Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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A Sampling of Survey Results

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
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A couple weeks ago, I did a survey on the motivations, personality traits, and gaming preferences of board gamers here on the 'Geek. I originally planned to share my results in the forum section, but I realized I had enough material to make multiple posts, and I figured a blog might be the best way to keep everything organized. I also thought it would be fun to share any other information or news articles I found that were related to psychology and gaming.

So without further ado, here it is.

The Survey

Between December 27th, 2017 and January 4th, 2018, a total of 522 BGG users responded to my online survey. Standard disclaimer: This was not a random sample, so we cannot be sure it represents BGG users, much less gamers in general. Nevertheless, I think it is still interesting to see what a volunteer sample of hobby gamers had to say.

The sample was 85% male and 15% female. For what it's worth, these figures are pretty close to those found in another recent survey by fellow geek, Carl Skutsch which had participants who were 86% male, 13% female, and 1% other-- yes, I will be including "other" as a response choice in my next survey. I imagine this approximates the actual gender distribution here.

65% of the respondents were located in North America, 27% were in Europe, and 6% were in or near Australia. I had a few complaints about people's countries not being listed (the only choices were continents). I do not plan to ask about people's locations in future surveys.

My participants' ages ranged from 12 to 81, with a mean of 39.90 and a standard deviation of 10.43. I guess that puts me slightly over one SD above the mean. Hmmm.

The survey consisted of 37 items, most of which asked the participant to respond on a 7 point scale, from "disagree strongly" to "agree strongly." They were asked how much they liked various types of games and what they enjoyed about playing games. They also filled out what has to be the shortest comprehensive personality test in the universe, the Ten Item Personality Inventory (TIPI) by Sam Gosling and his colleagues at the University of Texas. This measures the Big Five personality traits, which has become the standard personality taxonomy among personality psychologists. I'll say more about this part of the project later.

Game Ratings

So what did I find? Let's start with game preferences. People enjoy playing a great variety of games here, but the site has always been most closely associated with Eurogames. Do they win the popularity contest with my sample? Yes, in fact, they do...

From gallery of shotokanguy

The graph shows preference ratings for each type of game I included in the survey. Remember that a rating of 1 indicates strong disagreement with enjoyment of that type of game, whereas a rating of 7 indicates strong agreement. Eurogames are way out in front with an average of 6.18. This is consistent with Skutsch's survey, which also showed a strong preference for Euros. Surprisingly, well to my surprise at least, cooperative games came in second with an average rating of 5.30. Not faring so well are Wargames, with an average of 3.89 and CCGs with an average of 3.09. Most of the other genres of games were rated a little above the midpoint in favorability.

Except for gambling. We geeks don't seem to like gambling very much, do we? The mean score was 2.27, indicating outright disagreement with enjoying games that featured gambling. Why is that? I don't know about you, but I've always thought games of chance were inherently dull. Wagers are necessary to add a little excitement. What would Bingo be without the prizes? It's not much even with the prizes, but you know what I mean.

If games that prominently feature gambling tend to be inherently random and uninteresting, then naturally we should give them a low rating. But one could make a reasonable argument that poker is a deep, challenging, and potentially interesting game. Indeed, it scores higher than most gambling games in the ratings here, but it still doesn't make it into the top 500. So what's going on?


Psychologists distinguish between two very different types of motivation. Intrinsic rewards occur when we do something for the sake of doing it, because we enjoy the activity itself. Extrinsic rewards occur when we do something for an external benefit, such as fame or money. Most jobs, for example, are motivated extrinsically. But the whole point of hobby gaming is the enjoyment of a game for its own sake. Gambling for money doesn't align with the motivational style of most people who play games as a hobby and hang out on BGG.

But that might not be the entire explanation. A classic experiment by Lepper, Greene and Nisbet (1973) found that extrinsic motivation can actually undermine intrinsic motivation. In social psychology, this is known as the Overjustification Effect. Tangible rewards grab our attention and we become less aware of the more subtle benefits of the experience. The more extrinsic motivations are present, the less emphasis there will be on the intrinsic fun and pleasure of playing the game. This could be a real source of incompatibility, which might explain why gambling games are not appreciated here.

Let me know what you think, and keep an eye on this blog for further findings from my survey as well as other thoughts about psychology and gaming. This is the first time I've tried writing a blog, so I hope it doesn't suck too badly...
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