Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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Frustration in Board Games

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
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When I was a kid, Mom often told a story about when she was young, and her experiences playing games with her Uncle Butch. This was more than forty years ago, and the events in the story must have occurred at least ten years before that. Over the years it evolved into a kind of moral or cautionary tale, as well as a bit of family lore, which I will now pass on to you.

My Great Uncle Butch was a regular, working class guy- a Chicago bus driver, married to my Aunt Hattie. Incidentally, I never met either of them. Or if I did, I was too young to remember. Uncle Butch and Aunt Hat never had any kids, but my grandmother stayed with them when she was young, and later after my mother was born, the two of them would visit. I'm not sure if Mom was there when these events took place, or if it was just Grandma. It doesn't really matter. Anyway, Butch was an upright guy and worked hard all his life. His one character flaw was that he hated to lose and became quite famous in the family for it. One day, some time during the early 1960s, Butch brought home a new game for them to try.

Board Game: Aggravation

Well, Aggravation wasn't really new. It was just the latest Pachisi variant, a mechanic that goes all the way back to ancient India. We had an old copy of the game in my family when I was growing up. Maybe the very one that Butch brought home that fateful, hot summer day. By the time I got ahold of it, it was already a little old and worn. Most of my friends wanted to play a newer game called Trouble which featured the innovative pop-o-matic die roller. But it's still the same old game.

Back to the story. The distinctive thing about Pachisi games is that you have to move all your pawns (or marbles) around the board, from your starting place to your goal area. This can take a long time. And during that time, if another player lands on your piece, then back to the starting place you go. Very frustrating. Aggravating, in fact.

Board Game: Aggravation

Being aggravated is fun? Yeah, right.

You must have already guessed what's going to happen in the story. All of this was related to me in great detail by my mother, all those years ago. Uncle Butch was doing pretty well with his die rolls. He got all of his marbles home except for one. Tap, tap, tap. An opponent landed on his last marble, and back to the start it went. Then it happened again. And again. After the third time, Uncle Butch saw his victory disappear and exploded in anger. His face was red, he shouted, he swore, and he swept the game from the table, little marbles bouncing everywhere. As I understand it, this was the first and last time they ever played Aggravation.

As I said, Uncle Butch was a bit of a sore loser. But the social psychologist in me knows that we need to look beyond personality traits at the instigating, contextual, and situational factors that helped to trigger the events in the story. Aggravation is a highly frustrating game. If they had only chosen a different game to play that day, it's possible that Butch wouldn't have gotten so angry and lost his temper.

Social psychologists define frustration as an unpleasant state of emotional arousal caused by being blocked from obtaining a goal. It’s not just about inaccessibility or deprivation. The critical issue is that we think we are making progress, and then that progress is taken away. Frustration is considered to be a kind of motivational drive. It is classically linked to aggression in the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis, first proposed by John Dollard and his colleagues back in 1939. Research has generally supported the idea that frustration leads to hostility and aggression. Furthermore, levels of frustration and aggression increase if we invest more time and effort into trying to achieve our goal. Social psychologists used to test this in "real life" field experiments by cutting into lines in front people waiting to get into theaters and sporting events. The verbal responses of the people in line were the primary measures of aggression.

Board Game: Aggravation

Social psychologists must have worked on the Spanish edition.

Aggravation has all the elements needed to produce frustration and aggression. You slowly work toward your goal, but you have very little control over the fact that anyone can ruin your progress at any moment. Uncle Butch was almost there went he got sent back, three times! The line cutting experiments indicate that this is the critical point at which frustration will be maximal. Attribution, or the way we think about the experience, is also important. The fact that someone chose to set you back when they could have moved elsewhere is going to trigger more frustration and anger. Why are you picking on me?

Any game can lead to frustration, especially in a situation when you expect to win and then you don't. Games that involve direct player conflict are probably going to be the most frustrating. It will be worse if you perceive the person thwarting you as being unnecessarily, or arbitrarily nasty. The Take That mechanic is a good example of this kind of situation. Games in which you work a long time to build something that can suddenly be taken away from you should have the highest potential for causing frustration.

On the other hand, Euro games should be less frustrating. If only Uncle Butch had been playing The Princes of Florence. There is a lot less opportunity for players to block each other in a game like that. Sure, he might have been disappointed with his final score, but I doubt he would have lost his temper quite so badly.

Postscript: a few days after writing this, I blew the final auction in Princes of Florence, causing me to miss out on a prestige card and tie for last, instead of coming in first. It was a little frustrating!
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