On Playing Games & Changing the Rules

A couple of Christmases ago, I was at a cocktail party, and a game of trivia was proposed. A handful of our dearest friends in New York City are high school teachers, and it happened that the party was equally split: teachers and non-teachers. So the teachers decided that’s how we should divide the teams.

Now, competitive trivia, with a timer, after several cocktails, is basically a recipe for me to forget every historical date I have ever known. Really, it’s a recipe for me to just go generally blank. Among the non-teachers were two other art-school alums: my husband Josh, and my dear friend, Jenny. She is a fiercely intelligent and successful product designer, and Josh is a builder and furniture designer (plus an amateur mechanic, plumber, electrician, outdoorsman and endurance sports junky). Josh and Jenny would be great candidates to be stranded on a desert island with, because they might just be able to build you a plane…

Anyway, the teachers-team went into the trivia game with nostrils flaring; it was lively. Sadly, the non-teacher team just wasn’t at our best in the trivia-cocktail context. Really, we didn’t have a chance.

I’m a very competitive person, mostly with myself. I have joked that I don’t like learning anything I’m not already naturally good at. That isn’t really true, but I am motivated when I feel a sense of optimism, purpose and improvement.

My family plays a lot of games together–always has. My mom collects games, in fact, adding new ones every Christmas, and it is a favorite way to spend holidays and visits together. For years I took it for granted that my family usually changes the rules in order to play competitive games more cooperatively. We group up and debate things that are subjective, we ditch timers, or just don’t keep score, we use the prompt cards, but put aside the game board and moving pieces so there’s no clear start and finish. The fact that my family is made up of big personalities, and that we’re all pretty competitive people, is exactly why we tend to ditch the competition in favor of harnessing our collective power against the challenge of the game itself.

In his book No Contest: The Case Against CompetitionAlfie Kohn researches how we perform in competitive situations:

What we want to ask is this: Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others than when we are working with them or alone? […The] evidence is so overwhelmingly clear and consistent that the answer to this question already can be reported: almost never. Superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.

Apparently, according to research findings, our family’s overturning of typical game rules in favor of cooperative versions made them better learning vehicles. That’s not why we did it, but it worked well for us.

I was fascinated to reflect on how prominent game playing appears to be from the earliest pages of the journal my mother kept in 1987. Apparently, we changed rules even back then:

* →  Playing Candyland game. They worked it out so that “losers” get to be someone special, just like winners. (As a matter of fact, they don’t use word “loser” — they use first winner, last winner, etc.) They end up cheering each other on.

My mom often made simple games for us, based on a theme or interest we were pursuing. Like this one, that was created from scratch during our study of dinosaurs:

Sept 8th, 1987

Sept 8th, 1987

Big girls took turns well (Camille said “I’m first,” and that was ok with all) & followed rules & had great attitude about winning / losing. Camille “pecked” even for 2 on the dice. (She pointed to dots & counted them.) Mindy pecked once for 5. Both girls moved carefully & accurately. Mindy often “read” cards because she played game once before. [BACK 3, FORWARD 2]

The girls chose small dinosaurs to use as game pieces… They easily counted spaces & found numbers.

During the 1980s, my mother was already an early computer game fan, a little ahead of her time. While writing the journal, she was doing freelance work for Disney, testing educational computer games as well as writing copy for accompanying materials –like catalogs, instruction manuals, and Teacher/Parent guides with additional activities. Early educational games like Reader Rabbit were a part of our young childhood:


Reader Rabit

→ Computer Games: Reader Rabbit.

Sorter Game: letter L (then W, N)

Both girls are getting good, but they went through about 4 games each before Camille put together a perfect game and saw the Rabbit dance. Even though Mindy had told me she was going to switch games on her next turn, she wanted to get the Rabbit to dance, too, so she did one more game with concentration. She did it!

Happy smiles!

→ Then the girls played 2 rounds of picture match-up, taking turns being at the keyboard, but cooperating throughout the two games & cheering themselves on enthusiastically.

Beyond the time frame recorded in the journal, I have countless memories of fixating on games, either alone or together with my sisters or with the whole family . My older sister and dad went through a serious backgammon phase, and then a chess phase; we would always play cards with our grandparents; and as computer games became more developed throughout my childhood and adolescence, I remember binging on the engrossing thrill of playing them together, marveling at new graphics breakthroughs.

Imaginative play is also prevalent throughout the journal, as I discussed in the previous post Learning, Play, and Peter Gray. I’m interested in the differences between game playing and imaginative play within the context of learning. Certainly, there are social negotiations, struggle, competition, and efforts for cooperation in both the imaginative play and the game play that my mother recorded. But with games, there is a negotiation not only with other players, but also with the mastery of a skill or the structure of a puzzle. Sometimes there is dumb luck, or timing, or sometimes you have to dupe your fellow players. But my favorite games are usually the ones where you work together, figuring something out.

Game designer Jane McGonigal did a TED Talk about using the problem-solving and collaborative potential in video games to address and solve real-world problems and puzzles:

“In the best-designed games, our human experience is optimized: We have important work to do, we’re surrounded by potential collaborators, and we learn quickly and in a low-risk environment.”

“When we play games, we go into a psychological state called eustress, or positive stress – it’s basically the same as regular stress: our breathing rate quickens, our adrenalin increases, our pulse quickens, but instead of feeling anxious or frustrated or angry the way we normally do when somebody else wants us to do something that’s hard for us, we experience all of these changes as excitement and drive and ambition and motivation. We’re not anxious; we’re actually optimistic and energized. This is kind of a perfect storm for success.”

It’s a really fun lecture, worth a listen!

In closing, I have an uncle who is fantastic at Trivial Pursuit. We actually used to play that game as a family during the holidays when I was a kid. Uncle Phil would usually be in front of the TV with my dad, while my sisters and cousins and mom and aunt and I would be in the other room, compiling our shared knowledge. Whenever we were stumped we would run to ask Uncle Phil the weirdest (and perhaps most trivial) questions!

If you’re ever on a desert island, without the internet, and you want to kill time musing over the official end date of the Civil War, the names and powers of the Greek Gods, the scientific name of a rabbit’s tail, and how many players are on a volleyball team, you should bring along a handful of high school teachers and my Uncle Phil. You’ll be well entertained.