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Why board games bring out the worst in us

Here's the thing: Our brains don’t really know it’s just a game.
Image: Family playing chess in lodge living room
One of the more fascinating social qualities of board games is their ability to shift family dynamics. Hero Images / Getty Images

It’s something of a holiday tradition in many homes: after a day of idly opening presents, chatting with family, and eating everything, we break out the board games. This is my favorite part of the season because I absolutely love a game of Scrabble or Apples to Apples or The Settlers of Catan. I may love them a bit too much though, as they tend to bring out the worst in me. I may become competitive, petty and paranoid, convinced that someone is cheating or that fate is working against me. If I don’t win, I do my best not to show it (a façade that took years to master), but on the inside I’m sulking, and stewing over the defeat for the rest of the night.

Why do some of us take these games so seriously? Why do they have the power to transform us from amicable adults into bumptious brats? And why are we so quick to forget that it’s just a game?

Our Brains Are Processing Imaginary Losses As Real Ones

Well, that’s just it: once engaged, our brains don’t really know it’s just a game.

“The human brain never evolved a mechanism to separate a game from reality,” says Don Vaughn, a postdoctoral scholar at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “If a lion was chasing one of our ancestors on the savanna, it was real, every time. There were no movies, plays or simulations. Modern neuroscience has revealed that just thinking about imagined situations activates the same brain regions as the actual experience. So when you have to pay $2,000 to your sister for landing on Boardwalk, your brain is really experiencing loss.”

This feeling of loss results in a chemical reaction, as Vaughn explains, noting: “If we could look into your brain at that moment, we would actually see dopamine neurons (the same ones that give you that feeling of reward from food, sex and approval) stop firing as much: the hallmark sign of a real, negative outcome.”

It works the other way around, too. When we have a victory or experience a sense of bonding with our teammates, our brains release pleasurable chemicals.

“It is possible to get some of the neurochemical benefits of board games [including] the release of oxytocin (the ‘love’ hormone) from social connectedness.”

These Games Are Competitive By Design

Board games are designed to rile us up. Like sports, these games work by creating division. We adopt a “me versus them” mentality.

“By their nature, board games bring out our competitive spirit because they divide us,” says Dr. Alok Trivedi, a psychological performance coach and founder of The Aligned Performance Institute. “Whether it’s a family, couples hanging out on a Saturday night or just kids having fun, board games usually are an ‘every man for himself’ scenario, or separate us into teams. This automatically turns on our competitive switch in the brain. We start producing adrenalin and cortisol and we become ready to fight.”

Moreover, while most board games involve some level of strategy, a win almost always entails something we can’t control at all: luck. Knowing that somebody else won because they got lucky when we know we played better can really fire up that competitive streak.

Dad May Be The Head Of The House, But You Rule This Game

One of the more fascinating social qualities of board games is their ability to shift family dynamics. If your big brother is always getting his way, it may be extra satisfying to dominate in a board game, just as it may be particularly humiliating for said big brother to lose to you.

“There are some games where the 45-year-old cardiac thoracic surgeon has the same chance of winning as his first grade son,” says Trivedi. “So if Dad is usually the ‘know-it-all’ of the family, this is a chance for others to challenge him and take him down for a change.”

Having this rare chance of role reversals may be rewarding, but as Dr. Trivedi notes, it tends to make some of us “more aggressive in our approach.”

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Why Do Some Of Us Love Games And Others Hate Them? It May Stem From Childhood

But why do only some of us get so into board games while others couldn't care less, or even groan at the mere mention of them? Our feelings about these games may stem in part from when we learned to play them — as kids.

“We often learn to play them as children and those earlier beliefs about how we manage competition and feeling competent and capable can spring right back to the surface,” says Helen Odessky, a licensed clinical psychologist. “We may try to mask feeling less than good enough by becoming ultra competitive or avoiding the challenge altogether.”

Then again, sometimes there’s no psychoanalytical digging to be done, and it’s just a matter of differing personalities.

“Personality assessments of boredom find that different people intrinsically have different propensities to become bored,” says Dr. Vaughn. “Boredom arises from a lack of engagement which translates to having nothing at stake. This lack of engagement can be unintentional. If the game isn't challenging enough, or not the type of game someone wants to play in the first place, they will disengage and boredom will ensue.”

How to Play Games Without the Family Drama

Those who get bored by board games may have no problem coasting through Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit this holiday, while others (like me) may need to calm our combative instincts when they flare up.

Consider these three tips for a drama-free board game night:

1. Play a game that requires little strategy

It’s the games that take the most energy that tend to make us the most competitive. Opt for something that doesn’t use much brainpower.

“Nearly all of the arguments happen in games with more highly complicated rules, like Monopoly and Scrabble,” says Dr. Vaughn. “Simple games have better outcomes. Almost no one fights over Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity. Try a simpler game or get the rules very clear ahead of time to avoid an unwanted dose of stress and neurotoxic cortisol.”

2. Watch your alcohol intake

Family gatherings can get pretty boozy, so keep an eye on how much you’re drinking. Same goes for the rest of the fam.

“We all need to know ourselves well drink responsibly,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and author. “If a family member is intoxicated to the point where he or she can’t play the game respectfully, they should be called out of the game. A prerequisite must be sound body and mind.”

3. Resolve not to react to others' aggression

Family is complicated, and those complications tend to rear their ugly heads during holiday get-togethers. You may want to be ready for some annoying behavior — and resolve to not react.

“Sitting around a board game next to your sibling who has unresolved rivalry with you is the perfect bed for her to fling putdowns and criticisms your way when you lose a point in the game,” says Dr. Walfish. “One way to lighten things up is for you to decide ahead of time that you are going to generate positive energy, no matter what. When your mean sister competes with you and wins you might say, ‘Good strategy!’ Power struggles can only occur when there are two people tugging in opposite directions. If you decide to let go the other person has nobody to oppose or defy.”

So try and relax and enjoy. And if you do get a little more invested in the game than you may have expected, remember that’s because, as Dr. Vaughn notes, “neurally, it’s never ‘just a game’.”

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