Small acts of indifference

Some games have a reputation for being particularly mean. The generally confrontational interaction of those games often evokes strong emotional responses. At the table players sometimes complain or curse because of it. Most of the time this type of reputation is well deserved. Enough groups have played this “mean game” and reported similar experiences. A “mean game” is a fight for the lead until one player wins.

Recently I got to play such a “mean game” again. I’d played it before and already knew what to expect. So I was somewhat surprise to see the game play out in a comparatively restrained and calm manner. Outside of individual moments of tension, the game was unlike any of my other plays of it. The common explanation for this is usually that some groups simply don’t lean towards such a “mean” style of play. It’s an explanation that would have made sense to me as well, if it hadn’t been for the way a different game played out just an hour before.

That’s when we played, what I’m going to refer to as the “colorful game”. It’s a seemingly simple and almost trivial game, I had also played a few times before. It’s quick to explain and quick to play, so it seemed a good idea to start game night with this “colorful game”. To my surprise, the game seemed to play significantly meaner and nastier than I had ever experienced it up to that point.

This contrast intrigued me. Why did the “mean game” seem almost relaxed and comfortable to play, while the “colorful game” clearly caused some tension after only a few moves? Player preferences didn’t seem to explain this change in play style from one game to the other. But the game themselves also didn’t provide an explanation for this, because then the “mean game” would have felt meaner while the “colorful game” would have been a comparatively toothless affair.

Two distinct concepts were intersecting here. Player behavior on the one hand and the decision space, as outlined by the game’s rules, on the other. Somehow when combined the experience that followed did not meet my expectations.

It seemed obvious to assume that the preferences and play styles of the other players wouldn’t fundamentally shift during the same evening. What they liked about games and how they wanted to play games would hardly have changed so drastically as to result in such differing experiences.

So I had a look at what it was that earned the “mean game” its reputation. That game is, as you might expect, a competitive one. It’s a simple auction game where the point value of a bought object can change a lot during the course of the game. Losing an auction can also mean that expensively “won” objects can quickly belong an opponent. Hard-won points might even flip and become point deductions at the end of the game, if things don’t play out as you hope. So the stakes are high, and these quick and inevitable changes to one’s ranking are a cause for tension. To some extent, the meanness of the game certainly lies in the feeling of powerlessness with which one’s own chances to win become a plaything of other people. There is no doubt that the core of the game’s interaction lies in deliberately taking points from another player, or keeping them from getting any. So, you often have to worry that the interest of whoever won an auction does not run counter to your own.

The “colorful game”, on the other hand, had not struck me as particularly mean in any of the plays to date. On the contrary, it seemed to be a light-hearted yet cleverly packaged game where your actions could have obvious but also subtle consequences. You take objects from the display by playing a card and get victory points for both card and object(s) taken. The game ends, once the display is cleared. The card you play restricts which objects you may take, and the selected objects in turn trigger effects. You might reduce the objects and cards of other players, for example. In other words, points you once gained can still be taken away again. Libertarians in particular might feel like they’ve wound up in the 8th ring of hell.

But taking away somebody’s points was strongly present in both the “mean” and the “colorful” game. Although the other players acknowledged a latent meanness to both games, it seemed more pronounced in the “colorful” game.

A plausible conclusion would be that the way the interaction was carried out had the biggest impact on our experience here. This is where the differences between the two games became more pronounced.

When the “mean game” was brought to the table it came with a warning, that play would be a tense and confrontational chase for victory points. We were able to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for the fact that we were not going to be nice to each other. The game’s mechanisms also emphasized how actions directly affected other players. Objects to bid on would be chosen with a tactical eye on how they would affect others. We could knowingly exert emotional pressure on another player by picking an object they wanted, to force their hand in bidding on it. This was clearly apparent in the game and similarly clearly avoided whenever possible.

In contrast, taking away points in the “colorful game” happened as an afterthought. Players chose the most valuable object from the display, limited only by their hand of cards. The actions connected to those objects were carried out almost reluctantly. It was a necessary evil to get over with, before paying attention to your own hand of cards again.

I think it was this attitude exactly that turned the “colorful game” into a mean experience. Players didn’t consider how their actions impacted others, but cared only about their own advantage. The fact that other players were negatively affected seemed more like an insignificant annoyance, as opposed to something worth paying attention to.

In his tragically last film role, Raul Julia says “For you the day [I] graced your village [and killed your father] was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.” It’s a line that still gets some shocked laughter because of how contemptuous and arrogant it is. While the moment is undoubtedly very camp, it does, not least due to its over-dramatization, illustrate why such interactions anger other players.

The (negative) emotional impact of a player’s action on you is incidental to them. They don’t consider the setbacks or frustration they cause relevant to what they do. To be on the receiving end of such a move is a far bigger strike to your ego than losing a few victory points. It’s the indifferent way in which you are basically called irrelevant that can be so aggravating.

Whereas in the “mean game” you are still treated as a competitor and the emotional impact played a role in a player’s decision-making, the “colorful game” made you feel as if you were some insignificant by-stander to somebody else’s enjoyment of the game. Only the display and the cards in their hand were of value or interest. What happened to others at the table – even if a player was responsible for it – didn’t matter.

Inevitably, I had to ask myself why people played that way? What moved players to opt for impersonal criteria when deciding who would have to lose objects or cards in the “colorful game”? Here I can only assume and speculate. One plausible explanation seemed to be that they wanted to avoid conflict at all costs. Or more accurately, they did not want to take responsibility for their own actions having a negative impact on others.

This might have been because they believed that an impartially executed rule is the most just and fair way to make an unpleasant decision. I can’t be accused of being biased, when I made the decision arbitrarily, or almost randomly, right? Instead of acting with intent, I would myself to only looking at my own situation and ignore anything that has happened before or is going on right now. Because not doing so, would make the game personal, right? And a game, after all, it’s not personal, it’s strictly business. (A quick reminder that in this scene from The Godfather, Michael Corleone does not reveal how fair and just he is, but instead how much of a sociopath he can choose to be.)

This now is my preliminary takeaway from that experience: there is no such thing as impersonal competition in a board game. The more you try to ignore the negative effects of your actions, the more anger and resentment you evoke in those who have to suffer those effects. Instead of enjoying a competition among equals, play becomes about practiced indifference and pitilessness. This makes people angry, not just in the days leading up to Christmas.

One thought on “Small acts of indifference

  1. This in an interesting analysis. When we play with our kids, they generally dislike games that have “mean” effects – whether intentional OR unintentional – because they always take it personally. But they enjoy “battling” games, where nearly every action is designed to attack other players. And I think you’re right – it’s all about the mindset of the players, which is in turn influenced by the theme & tone of the game.


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