Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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Games are Simulations

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
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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:

From gallery of shotokanguy

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...

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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