3 min read

Competition in board games vs. video games

I notice I have more often played competitive board games with my friends than competitive video games.

In college, we played competitive board games fairly often. We played Settlers of Cataan once in a while, Terraforming Mars once or twice, Carcasonne (a personal favorite) when we had time, King of Tokyo pretty often, and probably a few others I'm forgetting. There was one European one about completing some kind of art object, I think—a painting or a stained glass window or a cathedral, maybe. I think there was a game about birds. We played a cooperative board game or two, too.

We didn't play a lot of competitive video games against each other, and I wonder why.

I remember one or two occasions when we played a relatively nonrandom competitive game. We played Injustice 2 on an XBOX One, I think, trading off controllers after each match. I can't remember if there was a system—say "winner stays"—other than whoever raised their hand went up to play. I remember enjoying that time, but we didn't repeat it more than once or twice, I think.

I think we also played Super Smash Bros (Ultimate, and once or twice Melee) once or twice without items. Not often. We far more often played with max allowed items. This is fun in its own way, but it is a different game. It's more chaotic and random rather than skillful.

This is probably the most competitive we got in video games. We played Fortnite in squads, which I don't count because we weren't in competition with each other. We far more often played games where we could cooperate, or at least operate independently rather than in competition. For example, OpenTTD, and Minecraft survival with player vs. player damage turned off.

Why is it that we competed more in board games than in video games? I wonder. I suspect it's fear of tilt. That is: The fear that people will get overly competitive and angry and have real (verbal) fights over video game defeats. I can't say I know of anyone getting seriously angry over this in my context, but it would make sense if we didn't play competitive games for fear of that happening. But why would this only apply to video games and not to board games? I have some idea.

We played board games exclusively in person, and for video games mostly in person, so either way we could see each other. Video games weren't obviously disadvantaged in body language. I suppose board games make it more easy in a way to keep connected with each other through body language because the playing space is shared and between the players—so you can keep an eye on it and on each other at the same time, unlike a video game played on separate PCs. But a video game played on one PC or console works almost the same—there's a shared space. It's no longer between us, though, and we don't have to implement the rules ourselves or look at the currently acting players to see what they're doing, so it becomes less natural to check in. That probably has some effect. Is that the most important difference? I don't think so.

Maybe it's about the immediacy of video games vs. board games. Video games make winning and losing more visceral than board games generally do. A video game can play sound effects and music and animated visuals to show just how badly you're getting beat up. Certainly I find it feels worse in a video game. In a board game I can play badly and barely notice because I receive minimal feedback about how I'm doing. The only real feedback seems to be wins and losses and feedback from other players. Wins and losses barely matter and other players have been kind, so I don't care much about playing board games badly. On the other hand, in competitive video games, I sometimes get a little intense.

So, we played more of competitive board games compared with competitive video games because the video games more easily cause tilt. That's in small part because even when playing in-person, the setup makes checking in with other players less natural. I think it's in larger part because losing in a video game often sucks more viscerally than in a board game, and is harder to miss or ignore. We must not have trusted each other to deal with that anger, and maybe that was right. Either way, things worked out fine for us.

Still, I wonder how things might have been if we could have trusted each other in that way.