself and develop one's skill. Maybe hypercompetitive individuals are apathetic altogether. They don't like cooperatives because they can't win, but they don't dislike them because they can't lose, compared to others. Maybe.
I have one final analysis, by request. I split the sample into two groups, one that scored above the median on hypercompetitiveness and one that scored below. Then I did the same thing for healthy competitive attitudes. This gave me four quadrants after I crossed the two variables: low HYP/low HEA, low HYP/high HEA, high HYP/low HEA, and high HYP/high HEA. Do these groupings vary by their positive and negative affect?
Somewhat. As you might recall, most of the variance I could account for in positive emotions was related to healthy competitive attitudes, whereas most of the variance I could explain in negative emotions was related to hypercompetitiveness. In my quadrant analysis, I found that the highest scoring group in positive affect was high HYP/high HEA, but low HYP/high HEA was right there with them, with a trivial and nonsignificant difference of .03 on my scale.
The highest scoring quadrant on negative emotion was, unsurprisingly, high HYP/low HEA which showed a mean of 2.13 out of 5 on the scale. That's still pretty low because on average (fortunately) participants were low on negative affect. The most resilient, lowest scoring quadrant on negative emotion was low HYP/high HEA, which had a mean of 1.80.
So there you have it. A couple more reasons to nurture an attitude of healthy competitive spirit based on doing one's best and developing one's skills and interests, rather than a focus on winning as the only important thing. I'm currently preparing an experimental investigation of this with a couple of my students. We plan to have our participants play a short game in the lab and see how winning and losing affects their emotional state and their attitudes toward the game. Of course, we will also look at their competitive orientations to see if that plays a role. I might report the results here, but it won't be any time soon (and see Note 4 below).
1. The concept of hypercompetitiveness as a neurotic need to win at any cost is originally from Karen Horney. The metrics used to measure hypercompetitiveness and personal development competitiveness were developed by my mentor, Richard Ryckman.
2. Like most psychologists, I tend to equate the words, "affect" and "emotion" and use them interchangeably. I apologize for any confusion about that.
3. My institutional affiliation is Southwest Minnesota State University. These studies have been reviewed and approved by the SMSU IRB as well as by the admins here at BGG.
4. This is my final blog post, though I reserve the right to change my mind. Thank you, everyone, for reading.
Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
Archive for Corey Butler
08 Nov 2019
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22 Oct 2019
Fechner Day is an annual observance celebrated by psychophysicists across the world. It is dedicated to the German philosopher, physicist, psychologist, and possible German board game enthusiast (though this has not been confirmed), Gustav Fechner who founded psychophysics on October 22, 1850. On this day, Fechner awoke from sleep with his famous insight on how to study the mind by examining the mathematical relation between physical stimuli and subjective sensations. This has been recognized by historians of psychology as a key contribution in the development of scientific experimental psychology.
Happy Fechner Day!
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16 Oct 2019
Last week I reported data showing that hypercompetitive chess players tend to have relatively negative emotional reactions (like frustration) after games, whereas players with more healthy, personal development attitudes toward competition report more positive emotional reactions (like excitement). Keep in mind that my survey simply asked people to rate how they typically felt after playing chess-- I did not attempt to break down memories for specific outcomes like wins and losses, and indeed, I do not believe that this could be done very accurately. Wait, did you miss last week? You better go back and read that post first. I'll wait here...
OK, this week we are looking at a somewhat larger, more representative sample of hobby board gamers, as defined by their membership and level of involvement at BGG. After receiving permission from the admins here, I emailed a link to my survey to a random selection of 1000 members who a) lived in the United States, b) had purchased avatars, and c) had logged into the website in the preceding 30 days. 45% of the sample responded. 90% were men, 7% were women, and 3% reported "other" for their gender. How did hypercompetitive and healthy competitive attitudes correlate with emotional experiences? Let's take another look at that Chess.com data for comparison:
As you can see, endorsement of healthy attitudes toward competition correlates with positive affect. On the other hand, endorsement of hypercompetitive attitudes such as "I see my opponents as enemies" correlates modestly with positive affect and more strongly with negative affect. I referred to this last time with the old "Wide World of Sports" slogan, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Today's question is, how does our BoardGameGeek crowd compare with the online chess community? Let's go ahead and look at the BGG data:
Overall, it's a very similar pattern. Once again we see a substantial correlation between healthy attitudes and positive affect, r = .43, p < .001, but no significant correlation with negative affect, r = .03. And just as we found with the chess players, hypercompetitive attitudes correlate modestly with positive affect, r = .17, p < .001, and more strongly with negative affect, r = .48, p < .001. In this second study I also measured general level of emotional well-being so I could do additional analyses using that as a control variable. I won't get into the details here, but all of these relationships hold up well when we control for general disposition. Thus, we cannot simply attribute these associations to people who are generally happy being more likely to report nicer attitudes and more positive emotions.
Although the data are similar, there are a couple of interesting differences that might be worth pointing out. First, the correlation between the two competitive styles is smaller in the BGG sample. This means that among hobby board gamers, people who report an interest in competing for personal development reasons are less likely to also be hypercompetitive. Also, when I compared the means of these variables across samples, I found that the BGG crowd tends to report more positive emotion after games, by about a half a point on the scale. The chess players tended to score more highly on both hypercompetitiveness and negative affect.
This research extends our understanding of the effects of competitive attitude style to the important realm of board gaming. I'd like to extend it further to video game players, but I'm not sure how or where to recruit them. Another issue that would need to be addressed in video games is that you are often competing against the game itself, not another person. As for hypercompetitiveness, we see one more example of its generally maladaptive tendencies. In playing games, and in introducing our children to games, it might be useful to de-emphasize aggressive competitive feelings and try to focus as much as possible on the enjoyment of the intrinsic experience, and the development of one's skill.
That's it for now. I'll try to come back in a couple of weeks with additional analyses and insights from these data.
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When I was in high school, I was a big fan of the rock band, Boston. They had a song that particularly resonated with my impressionistic young mind. I think it spoke to all the stress and insecurity I was feeling at the time about competition and the pressure to succeed in life. Here are some of the lyrics:
I understand about indecision
But I don't care if I get behind
People livin' in competition
All I want is to have my peace of mind.
The title of the song is "Peace of Mind" and there is some excellent guitar work backing up those lyrics. You can listen to it here if you like.
Boston, circa 1976
A few years later I was in college taking anthropology classes and reading about peaceful hunter-gatherer societies that lived cooperatively and had no word for war. Then Alfie Kohn's book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition came out and it all became so obvious. Competition was a destructive flaw in American culture. It bothered me a little that I enjoyed chess and wargames, but I became convinced that this was true.
When I went to graduate school to study psychology, I naturally became interested in my mentor, Rick Ryckman's research on "hypercompetitive” attitudes. People who score high on hypercompetitiveness have a neurotic need to compete and win in order to maintain self-esteem. Ryckman found that they tended to be aggressive, manipulative, narcissistic, and psychologically unhealthy. I couldn't agree more. But whereas I believed that competitiveness was a single dimension that ranged from very little (healthy) to hypercompetitive (unhealthy), Ryckman was sure it was two dimensional. By his view you could be high on healthy "personal development" competitiveness and still low on "hyper" competitiveness. In other words, you could strive for self-improvement without needing to prove you were better than everyone else.
This was one of many things we argued about. Factor analysis eventually proved that he was right, in as much as factor analysis can prove anything. But by that time I was more interested in authoritarianism, and it's been years since I've done anything with competitive orientations theory, other than the occasional lecture in a Group Dynamics class. But then I got interested in board games, and the psychology of board games, and it's pretty clear where this post is going, isn't it?
Over 100 chess players were recruited from Chess.com and took an online survey which measured their hypercompetitive attitudes as well as their healthy, "personal development" attitudes toward competition. An example of an item that measures the former is "Winning in competition makes me feel more powerful as a person." Participants may respond on a five-point scale labeled "never true of me," "sometimes true of me," etc. An example of an item measuring healthy competitive attitudes is "I enjoy competition because it gives me a chance to discover what I'm good at." Participants also rated how they typically felt after playing chess on a set of standardized measures of positive affect (e.g. cheerful, excited) and negative affect (e.g. angry, frustrated). This gave four statistically reliable measures: hypercompetitiveness, healthy competitiveness, positive affect, and negative affect. Correlations among these variables are reported below.
The data indicate that the two competitive attitude orientations are substantially correlated at r = .50, p < .001. At first glance this might suggest that I was on the right track when I was in graduate school and that there is only a single dimension of competitiveness. The way these two orientations relate to the other variables makes this implausible though.
As predicted, individuals with more hypercompetitive attitudes reported more negative affect after games, r = .48, p < .001. This is consistent with their generally lower psychological health. However, they also reported somewhat more positive affect, r = .30, p < .01. Positive and negative affect are independent dimensions, so it is certainly possible to feel both, even at the same time. It makes sense that hypercompetive individuals would get a rush of dopamine and testosterone when they win, so that is likely what we are picking up here. It's the old "thrill of victory and agony of defeat" concept.
People who scored high on healthy competitiveness tended to report more positive affect, and this correlation is the highest statistic in the data, r = .56, p < .001. They are quite simply having more fun. Even more telling, however, is the correlation between healthy competitiveness and negative affect, which was nonsignificant at r = .10. If you are competing to improve yourself as a person, it is only a minor setback when you lose, so not much negative affect. If you are competing because winning is the only thing that matters and your sense of self-worth depends on it, then yes, you will be pretty upset when you lose.
I think these data show an interesting and theoretically meaningful divergence between the two competitive orientations. On the other hand, we are making inferences from a small, self-selected sample of chess players who are not generally known for their mental health (ahem). If only we had a larger, more representative sample with additional control variables. Ah, fear not, gentle reader and come back next week for Part Two!
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09 Jul 2019
A few weeks ago, I got a message from Jason Perez of the podcast, Every Night is Game Night. He wanted to have a conversation on the psychology of cheating. It sounded like an interesting topic, so I said yes. I'm really glad I did because Jason is a congenial host and I had a great time. I think I was a little more relaxed and probably on more familiar ground than the last time I did a podcast, which was about board game design. I honestly don't know much about board game design... Anyway, Jason and I are thinking of doing more shows together in the future, so let us know if you have any suggestions or other feedback. Here's a link to the podcast if you want to have a listen:
ENGN Episode 146 – Psych Chat: The Psychology of Cheating in Board Games with Dr. Corey Butler
Now you may recall (if you are one of my nearly half a dozen faithful readers), I discussed The Psychology of Cheating on this very blog exactly one year ago this month. Tempus Fugit, am I right? At that time I examined some polling data and argued that cheating was probably not very common and thus not much to worry about. Let's take a look at the graph I referenced:
See, most people don't cheat much, so it's not a problem, right? And why would anyone lie in an anonymous survey? Case closed, or so I thought. Then I read Dan Ariely's carefully researched and well written book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-- Especially Ourselves. Now I'm not so optimistic.
Ariely conducted a series of clever lab experiments in which he manipulated the opportunity to cheat. The participants in these studies solved matrix puzzles for real money, and some participants were allowed to score their own tests in such a way that they wouldn't get caught if they took advantage of the situation. So the question is, will people cheat under these conditions? Ariely found that cheating is extremely common, that most people cheat a little, but that extreme transgressions are relatively rare. So people take a little more money than they earned, but most of them didn't come close to the maximum they could have taken. It's important to point out that people are doing a balancing act here. They want the benefits of cheating, but they don't want to think of themselves as cheaters. That's why they "round up" a little bit in their favor but they don't loot the bank. That would be wrong!
For what it's worth, the graph presented above may indicate the prevalence of extreme, blatant cheating, but it almost certainly underestimates the rate of minor cheating. In a board game, these would be small transgressions, such as maybe not paying the right price for something or doing something out of turn. We may not even be fully conscious of our behavior or aware that it could qualify as cheating. To give an example from the podcast, I might make a small error that gives me an advantage in the game. Would I go out of my way to correct the mistake if I later noticed what I had done, or would I let it slide? And would I be more motivated to correct an error that harmed me rather than benefited me? Any asymmetry between these two scenarios could be considered evidence of cheating by omission.
But it's just a game. Unlike Ariely’s experiments, people don't typically win money when they play board games. Yet it still feels good to win, bad to lose, and terrible to come in last place, so the temptation and the possibility of cheating (just a little bit) are still there. Any time we play a game, self esteem and social status are potentially on the line, and these are huge motivations for all of us.
Shortly after I read Ariely’s book, I had the opportunity to join a four player game of Azul. I have to admit that as I watched everyone add their points from their tiles, I had a moment of doubt. Were they doing the math right? Were they fudging their scores a little? Perhaps games should be designed so that all scoring is publicly verified. Unfortunately this would slow many games down, so it’s obviously a tradeoff. What’s a game designer to do? If Ariely is right, make the scoring public so that no one is tempted.
Another approach would be to police the other players, or at least maintain some awareness. As Jason suggested in the podcast, if players (especially younger ones) are lacking in moral development, then it is important to (humanely) correct their behavior so the cheating habit doesn’t escalate. This approach is more about controlling bad apples than simply assuming that everyone is a potential cheater, as Ariely does. It’s a good idea, though our typical introverted board gamer might not want to deal with confrontations about cheating too often.
Clearly, this is not the final word on the topic of cheating, so listen to the podcast, tell us what you think in the comments, and watch for further conversations on the psychology of board games.
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06 May 2019
Hello everyone! I'm not going to bother to apologize or make excuses for not posting in a while. It's just life, you know?
The good news is that I am currently collecting data with a new survey on attitudes toward competition in board gamers. If I can navigate the perilous waters of asking people what their gender is, I will try to post something on this in a few weeks. After my first survey, I got complaints for asking participants if they were male or female. This time I added a third option for people who do not want to identify with either category- they could respond with "rather not say." This still wasn't gender inclusive enough for one individual who wrote me about it (at some length). Ok, I will include an open ended response option next time. Oddly enough, I later mentioned this to a colleague of mine from a different culture, and in his opinion, the addition of more than two gender options was actually a form of Western imperialism. Maybe I just shouldn't ask, eh?
I attended the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association in Chicago a few weeks ago and gave a talk on using board games in psychological research. It was somewhat informal and preliminary, of course, as I don't really have anything impressive enough to publish yet. Nevertheless, I did suggest that all games are at some level simulations, and that this makes them interesting for psychologists. Gaming situations, attitudes, and behaviors are perhaps less real than "real life," yet they are more real than the artificial laboratory tasks that are typically used by psychologists. As I've suggested in this blog, I think they are a useful arena for testing all kinds of hypotheses that may have implications in the real world.
William Graziano, probably the world's foremost authority on the personality trait of Agreeableness, just happened to be in the audience during my talk. Afterward, he tapped me on the shoulder and we had a nice conversation about agreeableness in games, while I tried not to be intimidated. I think he was particularly interested in this graph I presented:
Agreeable individuals are kind and trusting. They are more likely to exhibit prosocial types of behavior, and would rather cooperate than compete against others. My data show that it is actually quite difficult to find agreeable individuals that don't like cooperative games. It's such a natural fit for them. I would love to get further information from the people that did end up in that stubby little blue bar on the graph. Maybe there is something about the typical mechanics in cooperative games that a few of them find objectionable.
Are all games simulations? Well, remember that I put a few weasel words in my assertion. All games are at some level simulations. Advanced Squad Leader is a high level simulation, though even this highly detailed and realistic game is not a perfect simulation. Tic-Tac-Toe is barely a simulation and indeed, barely a game. But it still simulates or at least symbolizes a basic conflict situation and the generic social interaction of taking turns.
A psychologist named Paul Piff did an interesting experiment a few years ago about how people behave differently when they have a sense of entitlement. He simulated economic disparities by having people play Monopoly and found that when people were given greater economic resources (more money, an extra die) they tended to attribute their success to skill, believing they had earned their superior performance. They also helped themselves to more snacks at the table than players who were given less money and only a single die.
It occurs to me that my position is the exact opposite of something that has been said by bgg user, J.C. Lawrence...J C LawrenceUnited States
Clearclaw has written that "all games are abstract" and that once people begin to play, theme only exists in the heads of the players. I think we might both be right. The experience of the game occurs both on the table and in the brain. So theme and simulation exist at the subjective level, imposed on the mechanics of the game by perception. If all games are both abstract and thematic, it's no surprise that our attempts to categorize them on BGG have been so problematic.
I'm looking at you, Photosynthesis.
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18 Dec 2018
A couple weeks ago, I visited half a dozen game forums here on the 'Geek and created brief polls on two "big five" personality traits, Extraversion and Agreeableness. You can take a look if you want-- the polls can be found on the forums for Agricola, Bohnanza, Chess, Game of Thrones, Pandemic Legacy, and Terraforming Mars. I chose these six because I have already discussed them before, or because they are notable, highly rated games. The polling questions are adapted from Gosling's Ten Item Personality Inventory (TIPI) which I have used here in the past. My usual disclaimer: the following discussion is based on brief surveys using unrepresentative, self-selected samples!
If you've been following this blog for any time, you probably know two things about me. I'm interested in how general personality traits correlate with game preferences, and I like poking around with data. Previously, I made some game recommendations based on data I collected from 500+ gamers using SurveyMonkey. Today, I would like to followup on that and see if I can any find support for my predictions with BGG's own polling tool.
So what did I find? Well, for every game except one, the majority response (about 60%) was a tendency toward introversion rather than extraversion. This was no surprise, considering that every time I look, I find that hobby gamers are relatively low on extraversion. I also found that most of the respondents rated themselves high on agreeableness. I had not observed this before, but as discussion at the polls indicated, this particular question may be have been influenced by the social desirability bias. Of course, it's also possible that people who respond to surveys on game forums are more inclined to be helpful and agreeable.
Overall, poll results were pretty similar across games. This actually makes a lot of sense because, even though I requested that only fans of a particular game participate on the survey, most hobby gamers play a large variety of games. It's even possible that the same people filled out the survey on different game forums.
But there were a couple of interesting findings that fit my earlier predictions, and these involve chess and Game of Thrones. Both are high conflict games. Both involve strategy. Both are very different. Let's look at the graphs. Here's chess...
Chess players are definitely lining up on the introverted side of things. However, their agreeableness response rate was only 50%. Every other game was at least 60%. I'm not saying that chess players are bad people or anything like that. I'm one of them! But to excel at chess and really get into the game seriously, you have to be willing to crush people. Often slowly. I'm thinking of brutal Kingside attacks and torturous Rook endgames. Ha, don't believe me? Spend a few months at a chess club and then tell me what you think.
Now let's look at Game of Thrones...
I didn't do a chi-square test, and I don't want to pretend these data are any more than preliminary, but it looks a little different doesn't it? I originally thought GoT players would also be less agreeable because the game can get nasty, but we aren't really seeing that. We are seeing much less introversion and much more extraversion than is typical in hobby boardgamers. Think of how different it is sitting in a group playing Game of Thrones compared to people playing chess. All that table talk and negotiation is likely to appeal to the most extraverted gamers.
Finally, let's consider Agricola, just for comparison purposes...
This is the typical pattern I observed, with relatively high introversion and agreeableness.
In conclusion, I think there is reason to believe that although there is a lot of overlap among gamers, certain kinds of people are more likely to be drawn to certain kinds of games. I'd like to do a more detailed study with better measures and a better sample. Anyone out there want to give me a grant?
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12 Dec 2018
MtG head designer, Mark Rosewater recently offered the following definition of a game:
A game is a thing with a goal (or goals), restrictions, agency, and a lack of real-world relevance.
I think this definition is insightful and captures all the essential features of a game. The part of the definition that I would like to talk about today is "agency," which is the idea that a true game must have meaningful decisions and choices. If it doesn't involve decisions, it may look like a game, but it is really just an activity or event. Rosewater offers movies as an example, as well as the nominal game of Candy Land, in which players move their pieces by drawing cards, but never get to make any real decisions.
Decisions make games interesting and also provide opportunities for higher level thinking, such as planning, strategy, and tactics. But here is a question for you. Is it possible to specify a certain number of choices or options that would be good to have while taking a turn in a game? It's got to be somewhere between 2 and 99, but can we narrow it down? This is not just a question about the psychology of decision making, it is a practical issue for game designers to consider as well.
Choose a card, any card... but choose wisely!
The critical empirical research here can be found in Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper's influential 2000 paper on choice overload. In the most well known version of the experiment, shoppers were given the opportunity to taste and also purchase different varieties of jam. At random, they were offered either 6 or 24 flavors to choose from. Contrary to the common sense notion that more choice is better, participants appeared to be overwhelmed by too many choices. They actually bought more jam when they only had six options. Does this research have any relevance for board games? You need to have choices, but too many choices could adversely affect people's ability to learn and play the game.
It's interesting that many card games have a maximum hand size close to Iyengar's optimal number of jams. Magic: The Gathering, for example, has a hand limit of seven cards. This is also a typical starting number of cards in drafting games like 7 Wonders. It would be possible to play with more cards, but it would slow the game down considerably. In the supermarket experiment, people walk away without buying anything. In a board game situation, people fall into analysis paralysis. There are other examples. Puerto Rico, the number one game on the internet for many years, has seven roles to choose from. Is seven the magic number?
Maybe not. Quite a few games have fewer choices. Rondel games like Antike have only three practical choices, unless you are willing to pay the penalty for moving your piece further along the wheel. This keeps the game moving and minimizes downtime for the rest of the players. On the other end of the spectrum, worker placement games like Caylus and Agricola have many more choices, at least by the end of the game when all the options have been revealed. This actually fits with some of Iyengar's later research. It turns out that we can handle choices better if we work up to them slowly. A great many options at the very beginning of the game is probably not the way to go.
This takes us to my old favorite, Chess. There are twenty possible choices for White's first move, 16 pawn moves and 4 Knight moves. The number of options can increase dramatically from there. Well, chess does often lead to analysis paralysis. There was a reason for the invention of the chess clock after all! This observation could lead to a common criticism of chess, that it is not a good game, or a well designed game. Hey, it doesn't even crack the top 400 here at BGG. But as in all games, experience clarifies and reduces the glut of information. Serious chess players would not even consider most of those twenty first move options. Later in the game, as GM Alexander Kotov sagely recommended, the best way to decide on a move is to first narrow the field down to a few, maybe three "candidate moves" for further consideration. Only at this point does chess begin to avoid the dilemma of choice.
Let's hazard a conclusion. Games clearly require choices. A small number of choices will probably lead to a game that is light, fast playing, and easy to learn, whereas a large number of choices will likely lead to a game that is complex, heavy, and difficult to learn and play. I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that a moderate number of choices, somewhere between 3 and 9, might be the sweet spot for many game designs.
Iyengar, S. S. & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.
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28 Nov 2018
In social psychology, the Primacy Effect is the finding that early information about a stimulus (typically a person) outweighs subsequent information about that same stimulus. This corresponds to the common observation that "first impressions are lasting impressions." Indeed, research has confirmed that people make an initial perception about someone or something very rapidly, often in a matter of seconds. This impression may then persist for a long time, even after encountering additional, discrepant information. The primacy effect was first explored by Solomon Asch (1946), who suggested that people always form unified, holistic impressions. In other words, we don't simply add and subtract bits of information as we become aware of them. We create an overall attitude or "gestalt" and then interpret subsequent information through that filter. Thus, if I hear something negative about an individual I respect and admire, I am inclined to dismiss it, preserving my previously established positive impression.
When people encounter a new board game, they may go through a similar process of impression formation. This has important practical consequences because people need to make decisions about what games to buy. Speaking from my own experience, I start judging and categorizing games the moment I see the box and components. This isn't necessarily a conscious decision making process. I may do it automatically. If I'm browsing on BGG, I will check the rating of the game, read the comments of my GeekBuddies, and then possibly go to the reviews and look at a few pictures of the game in action. At this point, I've probably made up my mind about the game and may never revisit the subject again. Years later, I might have the opportunity to play the game in person, but if I've already formed a negative impression, I'll probably pass. That's the power of the primacy effect. It's a bias but it's also functional in that it works well enough to let me avoid wasting a lot of time and money on games I probably won't enjoy.
What if I'm at a gaming event and my first impression of a game is based on actually playing it? This is undoubtably better because I'm able to form my attitude based on actual, first hand data, yet it’s not foolproof, and it certainly won't eliminate the primacy effect. It just means that the primacy effect will be based on that first play experience, which may or may not be an accurate sample of the way the game plays. Some games require a few plays before one can really appreciate them. Others start out fun but then fizzle. But remember, the primacy effect suggests that we usually make up our minds after a single play, if not earlier. To make matters worse, we geeks will then rate the game, or even post a review after a single play. This can strengthen the primacy effect, locking that impression in concrete to the detriment of an accurate evaluation.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to play Noblemen, which I had never played, or even heard of before. Going into the game, my mind was as close to tabula rasa as it could get. Retrospectively looking back, my thoughts ran something like this: "Look, it's a Euro. I like Euros. It's got tiles and wooden bits. I like those things. Let's give it a try!" I played it a few times and I enjoyed it. It's a nice game with nice components. I was playing with my friends, who I hadn't seen in a while. There were snacks too, as I recall, and I won. Such a fun time! I formed a highly favorable impression and rated it a 9.
The starting position for a game of Noblemen. I bet you are already forming a first impression of the game from this picture.
That could have been the end of the story, but last month I had the opportunity to play Noblemen again, twice. I don't want to criticize the game, but I have to tell you that my attitude was fairly ho hum this time around. In Noblemen, you have a variety of possible actions to choose from on your turn, which impressed me for the first few plays. But after further experience with the game, I realized that the best move was often fairly obvious and the strategy seemed a little scripted. It's not a terrible game, but it's not a 9, at least not for me. I went back and changed my rating and my comment on the game. Having to change my opinion actually made me a little uncomfortable. I mean, this game already had its designated place in my universe. I could feel the primacy effect fighting back.
How often have you played a game you thought you liked, but for some reason, you just didn’t have as much fun? Unfortunately, we don’t have any way of knowing how much the primacy effect influences people's attitudes toward games, or how much they inflate or deflate ratings. But remember, it's still quite useful to be able to form an impression of a game after limited information. The alternative could mean getting stuck indefinitely in some kind of objective "data collection" mode. Still, it's a good idea to be aware of the influence of the primacy effect, and it wouldn't hurt to make a point of revisiting our ratings from time to time, to make sure they're accurate. It helps if you’re like me and a little OCD!
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13 Nov 2018
Once upon a time- well, a few months ago- I did a little survey of personality and gaming preferences. Then I started doing this blog to talk about what I found. Along the way, I've gotten into all kinds of other random things that relate to psychology and board games. Then I took a little break... But now I'm back, and I'd like to return to my original analysis and apply it to the issue of board game recommendations. As usual, a certain amount of speculation follows, so caveat emptor!
If you have already been a reader of this blog, you probably remember my attempt to correlate the Big Five personality traits with self-reported gaming preferences. I didn't find much, to tell you the truth, as my correlation coefficients were disappointingly small, typically between .10 and .15. I probably shouldn't have expected any more than that, given the brief measures I used, and the common finding that personality does not always predict behavior very well. Nevertheless, the most robust findings were for the two "interpersonal" traits, Agreeableness and Extraversion, so those are the ones I am returning to. Because these are relatively orthogonal dimensions, it is reasonable to combine them into a two-factor "circumplex" model, as depicted below.
If you take a personality test, you can locate yourself in this two dimensional space, based on your scores for A and E. For example, if you are above the median on both Agreeableness and Extraversion, then you are in quadrant I. If you haven’t ever taken a personality test, why not take this one now?
The four quandrants yield four very different types of people. For example, agreeable extraverts tend to be nice, outgoing, and gregarious, whereas agreeable introverts could be described as modest and reserved. On the other hand, disagreeable extraverts are likely to be domineering and competitive, whereas disagreeable introverts are often more aloof, and happiest when left alone. What kinds of games are these four types of people most likely to enjoy? Remember, there is a lot of random variability here, but there are also some typical patterns. Let's extrapolate a few guesses.
We know from my survey that Agreeable Extraverts (quadrant I) are more likely to enjoy party games and cooperative games. Pleasant social interaction is the way to go for these folks. There is no shortage of popular games to choose from in order to make a recommendation, but I've decided to go with the classic German card game, Bohnanza. Bohnanza is all about the interaction: talking, haggling, and trading bean cards. It isn't really a cooperative game, but donating beans to other players often leads to win-win situations typical of cooperative play. Most people I've introduced this game to seem to like it, and I think it's an ideal game for agreeable extraverts.
What about Agreeable Introverts (quadrant II)? They might enjoy Bohnanza too, but it's not the kind of game they are most likely to thrive on. Instead, Eurogames with individual playing boards, minimal conflict, and less player interaction would probably be a good fit. The term “multiplayer solitaire” comes to mind. We could make lots of different recommendations here, but I’ve decided to go with another great Uwe Rosenberg title, Agricola. It’s a nice game about having a family, preferably a large one, and raising happy little animal meeples on your farm. And you can pretty much do your own thing without having to be mean to other players.
Disgreeable Introverts (quadrant III) are also not that big on social interaction, but they don't mind a little conflict. No party games or cooperatives for these players! Actually, they would probably be good with a lot of the same games that fit quandrant II. But because they aren't afraid to be a little mean, this opens certain doors that might be less attractive to other gamers. Wargames might be a good fit, depending on the player's interest. But my recommendation is Chess. When you play chess seriously, you have to be willing to do two things. You need to be able to stare silently at the board for long periods of the time without talking or even making eye contact. There's the introversion. You also need to be willing to hurt the other player, and there's the disagreeableness. Honestly, chess is a beautiful game but it is also painful and brutal. Nigel Short put it this way: "Chess is ruthless: you've got to be prepared to kill people."
Our last group of gamers are the Disgreeable Extraverts (quadrant IV). These are folks that are still pretty tough minded, but they might want a little more social interaction than chess will provide. Take That games with a lot of potential for screwage come to mind. They might enjoy occasional party games, especially if they get the chance to play something like Cards Against Humanity. Games featuring diplomacy and deal making could also work well for these individuals. My recommendation for this quadrant is A Game of Thrones: The Board Game. To play this game well you need to be able to talk to other players and do a lot of persuasion, but you also need to be willing to stab them in the back when the opportunity arises.
So there you have it, four game recommendations based on personality analysis. But as I said before, don’t get carried away. What the data are most clear about is that I should not expect a strong correspondence between personality traits and game preferences. People who are introverts in real life may actually enjoy social interactions within the constraints of a board game. And I, for one, happen to like pirate games, though I don’t think I have any latent, unconscious pirate traits. My concluding advice is just common sense. Try as many different games as you can, and play what you like.
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