Friday, December 12, 2014

Thoughts on Winning: The Psychology of Winning

When we talk about winners and losers, there is a general perception of what we are talking about because we experience winning and losing in our lives.  This creates baggage of what it means to win and lose, to be a winner and a loser. Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter at Harvard Business School states that once a person begins winning, they are able to keep and enhance the support needed to keep winning(1). Meanwhile columnists Alina Tugend in the New York Times writes that for the losers, a loss is remembered long after the event, while victories are fleeting(2). Journalist Abbas Abedi argues that powerful psychological effects can take hold in the losers, and a self defeating attitude takes hold that manifests itself in performance(3). Even though board games are designed to create winners and losers, I do not see the baggage described above carried into the hobby.

 If it did, nobody except the most tournament minded would play. One explanation for this could be that the loss around the table is a private affaire. Any loss is only witnessed by a small number of people, so the individual is immune to ridicule. I am not convinced this is the case. Even though a player is not playing in front of a large audience watching their every move; they are playing with a group of peers that know the subject matter as well as they do. If a player makes a mistake, everyone else at the table knows it. I believe that intimacy can sting just as much as a public showcase of defeat.

I argue that what keeps the board game community from becoming frustrated with their mounting losses and walking away from the hobby are two things. First is the form factor of the games themselves. Second is the environment in which games are played.

Form Factor

Usually a board games form factor has a player focusing on a series of subgoals within the game that is more easily obtainable. If the game only has one goal and a narrow set option to focus on to win, then the game needs to account for the timing of when players realize they will not achieve the goal.

In the card game Coup, players control two representatives, if both repersitives are lost the player is eliminated from the game. The entirety of the game is spent attempting to eliminate the other players representatives as fast as possible. It takes about five minutes to play a single game. Being short softens impact of a loss. If the player controlled ten representatives, and the game took a half hour to play; then as your representatives dwindle, you could become eliminated from the game early, yet still have to play to the end. Being stuck in losing a game with only one thing to do allows you to sit around and mope, instead of quickly moving on from a loss by starting again at the same level as everyone else. The singular driving goal, with little chance of a replay would make any drawn out loss a frustrating experience.

The form factor of so called ‘Cube-Pusher’ Euro games uses sub-goals to nullify a losing mentality. These games tend to create three phases of gameplay. A player collects resources, and uses those resources to gain other goods, which are exchange for victory points. This creates a series of goals for the player to work towards. This layering of goals means even if a player ultimately loses the game, they still have something they can look at as an accomplishment.


The environment of how we play games also turns out to be a key reason a losing mentality does not persist.  The way people play games, by putting it on the table in front of other people cannot be underestimated.

Especially at the end of the game when winners and losers are determined. Professor Alison Ledgerwood conducted research on the conditions needed for people to recover from a loss(4). The conditions she describes are suspiciously like those found around the board game table after a game finishes. People around the table are able to give instant feedback on what just transpired. This community of knowledgeable people provide insights and can teach those who lost what went wrong, and what went right. For an example of this give and take, look no further than TableTops loser couch where players reflect on their failure but also take joy from their little victories. The knowledge gained in these moments is what players need to feel competent about their choices going into the next game. Knowing that you will do better next time brings excitement about the next time, and maybe even a win.


  1. Thanks for this interesting blog post. When reading this I wonder whether something else might also come into play as well: the difference between a fixed or a growth mindset. Looking at Carol Dweck's work ( on these concepts it occurs to me that games might foster the latter type of mindset. Putting her theory next to Scott Osterweil's "Four Freedom's of Play" ( it looks like his description of gameplay and her description of a growth mindset line up quite nicely. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. (Note-I am not an expert of Scott or Carol's work, so my reaction is from the material you have sent me).

      I feel Scott Osterweil is more about what creates a safe play environment versus defining different personality types and Carol Dweck is trying to fit people into two different boxes. So while Carol could argue that Scot's world works really well with her framework, Scott could argue Carol is wrong about how she classifies people and still stick by his framework.

      From my initial reading I am more sympathetic to Scott's ideas than Carol's (I am not sure yet if I buy the dichotomy description of fixed versus growth mindset), but let me think about it some more, I might revisits the idea in a post after I finish the Winning the Game lecture series.