After far too long I finally got to play Terraforming Mars. It was great but there was, for me, a steep learning curve. I rarely get to play Euro style games and the engine building in their design is foreign and not intuitive for me. Despite this, I do love the experience. It was a great game but not without its problems. Those problems however were nothing to do with the game and mostly to do with me.

During round 3 I leaned over to my friend who was teaching us the game and complained that he had given me rubbish cards. My comments were meant to sound playful and silly, but they were not taken quite that way. Instead, my friend with some frustration informed me that having seen the majority of the deck by this stage it is useless complaining about the cards and that I should come to terms with the fact that it’s how I use the cards that matter. I was thrown by the response as it not only stung a little but seemed to intentionally ignore the form of banter we tend to engage in. It seemed to genuinely annoy him that I complained about the cards and the fact was raised again later by him in a separate comment.

I initially tried to shrug it off as him having a bad day. Besides, there was nothing overly aggressive in his delivery and he was not unpleasant throughout the game by any means. However, as the night progressed I was more self-aware than normal and I discovered something that I was almost ashamed to admit, I can be annoying to play games with.

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It’s not a pleasant thing to admit but I have behaviours, and sometimes even attitudes, that are less than enjoyable to experience. I guess I come here to my confessional to admit my failings as a player. You see I can hardly blame my friend for being short with me. He was, after all with me when I played Merchants and Marauders which was a game I genuinely did get frustrated and annoyed at. One of my major complaints was my inability to mitigate the bad card draws. Then, in our next big game, the first thing I do is complain about cards, it’s not really surprising he was keen to not go through that again. The fact is, whenever I experience a game that I am struggling with or not enjoying I can get unpleasant. Although it is never directed at people, I am sure it is enough grumpiness to make other people at the table uncomfortable. Sadly I wish this was the only confession I had to make.

I decided to go deeper and to pay attention and reflect on my interactions with greater scruples than normal. When learning games I can question things too quickly and not give the person explaining the game a chance to finish what they are saying. This is symptomatic of someone who is thinking ahead instead of listening with an intent to understand. There is even something to be said for just doing what you are told and seeing how it works before asking anything. This means that I might be able to work it out and learn for myself instead of lazily expecting the person explaining the game to think for me. All of this is coupled with general issues of not being encouraging enough, talking too much, or nearly any number of smaller things I did over the course of the evening.

Reading all this you may think I was just getting down and being overly critical. In a sense, but I really wanted to try and see what it was like to game with me to build a better sense of empathy while playing. Empathy is a key to any group dynamic and I think a deeper empathy can make all gaming experiences better. In terms of empathy, I realised just how much more enjoyable playing with me could be with only a few slight changes to my behaviours. It’s simply a matter of making a small investment in changing one or two things and I could be a much more enjoyable person to play with, and who doesn’t want people to enjoy their company?

I was however pleasantly surprised by a second realisation. I noticed that each person at the table has a list of small, and some not so small, idiosyncrasies that can impact the enjoyment of the game. I realised that all night each of us were doing a variety of things that should irritate and annoy other players, yet they didn’t. Most people played on either oblivious to these small transgressions or unconcerned about them. So why was that?

Adam Alter is an academic researcher in psychology who focuses on social psychology and human interactions. In a discussion on video games Alter noted that empathy is built by being in the presence of other people and witnessing the impact of your behaviour on others. He explained that when I do something that upsets you I watch your face distort and see the water well in your eyes. This provides direct feedback to me and I feel bad. Video games place people behind a key board or microphone and hide the person behind an avatar. I can now say and do what I want and I will never get that feedback on how my actions directly impact on you. Alter described that a problematic trend in society is that as children spend more time online they are missing this vital skill of building empathy.

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As I pondered this I was aware that board games not only require direct human interaction but often require us to have that interaction while working to defeat each other in a competitive game. Board games are brilliant builders of empathy. A wonderful side effect of empathy is greater patience. It was clear to me why no one seemed bothered by each other’s peculiarities. For me there was one more outcome. Gratitude. I felt overwhelming gratitude for having such people around me. While I still intend to work on some of my rougher edges, I regardless felt very accepted and safe to be myself, faults and all.