Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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The Persistence of Memory

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
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Microbadge: Chess playerMicrobadge: EurogamerMicrobadge: Coffee drinkerMicrobadge: MinnesotaMicrobadge: I Sent Monkey Auto Races to #1
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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