Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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Games and Competition, Part Three

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
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Microbadge: Chess playerMicrobadge: EurogamerMicrobadge: Coffee drinkerMicrobadge: MinnesotaMicrobadge: I Sent Monkey Auto Races to #1
Good things come in threes, right? There is the Lord of the Rings, books and films, Reiner Knizia's tile-laying trilogy, Freud's theory of personality... well maybe not that last one, but you know what I mean. Here is the third and final installment of my investigation on attitudes toward competition in board gamers. I'm actually writing a paper on this for publication, so maybe you'll find it on PsycINFO some day if you want to learn more. Wish me luck!

Let's start with a graph. The figure below shows the games people on BGG usually play. Note that people could check more than one type of game, and most of them did.

From gallery of shotokanguy

No big surprises here, though I was happy to see that I replicated my previous study which asked people to rate how much they enjoyed various types of games. Different questions, methodologies, and sampling methods, but in both cases we see Euro games and Cooperative games on top, and CCG's and wargames at the bottom.

All well and good, but remember I am mostly interested in comparing hypercompetitive attitudes with healthier, personal development attitudes toward competition. The former viewpoint advocates winning as the only thing that matters, whereas the latter emphasizes the importance of self-improvement and learning about oneself. In utterly post hoc fashion I examined the relationship between the game preferences listed above and the two competitive orientations. I even threw in my measures of positive and negative affect for good measure. Are abstract strategy players hypercompetitive? Are Ameritrash players grumpy? Do Eurogamers have more fun? Inquiring minds want to know!

And now the results. Drumroll please... I found... almost nothing. There were zero or minimal associations across the board. There was only one correlation worth mentioning. Healthy attitudes toward competition, but not hypercompetitive attitudes, correlated r = -.20 with a preference for cooperative games. This means that people with a healthy competitive orientation were less likely to say they played cooperatives. What are we to make of this?

The most likely interpretation is that the correlation is spurious and means absolutely nothing. Running a multitude of statistical tests without a hypothesis is called fishing, and is likely to capitalize on chance and lead to a false conclusion. Throw enough darts and you will eventually make a bullseye. Play enough games of Wingspan and you'll eventually win. Wake me up when it's replicated.

But maybe it does mean something. Maybe people who score high on healthy competitive attitudes are less interested in cooperative games because they do not allow the opportunity to test oneself and develop one's skill. Maybe hypercompetitive individuals are apathetic altogether. They don't like cooperatives because they can't win, but they don't dislike them because they can't lose, compared to others. Maybe.

I have one final analysis, by request. I split the sample into two groups, one that scored above the median on hypercompetitiveness and one that scored below. Then I did the same thing for healthy competitive attitudes. This gave me four quadrants after I crossed the two variables: low HYP/low HEA, low HYP/high HEA, high HYP/low HEA, and high HYP/high HEA. Do these groupings vary by their positive and negative affect?

Somewhat. As you might recall, most of the variance I could account for in positive emotions was related to healthy competitive attitudes, whereas most of the variance I could explain in negative emotions was related to hypercompetitiveness. In my quadrant analysis, I found that the highest scoring group in positive affect was high HYP/high HEA, but low HYP/high HEA was right there with them, with a trivial and nonsignificant difference of .03 on my scale.

The highest scoring quadrant on negative emotion was, unsurprisingly, high HYP/low HEA which showed a mean of 2.13 out of 5 on the scale. That's still pretty low because on average (fortunately) participants were low on negative affect. The most resilient, lowest scoring quadrant on negative emotion was low HYP/high HEA, which had a mean of 1.80.

So there you have it. A couple more reasons to nurture an attitude of healthy competitive spirit based on doing one's best and developing one's skills and interests, rather than a focus on winning as the only important thing. I'm currently preparing an experimental investigation of this with a couple of my students. We plan to have our participants play a short game in the lab and see how winning and losing affects their emotional state and their attitudes toward the game. Of course, we will also look at their competitive orientations to see if that plays a role. I might report the results here, but it won't be any time soon (and see Note 4 below).


1. The concept of hypercompetitiveness as a neurotic need to win at any cost is originally from Karen Horney. The metrics used to measure hypercompetitiveness and personal development competitiveness were developed by my mentor, Richard Ryckman.

2. Like most psychologists, I tend to equate the words, "affect" and "emotion" and use them interchangeably. I apologize for any confusion about that.

3. My institutional affiliation is Southwest Minnesota State University. These studies have been reviewed and approved by the SMSU IRB as well as by the admins here at BGG.

4. This is my final blog post, though I reserve the right to change my mind. Thank you, everyone, for reading.
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