Optimism and Pessimism in Tabletop Gaming

The new year is coming and so start all the ads trying to capitalise on New Years resolutions. This is often a popular selling point because resolutions are specifically optimistic and are used to try and focus us on something positive about the year to come. This is all fine assuming we know that resolutions are not a sticking factor for achieving goals, but genuine optimism might be a contributing factor.

Now while I stated that resolutions are optimistic that does not mean the people making them are. In fact there is great confusion over what optimism and its opposite pessimism are really about. We are regally presented with examples of what society presents as optimism and pessimism. Optimism is often seen as overwhelming positivity in the face of life. The old adage, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is a classic line on optimism. In the same way we are well aware of what pessimism is, that’s the guy who responds with, “yeah, but if life doesn’t also give you sugar and water, your lemonade is gonna suck.” Of course the quintessential test of optimism and pessimism is the “glass half full or half empty” question.

pessimistic board gamerswhen life gives you lemons learn the rules

I do not like using the image of the glass half full and half empty because it presents the wrong image of what optimism and pessimism are about. In fact, if we are to keep the glass of water analogy I think we need to completely rethink our approach. Let me use some recent gaming experiences to help illustrate this difference.

I recently started learning how to play Magic the Gathering. I am an old time Yugioh player and VS System player. Magic is a completely different beast though. With over 20 years of game play, countless new sets of cards, ever developing rules and regulations, new mechanics and errata, and not to mention a whole dictionary of game specific language, I was a little overwhelmed. In fact, frustration was very quickly ruining my evening.

As I played I was frustrated over the inability to understand the long and often convoluted text. The expectation that I should simply understand what “cascade” meant on a creature text. The assumption that I should know what constitutes a “spell” and what does not. The confusion in stacking, responding, summoning sickness and so much more. All this started to really grate on my playing experience. I was not enjoying the game at all. Yet, here I was learning the game because of a challenge I set a year and a half ago. I began to reason that Magic is an outdated and not very good game. I started to try and explain why I liked the other CCG’s better than this. Yet afterwards I pressed myself for a deeper response. How would an optimist respond to this challenge?

optimism and pessimism in board gamingOptimism in board gaming…

Now if we were to take the classic understanding, such as those inherent in the illustrations above, we might conclude that we gave it a try and did our best and that’s all that can be expected. Or I might say “oh well, it’s just for fun” and move on. I could admit that I do not have the skills or talents to play the game and that is perfectly fine. Or I could say that it simply isn’t my style of game and I would be happier with something else. Yet, if I was to respond in any of those ways I would argue that it would be an inherently pessimistic response. The reason being is that all these responses are essentially close minded and shut off from growth.

The difference between optimism and pessimism is an openness to the ability to change a given situation. Optimism is about having a growth mindset and has nothing to do with being overwhelmingly positive in the face of life. I really thought about my challenge to learn Magic and I spent time reflecting on what a genuinely optimistic response would be. I decided that much of my frustration and dislike of the game stemmed from the frustration of not having the necessary information to make skilled and informed decisions in game. My challenge is not about liking the game, but about learning the game. I realised that I could learning and that I could take the following steps to do so.

  • Get help from expert players
  • Read the rules and ask lots of questions
  • Learning the key words and language of the game
  • Play and play and play until many of the key strategies and combos of the game are obvious and predictable to me
  • If after all that I like the game, so be it. If not that’s OK too, because the challenge was not for me to like the game, just to learn it.

A lot of the time people can come across as being overly positive but really exhibiting a pessimistic attitude to life. The “everything will be ok” or “everyone is special in their own way” are closed minded ways of blocking off growth and placing our success into the hands of fate, or predetermined set of skills that we received at birth.

Optimism is not looking into the impossible and believing that it will all be ok, but is about knowing that with hard work, determination, proper mentoring, and effort, we can grow and learn in the face of life’s challenges. Notice that I did not suggest that we are guaranteed to win or succeed at whatever we do, but optimism understands that growth and learning are never wasted. In this way pessimism is not looking at the glass as half empty, it’s looking at the glass an thinking that there is nothing we can do to change the situation of the glass being half empty.

Glass Half Empty Half FullDilbert knows the score.

I see this issue in schools regularly. Many times at sports carnivals I see a child do something well, throw a discus furthest, win a race, jump the highest, only to have well meaning parents and teachers say, “how talented,” or “ you really have a gift”. This is pessimistically relegating their effort to something beyond control. It is the same as saying “you did well because you were born that way”. It ignores the fact that they have done a lot of training, practice and preparation for their event. It ignores that they have learned from a coach and applied that learning on the day. But when we look at young people doing well and say, “great work”, “great effort”, or congratulate them on achieving their goal we optimistically look towards what they did to grow and overcome the challenge of competition. But the same goes for us. When we write ourselves off for not having enough talent of skill we are short changing ourselves of the truth that we can work hard and grow to meet challenges. It is not a guarantee of success in any endeavor, but it is an optimistic outlook that sees life and its challenges as opportunities to grow. For me, with my goal to learn Magic The Gathering it means buckling down and doing what it takes to get my creatures summon on curve. I am not sure what it means of you, but as you plan your New years Resolution I hope you will not only start with an optimist viewpoint, but will sustain it through the year, no matter what challenges come your way.

Article by Dave.