It’s all just a game, until…

A good game will elicit an emotional response. This is one of the most important reasons why we keep coming back to the game table. But it’s not always easy to deal with these emotions. In order for this medium to mature with its players, the gaming table must become a place where people are allowed to have negative emotions.

Imagine you’re having a stressful day. You’re tense because you have a lot on your plate. Then, out of nowhere, something goes wrong. Maybe some stranger cuts the line in front of you. You miss a delivery because you’ve been distracted for a moment. On a stressful day, you might feel anger. Maybe go off on a short rant. Or otherwise vent your frustration. That’s perfectly normal, right?

Now imagine that the people responsible start making fun of your anger. Or they roll their eyes and call you immature. They may even label you as having emotional problems. They might accuse you of deliberately ruining their good mood. Your frustrations are ruining other people’s fun.

Chances are, you’re not going to let this stand. You are transparent and open about how you feel right now, and it’s minimized and downplayed. Your own experience is invalidated. Your behavior is called inappropriate. You should feel embarrassed for even behaving this way in front of other people.

Obviously, this type of situation is not okay. Nobody should have to put up with this kind of thing. Especially not from people you call your friends.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about games. It’s perfectly fine to ignore or shut down other people’s anger, frustration or disappointment there. Which is something that does not sit well with me.

Games exist in a similar tradition to movies and books

They are media that engage us emotionally in order to deliver the full impact of the experience they provide. A shocking plot twist or a tragic ending tends to evoke strong emotions in us. When it comes to movies or books, you would rarely make fun of people who respond emotionally. Sure, we all know it’s just fiction. That all of it takes place in the mind and none of it is real in a tangible, physical way. The real consequences of a story only exist in what the audience feels in response to the narrative. Still, we generally understand and sympathize with people who are still working through their emotional responses to such stories. Regardless of whether we feel the same way or not.

It’s only in games that we teach children (from a young age), that they must learn how to lose “gracefully”. We indoctrinate them into suppressing their negative emotions, if they are based on the events of a game. It’s somehow improper to want to collect yourself after a game, because it made you feel bad.

You are forgiven for hurling a book across the room, cursing and yelling, once “the Lannisters send their regards”. It’s perfectly acceptable to still hate Sephiroth for his crime against Aerith, even decades after it happened. In board games, however, expressing anything close to that emotion is at best frowned upon. Being resentful over something that happened in a game is considered a character flaw.

To justify this, we conjure up concepts like sportsmanship. Because, as everyone know, athletes have never expressed a negative emotion after losing a fiercely fought competition. Because, clearly, that would mean they have never learned to “lose gracefully”.

Some people like to argue that bringing negative emotions to the table is a way to violate the magic circle of the game. That it is somehow some grave sacrilege, if one’s own expression of frustration or annoyance does not exist to amuse or validate others.

The argument is often the same: some people just can’t handle losing. But is that really as widespread a problem as people make it out to be? How often does it really sink a game night, when one player is upset over losing the game?

We’ve all had unpleasant experiences at the gaming table before, of course. Perhaps because tense and heated tempers exploded into loud, hate-filled rants. I am not approving or unreservedly supporting such behavior. But it’s my impression that we worry about such situations far more often than we actually experience them.

It seems to me that the awkwardness and discomfort is not due to the conflict itself. Instead we feel called out by another player openly showing their displeasure and putting words to it. In my experience only few game tables provide an environment in which expressing negative emotions is treated with the same level of support as expressing positive emotions.

Most of the time, this results in gaming culture that suppresses, downplays or invalidates unpleasant emotions in order to keep the entire experience at an arm’s length. But if something matters to you – like winning the game, for example – then you have to open yourself up to the possibility of experiencing defeat as well.

That’s not always easy or possible if you don’t feel emotionally safe in the presence of your fellow players. That’s why highly competitive games are especially popular in gaming groups where players know each other well and have been friends for a long time. You have to feel comfortable enough to admit and express frustration, disappointment and anger.

Why should I open myself up to a game, if I am not allowed to show negative emotions? A game that I only ever experience from a distance, will never captivate me and create the kind of memories, that make gaming unique. Would we consider movies and books immersive and gripping, if we were only ever allowed to show our positive reactions to their stories?

You have to take the emotional risk of being disappointed.

Playing games together is more than just estimating probabilities in our heads. It’s more interesting than just seeing who played better. A good game is something we experience with and for each other. And it works best when we feel safe enough to show our negative responses as well.

This is really not as unusual as it may sound. We just have to remember how we would want our fellow players to react, when the events of the game bother us. Do we really want to hear that we’re out of line, because it’s just a game?


Photo by Mason Kimbarovsky on Unsplash

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