A Small Slice of Perfection – Part 6

In today’s Small Slice, Georgios once again returns to his favourite topic: telling people they’re being rude. Specifically, how and why competition has to have limits, if games are supposed to be fun.

And in an unprecedented feat of research, we’ve unearthed a 100% authentic and original audio recording of a pivotal scene from one of geekdom’s most beloved fantasy films.

The limits of competition.


6 thoughts on “A Small Slice of Perfection – Part 6

  1. Issues that arise in boardgaming, which tends to involve 3-6 people investing 2-3 hours – same issues also arise in larp games, only they involve 500-5000 people investing at least 20-30 hours. Tends to boil down to “I wish to play with people who aren’t just faces drawn on my left hand … but they’re a lot less predictable and cooperative than friendly Professor Facehand”.

    Two distinct problems here:

    (1) Failing to consider that others might be like yourself – as you’ve laid out, if it matters to you that people not ragequit on a game, then avoid putting them in situations where you’d ragequit.

    (2) People vary and differ in ways that aren’t resolveable merely be ‘being a bit more thoughtful’. If two people want to play chess, but one player wants a game where people play as best they are able and the other wants the weaker (”) player to be given a break – only one player can get the game they want, regardless of how empathic they are (albeit that people often only imagine empathy going in one direction!).

    There’s nothing wrong with empathy (why, without empathy, we’d have no competent torturers!) – but calls for empathy tend to deployed in a one-sided manner (“Player 2 is clearly unhappy with the state of affairs – why won’t you consider their feelings?” rather than “Perhaps both players should step back, consider what the feelings of the other party and then negotiate the compromise that perhaps should have preceded the game”).

    Often, there’s an unspoken premise in calls for empathy that one players preferences are apriori superior – what is stated as “won’t you think about other people?” is really “Won’t you just be reasonable and admit that what you like in games is bad and wrong and you are bad and wrong and should feel bad?”. This does neatly (”) resolve the “but what about when both players deploy ’empathy’ and realise they disagree” (clearly, both players should accept the position of the player with the Righterer preferences).

    In practice, you either have pre-game negotiation (‘please quickly read and sign off on this gaming social contract’) or mid-game negotiation.

    Unfortunately, asking people to respect the social contract is like asking people to respect of the League of Nations. They absolutely will. Unless they don’t want to. Or it asks them to do something that seems quite incomprehensible to them. (I’ve watched people fork over £100 to spend a weekend + prep on a game advertised very clearly as a ‘PvP’ game … only to complain about the presence of PvP).

    Having attempted to exhort geek societies to harmony through calls to empathy or calls to articulate, promulgate and adhere to social contracts, I think there is a quite a low ceiling on what can be managed through well-meaning interventions.

    A less ambitious – but still probably *too ambitious* – goal would simply be to give people just enough information to realise how little they can assume about other people who might be sitting down at a game board.

    Specifically, that they can’t merely be assumed to share their preferences/irks. There are people who will be offended if you beat on them when they are in last place. There are people who will be offended if you resile from beating on them merely because they are in last place. There are people who will be offended by neither … but will *detest* you for the horrible cologne you’re wearing.

    These are my words. Transmission will now end.


    (am I reposting – stupid wordpress won’t tell if it posted!)


    1. I don’t disagree with your argument in principle, but I find in practice I can never side with the player with the advantage. Competitive players are generally experienced enough to not end up marginalised. As such, promoting “empathy for the winning side” feels very alien to me.

      As for articulated social contracts, I frankly don’t think they work at all. At best, they turn a relaxing pastime into a mine-field of social no-nos, with people feeling tense and ill-at-ease for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. And at worst, they are a hammer people swing around to enforce consent. It’s basically saying “but you said yes 20 minutes ago, you can’t change your mind in the middle of it”. Which is simply not true. If a game is awful, and I feel awful playing it, I’m perfectly within my rights to reevaluate my priorities. Sometimes that means sitting it out, so the others can enjoy their game. Sometimes it means calling people out for being awful. I’ve yet to walk out of a game, but that doesn’t mean I won’t if the situation calls for it.

      I think that a greater awareness of the actual social dynamics of the table, and acknowledgement of the emotional dimension of (competitive) play is a far better way of dealng with these issues.

      Also, if people would just listen to me and do everything I say. That would help as well.


  2. Re: Empathy for the Winning Side

    I think that’s a Wrong Perspective that elevates the significance of the positions of little coloured wooden cubes.

    As plural-you compellingly argue, it’s primarily a social activity – so I think the proper recipient of empathy is everyone you sit down with.

    [I’ve run gaming societies – there is a harshly practical argument for “plugging leaks” – i.e. looking at a situation and immediately de-prioritising non-complainers. But I think that’s an emergency behaviour, rather than a sustainable or respectful way to deal with people.]

    So I think there’s an inconsistency in your reasoning where you’re describing a gaming situation as a foundationally social endeavour – but then inserting ‘competitive players’ as players who are non-social and only concerned about the position of their little wooden cubes.

    I think your first argument is right – those people, however sweaty/quiet/uncharismatic – are people who are primarily there for social interaction (even if they say nothing in the entire game!). It’s the second argument contradicting the first – that these nerds don’t really have a social agenda that merits consideration – or, if they do, then they are already adequately pre-compensated by the paramount position of their little wooden cube – that is in error.



  3. Re: Social Contracts

    I advanced them while criticising them as painfully naive for the reasons you advance and more so, obviously, regretfully, I agree but …

    I think you mis-characterise them a bit. Social contracts don’t exist to align behaviour through compulsion – they exist to align expectations. If you sit down to Through The Ages and someone says “He – can we all agree to play a game where you don’t just beat on the person with the weakest military?” – that’s a pretty good prompt to suggest playing the version without wars/aggressions.

    My more practical view of social contracts is really just some sort of explicit attempt to communicate and align player agendas/preferences. People already do that – “is it long?” – is both a question about the game and an implicit suggestion that you don’t care for very long games and a prompt for other people to say whether they are okay/not okay with a game that might require stamina.

    I think the main stumbling block is “stage II empathy” – the ability to look at someone and realise that they *might not* be just like you. You’ll never think to ask someone if a game might involve brutal beatdowns if you unable to imagine someone you like enjoying getting beaten down.

    That is why I think it’s a Bad Idea to push – even implicitly – the notion of a Natural, Decent way to have GameFun – because it encourage a deficit of imagination/empathy II that most people (most *particularly* experienced gamers!) already lack and is the prime cause of conflict.



  4. Re: Social Dynamics and Emotional Dimension(s?)

    I agree – but I think it’s important to remember that the position of little wooden cubes on the table are a distraction when it comes to understanding social dynamics – even if they are what people are talking about, they don’t determine how people feel.

    Some people get frustrated when they are behind. Some people don’t. Some people get uncomfortable when they are ahead.

    Frustration is, I think, the key word here. I think all games involve a large component of willingly exposing yourself to frustration (I was going to say *competitive games* – then I remembered Ben raging as we lost a round of Pandemic: Legacy because of his bad choices).

    If you talk to a utilitarian, they’ll explain that pain is uncontroversially, objectively bad. And then if you ask them to explain why people voluntarily run up hills until their legs hurt, they’ll punch you in the face and run away in tears.

    Frustration(/excitement) is emotional exercise. Games may or may not involve analytical challenges – but they all involve social challenges – part of which handling your own frustration in a manner you feel appropriate.

    Failing to do so is I think, ultimately, no more significant than misjudging how much hill you can handle and collapsing and having to walk very gingerly back down (the only difference is that you maybe have to apologise to other people as well).

    Obviously, the trick is getting the amount of frustration exercise you want and no more or no less.

    Personally, when I get frustrated at my position in a game I feel a *bit* of grousing about how all the things I couldn’t control in the game have disadvantaged me (i.e. about all my unforced errors) is acceptable. It’s like grunting with effort when exercising – you need to consider the impact on other people, but it’s generally clear that it’s not a condemnation of the game or the people you’re sitting with.

    Occasionally, I can hear a whining tone creep into my voice – and I really don’t care for that – but, ultimately, that is (part of) the payoff of those games – either I know not to play those games *or* I sit down with a view to seeing that grousing doesn’t turn into whining (or, it does, but later and less).

    I would be mortified – and very upset – if I thought people were reading that as a request to ‘ease up’ on me. It is most definitely *not what I want* and thus (however well meant) would not be an act of consideration of my preferences. If they do it because they are sick of the sound of my whining – then, of course, fair enough – I only regret imposing on them (and I’ll endeavour not to next time – please play with me!).

    So, that does create a question of communication – when is foot-stamping just an expression of the normal frustration you feel at your own mistakes – and when is it a genuine request to negotiate a change in the game everyone is playing?

    It’s (clearly – sorry Ben!) difficult to judge, but I think probably when people obviously shift mode from histrionics to plain-speaking and state their state of mind in a non-exaggerated manner.

    Respect for other player’s preferences is not the only good. Sometimes their (my) whining might be worth whatever cost to your/other players’ preferences to shut down (I really hope that hasn’t been the case with me). Sometimes you might look at people and simply not trust them to be able to articulate their feelings (consider the geek crowd) or to feel safe at their capacity to handle their own feelings (will this person I don’t know very well flip the table and punch me in the face?) – if you do that, you’re effectively treating people like under 13’s whose prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped – and while it might be advisable in some circumstances, I don’t feel like it’s a healthy or generally sustainable approach.


    [If we descend into sociology, all gaming environments have (loose/multiple/overlapping/formal/informal) social hierarchies whereby the people at the top have a larger stake in a general absence of conflict and thus can generally be relied upon to either cheer up or eject the people at the bottom of the hierarchy – I guess you could ugly/inaccurately-summarise that as “the host must lose”]



    1. I’ve been pursuing this hobby for more or less 10 years now, and the number of actual sore losers I have met is in the single digits. And if we exclude actual children, I can literally count them on one hand and have fingers left over to order beers. Still there is this pervasive myth that people who get upset when playing games are sore losers. Or that they are taking the game too seriously. One of the main reasons why I sat down to write these etiquette rules was to tackle this misconception.

      A sore loser is very easy to spot. They are the ones that dissect and analyze the game after it’s over and explain to you why it was weighted against them to begin with, what flaws its design has and how it really isn’t worth playing. A sore loser is somebody who feels the need to explain how their loss isn’t actually theirs, but the game’s. This behaviour will be magically absent, when they win, of course.

      People who are seething with rage, gritting their teeth, avoiding eye contact, or just refuse to rejoin regular conversation aren’t sore losers. They are people who feel insulted or mistreated and the placement and movement of cubes has – as you rightly point out – sod and all to do with it. Still, gamers usually respond by denigrating these people as babies, denying the legitimacy of their reaction (“it’s only a game”) or just generally blaming them for not either not playing well enough or not having the right mindset for a competitive game.

      That’s why talking about social agendas for competitive players is irrelevant to the topic at hand. As I tried to explain in an earlier etiquette slice, I want to talk about the overlap between how we relate to each other as players and how we relate to each other as friends (or even strangers) playing a game together. Namely, how the former directly affects the latter and that we should be both more aware and more considerate of those interactions. In this particular case, it’s the single-minded pursuit of victory that spills over into the layer of personal interaction and becomes an act of marginalisation and exclusion. The question is not whether this is ok. I don’t think it is, but that is always a group decision. But that competitive players need to be aware what they’re doing and not hide behind principle (competition trumps all), the game (“the rules made me do it”) or by blaming the weaker party (“don’t be a baby”).

      If we do want to go down the somewhat trivial route of ‘who gets to fulfil their social agenda at the gaming table’, I’d just point out that not all intents are equal. Some are and always will be corrosive and damaging, while others won’t. Arguing that everybody should be equally deserving of consideration, regardless of what they’re trying to achieve, strikes me as painfully naive at best and aggressively negligent at worst. Am I the person to decide which intent is which? Let’s put it this way: when I sit down at a table I expect to be anything from 1/2 to 1/6 of the votes on the matter, depending on the number of players. Whereas I’ll be 0/anything at all the other gaming tables out there.

      Which leads me back to my first point. I think your comparison with physical activity is spot on. Yes, frustration within the game is normal, expected and to some extent even welcome. Expressing this specific frustration is like grunting or sweating when you run up a hill, lift heavy weights or do a particularly demanding bit of yoga. But this isn’t the issue here. The point of contention is not whether one can tell when others have taken on more than they can handle. The point of contention is if you have a responsibility not to intentionally make it harder for those already at their limits. In other words, whether sportsmanship should exist in games. Because the way I see it, some gamers tend to stop caring about this as soon as the possibility of an advantage presents itself.


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