Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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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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