After hearing about it for years, I‘ve finally witnessed it myself. During a recent game, a player suffered such a drastic setback, that tears started to roll. Admittedly, that player was my daughter and she still has a couple of kindergarten years before her, but still. The game caused such a strong response, that tears were the only way for her to deal with that inner tension.
Of course, the emotional development of children isn‘t fully completed by that age yet. When they are faced with an unexpected or unfamiliar situation, their emotional control can still fail them. But if you‘ve seen an episode or two of Queer Eye, you‘ll know that tears in response to an unexpected sight isn‘t unheard of among grown-ups either. Even with adults complete emotional control isn‘t always a given.
My first reaction, of course, was to comfort my daughter. But it was also important to me to take her emotions seriously, and not to downplay the reasons for her tears. Of course, it‘s „only“ a game. But that doesn‘t mean that her feelings aren‘t valid. I felt it important to show her that with her family she is always allowed to express how she feels. It doesn‘t matter what I think of her reasons. This has nothing to do with not wanting to impose limits on her. As a gamer, I‘m well aware that limits can be educational and helpful. But it is also important to me that she feels safe with us. She should never have to justify her feelings to us or be embarrassed by them.
But games don’t evoke only joy and fun, they can also cause anger and frustration. Why should we have to hide that? Enjoying victory isn‘t taboo, after all. This hobby would be much poorer, if we demanded our gaming partners to hold back any emotional responses to the events of the game. So instead, we just ask them to suppress certain emotions; to cover them up or, even better, to not even feel them to begin with.
The expectation to bottle up your feelings instead of dealing with them, is a problem. It hides an essential aspect of the experience of playing games. It can also lead to players lacking the ability to recognize toxic behavior when it occurs. Worse still, it may lead to players and groups not having the means or techniques at their disposal to defuse emotionally charged situations. But this is what is needed to turn particularly intense play into a positive experience worth remembering.
Failing to handle such moments well can might lead players to avoid a particular game and its genre in the future. It can also damage the relationship between people as players, even though they continue to get along perfectly well outside of playing games together. This can be a recurring pattern with couples in particular. In some cases, it may even lead players to think of all negative interaction or any kind of direct confrontation as deeply unpleasant and disruptive. If a new player joins a group, incapable of handling toxic moments, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they decide to write off board games altogether afterwards.
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with toxic play experiences is the ability to recognize them as such. Despite what the term may suggest, such an experience is not equally toxic to all players. Whether it is or not, has little to do with how you feel about it. These situations emerge when a game is aimed at repeatedly causing negative responses in players, while the group lacks the social coherency to give players room to process these emotions. It becomes even more toxic once it becomes apparent that admitting such a negative experience – whether verbally or non-verbally – is met with rejection. Whether because the experience is talked down, or because the rest of the group responds with awkwardness or silence. In either case, what gets clearly communicated is that admitting one’s own negative experience isn’t acceptable in this group. Instead of solidarity and empathy, as we would respond to our own children, we answer with emotional distancing or a quick change of topic.
What makes recognizing such a development even more difficult, is the understanding that playing with negative experiences can also be fun. Just like how a horror movie is fun, even though it is aimed at scaring the bits out of us. Or how an extremely hot chili dish has its fans, even though eating it primarily causes us pain. Just because something is in parts uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable in total.
Games purposefully include negative experiences, set-backs and even frustration to be fun. It’s up to the gaming group to make sure that this is what people take away from it, and not just the negative aspects of the experience. This is especially true, when individual players are responsible for when and in what shape these negative moments happen in the game. This is where the group’s coherency is most obviously tested.
Generally speaking, any game can lead to a toxic situation. But it’s obvious that some games are more prone to it than others. Take-that games, zero sum games and player elimination games are the usual suspects here. But even games with low or indirect interaction aren’t immune to it. That is because the problematic and toxic elements are rarely an essential part of the game’s design. In fact, it’s their implementation at the game table that makes the difference between a toxic and an intense play experience.
This is the actual challenge that our groups are faced with when we play. Games confront us with negative experiences, that we can either deal with alone or together. There is a simple reason why some games are only recommended to be played with good friends. It is far more likely that empathy, mindfulness and trust are practiced regularly enough in such a group, that toxic situations can be avoided. It’s not enough to simply have known each other for a long time. We have to be willing to actively contribute to the group’s social coherency.
A game, especially a competitive one, is built on straining it a little, in order to create a more rounded and enjoyable experience. The communal element of playing games isn’t just the necessity of having opponents that challenge you. It’s also the necessity to share both the good and the bad experiences with each other. Because we’re all in this together.
Roger Ebert once said that to him movies are like machines that create empathy. If that is so, then games are the framework in which we get to practice that empathy.