For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure, it’s research.
— Billie Jean King, former World No. 1 professional tennis player
Last week, my boyfriend and I got invited for a game of Settlers of Catan at our friends’ house. I must say that when it comes to board games, my experience is fairly limited. I had a mild obsession with Talisman: The Magical Quest Game, when I was a child, but in general, I didn’t venture very much beyond the classics: Monopoly, Chess, Mastermind, and Scrabble. I am not a big fan of games like Backgammon, where the roll of the dice dictates who wins, so I enjoyed the fact that Settlers of Catan allows for setting up strategies, analysing probabilities, and building relationships with other players.
The game was designed by Klaus Teuber and first published in 1995 in Germany. As the title suggests, players are settlers, whose main objective is building settlements, cities, and roads to connect them, while trading and acquiring resources (brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore) with each other and with the “bank”. Different settlements have different values, referred to as victory points, and the goal of the game is to reach 10 victory points.
The game is one of the top-selling games in the world, with multiple variations and extensions, and has gained praise from game writers. Richard Dansky called it “a hardcore game and a light social pastime and everything in between, a laboratory where I can test a hundred different play styles and a genuine reason to invite friends over,” as Wikipedia tells us.
I was keen to play but didn’t initially share the excitement of fellow players—to me, the game was merely an excuse to socialize with my friends, not a challenge to be overambitious about. Half an hour into the game, and I was no longer blasé about it, I was seriously hooked: emotional, tense, and cursing my opponents. I was genuinely surprised how much I wanted to win and how great it felt when I did (I keep joking that I only win when I play a game for the first time, which has recently happened with Munchkin and Cards Against Humanity).
A few days later, my friends came over and we played the game again. It was an intense battle, and even though I was initially far behind everyone else, in the end we all came very close, which really put us on tenterhooks. But something interesting happened towards the end. I had a Monopoly card, which enabled me to claim a chosen resource from other players, and had been waiting for the right moment to use it. I needed wheat, so calculated how much of it had been going around, but when it came to my turn, I got confused and asked for rock—which nobody had. It was a really stupid mistake and I got angry. Yet I was not angry because of bad luck—I was angry because it was my mistake and I could have prevented it. The feeling didn’t last for very long and I still enjoyed the game, but my emotional response baffled me and after my guests had left, I kept thinking about it.
We live in an age of competition. At school, we compete for grades, diplomas, popularity, and teachers’ approval. Later on, we compete for jobs, internships, scholarships, prizes, opportunities, promotions. In overpopulated cities like London, we compete for rooms, flats and houses (when some friends of mine were selling their flat at auction last year, they had a massive queue of people waiting outside of the building). We compete for antiques and designer clothes on eBay. We compete for the attention of a potential partner on an online dating site; we compete with all the attractive people “out there” our date might want to choose instead of us.
The writer Ayn Rand said that “Competition is a by-product of productive work, not its goal. A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” Healthy competition inspires individuals and teams to develop and improve their skills, to be at their very best, and to achieve great things. But competing with others is stressful, and losing doesn’t come easily to most of us. Everybody has witnessed the sort of tantrum a child throws when they lose at a game. With their fragile nervous system and little control over their emotions, children react hysterically, which is why their parents often let them win. As adults, we are aware that throwing a tantrum would make us look pathetic and immature, but just because we don’t manifest our emotions in the same way as children do, it doesn’t mean we accept defeat without any hard feelings.
After I got so annoyed with myself for wasting my Monopoly card, I began thinking about the benefits versus drawbacks of playing games. A quick research on internet gamers’ forums shows that getting irrationally angry when playing a game is incredibly common. It is also a reason why many people don’t play board games to start with. In a very interesting article, An observation about why some people don’t like board games (and how to cure them of that terrible affliction), Nick Bentley presents a few hypothesis on people’s reluctance to engage in games, based on numerous conversations with non-players. One of the major reasons behind their aversion is the fact that they actually… care more about board games than anyone else. “What I mean is,” he says, “those who dislike board games invest themselves more heavily in their outcomes, to such an extent that their identities are affected. When they lose, they feel they’ve endured a public demonstration of their ineptitude. When they win, they feel they’ve subjected their opponents to the same.”
The ability to deal with stress differs a lot between people. Sportsmen, for whom competition is the core of their profession, are specifically trained to cope with competitive stress and pressure, and use many different strategies and techniques to control the anxiety levels during competition. But even sportsmen, despite the extra training, are not always able to handle stress well. Last year, a chess player died in the middle of a match during Chess Olympiad in Norway. Kurt Meier, 67, a Swiss-born member of the Seychelles team, collapsed during his final match of the marathon two-week contest.
The same applies to business investors. Alex Turnbull, the CEO & Founder of Groove, in an article called Why I Don’t Stress Over Competition Anymore, gives an example of the rise and fall of one of New York’s hottest startups, Fab. The company, with approx. 700 employees, $336 million in VC backing and a $1 billion valuation, started to collapse when its CEO, Jason Goldberg, decided to put gigantic financial resources into destroying Fab’s European competitor, Bamarang. This pixel-by-pixel clone of Fab was launched by the infamous copycat-incubator, Rocket Internet, who make money by making European copies of successful American companies, and forcing the original company to concede defeat or buy them out. Goldberg’s frustration was justified, but his inability to act rationally in the face of competition was fatal. His recklessness in spending gigantic money on marketing and expanding his company overseas to defeat Bamarang resulted in a Titanic-style crash that doesn’t cease to baffle people.
With my Settlers of Catan, and even more so, with my chess experience—a game where nothing is left to chance—I can relate to those who “care too much”, as Bentley had put it. But here is a conclusion I’ve come to: The very fact that a game carries a high risk of losing is the sole reason to play. Playing and losing over and over, as often as possible, is a fantastic way to practice becoming comfortable with loss and defeat—regardless if the defeat is due to chance, mistake, taking too big of a risk or not taking a risk. All of these losing scenarios happen in real life pretty much all the time. Sometimes you don’t get a job because you didn’t present yourself particularly well at an interview, while at other times, you’re the perfect candidate, but other 9 people are exactly as good as you, and some random factor decides that X or Y gets the job. (Maybe they come from the same city as the CEO or mention a band they had recently seen which happens to be the hiring manager’s favourite band). Sometimes your focus on safety and security means you will miss out on an opportunity to expand your business, and some other time, your fearlessness will result in a big loss.
Games teach us to accept whatever happens on the board, and to make the most of the resources we have and the position we’re in. Often a game might start badly, but evolve into a victory, or vice versa—you’re way ahead of the opponent(s), and then suddenly you’re overthrown. A while ago, I was at an early stage of a chess game, when I developed a rather complicated strategy and overlooked an obvious move from my opponent, which led to me losing the queen. Needless to say, I was pretty frustrated and thought the game was over. But I pulled myself together, and, depraved of the most powerful piece on the chessboard, I had to come up with clever ways of using my other pieces and pawns. And I won.
People generally agree on the positive effects board games have on social skills, intelligence and memory. A few years ago, Newsweek published an article about a study conducted by Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist from UC Berkeley, on a group of children from an elementary school in Oakland which historically has low state test scores. The children were given board games, card games, and video games that demanded distinct mental functions. After eight weeks of playing, their “reasoning scores, on average, leapt 32%. Translated to an IQ standard, that bumped them 13 points.”
But it is the psychological and emotional benefits that I find particularly interesting. I have read about people for whom playing board games provide a positive outlet for negative emotions that they have to keep under wraps in their daily life. By indulging in activities that they wouldn’t allow themselves to do in normal life, like lying, manipulating and playing aggressively, they release a lot of every-day tension. Then there are introverts, for whom games provide a structure for safe social interactions where they don’t have to engage in demanding small talk.
If you’re somebody who clings onto an unsatisfying job to avoid going through the process of competing with people and getting rejected, or is reluctant to ask someone on a date because they might say no, playing games can be the first step in the process of learning to accept not getting what we want. Some people might like to tackle the fear head on, like Jason Comely, a freelance IT guy from Cambridge, Ontario, who made it his goal to be rejected every day and transformed rejection into something he felt good about. But Settlers of Catan might be an easier place to start.