Help me play games without getting lost in the competition
April 22, 2008 5:03 AM   Subscribe

When playing games with my friends, I tend to get very competitive and bitter. In that moment of frustration, what are some things I can tell myself so I calm down?

This happens to me during board games and videogames where one person wins and the rest lose (i.e. most games!) My frustration escalates when people trash talk or use cheap strategies (Example: everyone else declares a group boycott against me because I'm winning) I'm generally a passive person, so I don't do either of those things. Discussion during a board game should be lighthearted and not deceptive.

My family has a competitive streak, and it's something I've fought for a long time. Today, I ended the game with something like "I told you so! I knew he was going to win!" and I already feel stupid about it. But I still think a lot of the stuff people say during games is passive aggressive or deceptive. Is this correct? Where do you draw the line? When does competition become mean-spirited?

I'm looking for tips and advice to avoid foot-in-mouth, but also some perspective.

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posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's just a game.
Will this matter tomorrow?

My favorite way to get perspective is to get that iconic picture of the earth from taken from space into my head, and then imagine a) how little my particular problem matters in the grand scheme of things, and b) how many other people are on this planet compared to the few who actually care about my problems.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:21 AM on April 22, 2008

Are you measuring your self-worth with how well you perform on stuff? If you are, I can see how you can take yourself so seriously. Chill, it's just games, play for fun and the experience. You're will not be less of a person if you lose.
posted by sixcolors at 5:55 AM on April 22, 2008

I don't know how to help you, but I totally know this feeling. I very rarely play games but when I do I either feel guilty about winning or pissed off if I lose.

I think the above poster has a helpful suggestion. Just remember that it's a game and totally meaningless. Try to detach your self worth from it and have as little connection to the outcome as possible.

And that said, try to be yourself. If you are winning and people are giving you a hard time, you can give it back to them. Maybe they suck and have their own gaming issues.
posted by sully75 at 5:59 AM on April 22, 2008

Can you step back and consider:

* What does it mean to mean if I win?
* What does it mean to everyone else if I win?
* What does it mean to me if I lose?
* What does it mean to everyone else if I lose?

Hopefully, the answers to all of those questions is "nothing." If not, and you look carefully and find you're feeling inadequate or cheated or better than everyone else or smarter or validated in some way, then the issue is not just about board games.

Sometimes you can think these things through and make the connections yourself and sometimes you need some help.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:33 AM on April 22, 2008

If people are actively ganging up on you to prevent you from winning, they are implicitely saying you are an awesome force to be reckoned with and must be stopped. When you look at it that way, it's actually kind of flattering, isn't it? Also, it allows you to say that any occasion in which you lose "doesn't count", as their victory was cheapened by their unsavory tactics.

Although, if you really want to get back at those ganger-uppers, I recommend being an unfailingly good sport. It will drive them bonkers.
posted by joelhunt at 7:17 AM on April 22, 2008

I have a competitive family too, and I know exactly how you feel. I disagree with what everyone else has said so far, because I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing that you care about who wins or loses. Yes, I know it's just a game and it doesn't really matter who wins, but I think genuinely wanting to win is what makes games fun.

If I'm the one picking the game, I always pick one that has a level playing field, and doesn't cause too many conflicts. For example, some board games have not very thought out rules, so that when competitive people play they use tactics that make the game no fun for everyone. In those cases, I either don't play that game, or I suggest that everyone agree on a better set of rules before playing the game.

The other other important thing for me is that I always have a happy jokey attitude when I play games. For example, I play poker, and I'm extremely competitive and I always want to win, but at the table I'm always nice to everyone. I don't get into arguments or make mean comments. There's a difference between being exciting that you've won or upset that you lost, and being a bad winner or poor loser.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:27 AM on April 22, 2008

I feel your pain.
I have two strategies.

I don't play. This is the most common strategy.
I play to lose. If I lose, I can stop playing. This usually results in more wins than losses. Which kinda sucks, but kinda doesn't.
posted by Seamus at 7:34 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Discussion during a board game should be lighthearted and not deceptive. That's what we want you to think. I'll actually say that I enjoy group games specifically because of deception. I have seen you across the board from me, and I have driven you insane.

Personally, the game's objectives are only tangentially related to my own. People are so much more enjoyable than whatever toy you're all playng with. Try experimenting with other goals during the game. Don't be a schmuck and only focus on the goals the developer wants you to think about.

Some of my favorites:
* Can you become kingmaker?
--- Try helping the weakest player win
--- Play dumb when anyone calls you on doing this
--- When the person you support is close to victory, double-cross them
* Which opponent is the most likely to get frustrated and put their foot in their mouth?
--- Ally with them and become horrendusly incompetent
--- Talk smack to every other player, but only interfere with that one
* How quickly can you get everyone else to gang up on you?
--- How soon can you turn them against the new front-runner?
--- How easy is it to turn everyone against foot-in-mouth guy?

Your entire life, you have not been aware of 95% of the game I'm playing against you. And I sypathize with you, I just had an evil and conniving family to start training me in these ways when I was young
posted by FuManchu at 7:34 AM on April 22, 2008 [17 favorites]

My startegy for trying to stay pleasant is to focus on the idea that if you are snappy with people in the game they are less likely to be nice and more likely to gang up on you. Mucho Settlers of Catan suggests this is certainly something that can impact one's fortunes.
posted by biffa at 7:35 AM on April 22, 2008

Yes, I know it's just a game and it doesn't really matter who wins, but I think genuinely wanting to win is what makes games fun.

Winning and wanting to win, is fine in itself. It's the baggage that comes alone with it. Playing to win is no fun if it induces mean behavior, arrogance in winners, low self-esteem in losers, resentment, and guilt.
posted by sixcolors at 7:36 AM on April 22, 2008

The goal is not to win. The goal is to have fun.

The goal is for everyone to have fun. Competition is a means to the end of having fun, not an end in itself.
posted by Class Goat at 8:05 AM on April 22, 2008

At some points in my life, it was easier said than done to remember that it's just a game. If you're having trouble doing this, for the time being, just focus for the time being on how well you're doing given the conditions.

Are you learning more about the game? Are you doing pretty well considering that everyone's piling on you or that you're rolling badly? Remember that you only have control over certain factors, and the rest is luck. If you're making good decisions and getting bad results, you should still feel good about it. If you're making bad decisions, you should learn from them and feel good about doing that. Besides keeping you sane, it's a fairer evaluation of your performance and will help you get better at playing.

Also, try to keep in mind that piling on the leader is always going to happen in most games, no matter who the leader is. How are the trailing players going to preserve their chances of winning? By stopping the leading player from winning and ending the game. (Of course, it's sometimes shortsighted, as it might not actually increase each individual player's chances of winning at all. That whole Prisoner's Dilemma thing.) So, it's a fairly natural occurrence, and you shouldn't take it anymore personally than a bad draw of the cards.
posted by ignignokt at 8:32 AM on April 22, 2008

I suggest a strategy sort of like FuManchu's, but more general:

Give yourself a goal other than just winning the game.

You don't have to sacrifice trying to win, but try it in a different way. Approach the game as an exploration rather than a competition. (For example, can you win at Settlers by only collecting wood?)
This will keep you from focusing on winning, and with a new goal, you don't lose in quite the same way. You probably won't pull ahead early in the game, either, which means people won't gang up on preventing you from winning.

If all else fails, try only playing Fluxx for a while. That game will help remind you that it's more about enjoying the play.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 8:35 AM on April 22, 2008

Have you tried playing with a different group of people? I stopped playing games with my ex, because he was extremely competitive, and every time we tried to play a game together, his trash talking and underhanded strategies made me furious. I stopped playing games I had found enjoyable before because all it led to was frustration and me snapping my head off. Finding a group to play with, where that kind of behaviour wasn't encouraged or supported made a huge difference, and I started enjoying those games again.
Reminding yourself its 'just a game' and 'winning isn't everything' is a lot easier to do when the people you're playing with have the same attitude.
posted by sandraregina at 8:56 AM on April 22, 2008

I don't know if this applies to you, but I often notice this type of behavior in those who have otherwise very conservative, controlled, risk-free, check that, risk-averse lifestyles. I think risk and competition of some sort are very innate and little understood human needs. If you're not getting it anywhere else, these games become hugely important to you because of this unfulfilled need for risk and excitement. I would explore some other avenues besides games where you can get these needs filled. I'm not saying you have to go sky-diving, but even an art class if you're not an artist exposes you to risk you're unaccustomed to. Go on a job interview even if you're not looking for a job(which, BTW, is the best time to look for a job). Ride a mountain bike down 4 concrete stairs. Anything you have little confidence in and little or no previous exposure will do the trick. Then go play one of your "regular" games right afterward and I'll bet you'll have an easier time being a more gracious winner or loser.
posted by Rafaelloello at 9:14 AM on April 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

Perhaps not so appropriate for boardgames, but for multiplayer video games with a bit more of a violent streak (halo, CS, etc) think about all those movies like Hitman (or the game), The Transporter, Quentin Tarantino stuff, etc, and calmly think:

I am a professional.

Nothing gets under your skin. You make no mistakes. Getting angry is a mistake. You no-longer have time for such amateur errors. You are cool as ice. Victory will eventually be yours because of this. You are a professional. Now watch this drive!
posted by -harlequin- at 9:35 AM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Something that strikes me from your question that hasn't been directly addressed is the specific issue of trash talking and cheap shots. These things have gotten under my skin when I've felt like it's an issue of disrespect in the game. Which is kind of the point of trash talking, i.e. to deliberately goad you into playing poorly. Cheap shots hurt when it seemed like someone was taking me out at the knees before I had a chance to really get started. Combined with trash talking, it felt like pretty nasty game play that was directed against me-the-person and not me-the-competitor.

What I took to telling myself is that these people are sitting around a table, playing a game with me because they want to spend some time with me (and the other people involved, natch). They wouldn't sit down with me if they didn't respect my ability to compete with them at some level so I ought to just calm down and learn/watch their strategy.

And don't get mad, get even. Most games give you the opportunity to really get someone's proverbial goat (or literal sheep) within the rules of game play and decorum that you wished everyone adhered to. Take those opportunities when they come. For the most part, the folks I play with always get excited when a particularly good strategy gets played out - we all wish we'd thought of it first.
posted by oreonax at 10:29 AM on April 22, 2008

I used to have exactly this problem. I remedied this by doing two things:

1) I stopped playing video games almost entirely. Specifically, I stopped playing all first person shooters except in the context of very relaxed, "lets kill fifteen minutes before the pizza gets here" settings (this usually means not playing if there are more than three or four people present). If others start gravitating towards the TV, I'll suggest a different activity (e.g. "It's such a nice day, how about we go toss the frisbee around?"). If other people insist on playing Halo or whatever, I'll politely recuse myself on the grounds that "it rots your brain." Then I'll read a magazine and/or watch and comment on the game in a detached, non-partisan way. I'm in the same room, I participate in the conversation, but I don't get all worked up and angry. Plus I get to be self-righteously smug.

2) I continued playing board games, but I stopped trying to win. Now, I just look at board games as an excuse to hang around with my friends and have grape-eating contests afterwards. I don't win very much, but I still have fun.

You don't say how old you are, but you may also simply need to wait for your friends to grow up a bit. I now (at age 19) can afford to be less detached because I know my friends won't be as stupid about the game as when we were fifteen. That may not be very comforting advice, but sometimes that's all you can do. In the mean time, try introducing less overtly competitive games to your friends. Cuba, for example, is commerce-based but involves almost no direct interaction between players. Carcassonne is very conducive to non-game-related conversation, which can help keep everybody more detached. You should also try to make decisions before the game starts about contentious rules (e.g. Can you loan people resources? Are you allowed to bribe people to place the robber in a particular place?). A universal ban on boycotts/alliances would probably serve your group well.

If you still find yourself mad after a game, help clean up the pieces. This will remind you that the game is just temporary--look, all Andrew's ill-gotten cities are going back in the box with everything else; they don't matter any more, they're just bits of wood. If everyone's mad, suggest doing something outside. It doesn't matter what you do--blind man's bluff, snowball fight, bottle rockets--just get away from the table. In twenty minutes, no one (including you) will remember what you were angry about. I've been using this trick for years. It's kind of mother-ish, I know, but it works.
posted by Commander Rachek at 10:29 AM on April 22, 2008

use cheap strategies

Incidentally, successful competition players quickly get beyond this thinking. There are no cheap strategies, the only thing that matters is whether something works. If someone is using something against you that works, you must find a counter to that strategy, and it is your failing, not theirs, if you cannot. If you need people to play nice, then clearly you suck at the game.

"I tend to get very competitive"

"Discussion during a board game should be lighthearted and not deceptive"

Pick one. You can't have both. If YOU are being competitive, then it is fair that your competitors be competitive also. Serious competition is NOT lighthearted. You can't have your cake and eat it too. Either it's lighthearted, in which case you shouldn't be competitive, or it's competitive, in which case the only rules are the rules of the game.

Finding a mid-ground - where it's a lightheartedly competitive, is an unstable mix that requires careful selection of both players and game to achieve, and that careful selection of players would not include you. At least, not yet :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:51 AM on April 22, 2008

When does competition become mean-spirited?

I think this may be a distraction - the bigger question is "Am I having fun? Right now, am I enjoying this?".
If it's fun then their sportsmanship doesn't matter. If it's not fun, it's better to stop playing rather than getting bitter (unless it's part of training for serious competition). Remember, you can find ways to stop playing that are fun - "Ok guys, I'm not enjoying this, so I'm going to put all of my pieces under the command of one of you guys, then bow out of the game. Sooooo - who wants my pieces, and what are you prepared to do to earn them?"
posted by -harlequin- at 11:20 AM on April 22, 2008

My best strategy for dealing with this (and I'm Sully75 here, I feel guilty when I win and pissed when I lose) is to think, "How would I feel towards [random but specific other person playing] if they won? Would my opinion of them truly change in any way? Would I care a half-hour later?" If the answer to those questions is "No different, No and No" respectively, as it probably will be, then you'll have the perspective to chill. Otherwise, either just take yourself out of the game entirely or play to win it all, it's your choice.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:34 AM on April 22, 2008

Lose a lot. Not on purpose, just play against people that can beat you, but whom you genuinely like as people. In other words, keep playing, be aware (as you appear to be) that saying grumpy things doesn't make the situation better, and you'll get used to the feeling of losing. This will take time. In the meantime, get up and take a break if you need one.

That's how I got over it, anyhow.

(Oh, also, I highly suggest you don't throw the game; that's a way to make *other* players grumpy, and that's no good either. You want everyone to have a good time, not just yourself.)
posted by nat at 12:04 PM on April 22, 2008

I have a similar problem. I HATE cheating, cheap strategies, and people who generally don't take the game seriously. I like a good, competitive game where everyone tries their best. I used to get incredibly pissed off when people started to screw around while playing games - and the more angry I got, the more they screwed around.

I finally realized that people play games for a lot of different reasons - and my reason...the be the BEST(!) wasn't necessarily the goal of the other contestants. When I got on board with the other players' goals, and allowed myself to relax and stop trying to control others' behaviors, I started to actually have fun. And, I'd also like to second nat's advice above - learn to lose - play a risky gambit, take a risk and take the loss that can come from that. Stop making winning your goal and concentrate on playing and you and your friends will enjoy it a lot more.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:40 PM on April 22, 2008

I'm going to send my girlfriend a link to this question so that she can answer it too, as we have dealt with this issue and have very different familial backgrounds regarding it.

I'm the older child, so I grew up beating the hell out of my little brother at nearly every game. And yeah, I "cheated" (I remember it as being more creative with the rules) for a while, and then gave that up because a) he didn't want to play anymore, and b) it was too easy.

So I can be a bit more laid back now, especially since I'm generally pretty good at the games that groups play (Risk, especially). I'm the guy that they gang up against, and yeah, it kind of pisses me off (especially when said girlfriend pretends to be an ally only to strike at my underbelly), but I realize it's just a game, and I kind of do enjoy them allying against me—I take 'em all on, because my armies are unstoppable and I kind of expect it. So look at it as an opportunity to get better with your tactics. I've become a much better Scrabble player by playing against speicus, even though he whups me. But I used to average about 150 points a game, and now I'm averaging about 250, and even giving him a decent run for his money sometimes.

The reason why I mentioned my girlfriend above is because she was a younger child, and has this weird legacy—I've watched her family gang up on her, while at the same time carping when she manages to beat them. So there's a weird dynamic, and it makes her really unhappy if I push her hard on some games, and it makes her not want to play if I destroy her (especially games based on luck, which paradoxically make me feel far more guilty when I win, because it's undeserved).
posted by klangklangston at 1:29 PM on April 22, 2008

Example: everyone else declares a group boycott against me because I'm winning

Try some of the "Euro" games which are popular these days--they typically offer little opportunity for a group of players to gang up against one. I couldn't find a good single list of top Euro games, but if you poke through the first page of top games at BGG, about half of those would be considered Euros.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:51 PM on April 22, 2008

My frustration escalates when people trash talk or use cheap strategies (Example: everyone else declares a group boycott against me because I'm winning) I'm generally a passive person, so I don't do either of those things.

Respond to this with good humor, don't let it get to you, and you've won, regardless of the outcome of the actual game.

Here's a recent Penny Arcade on the same topic.
posted by tomcooke at 1:24 AM on April 23, 2008

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