Motocross Race

When I was young, I was very competitive.  Having an equally competitive brother didn’t help.  Whether it was sports, academic achievement or games, I would fight tooth-and-nail to win.  My sister despaired.

I liked to think I wasn’t that bad.  At least, when I compared myself with my brother.  He stormed off in tears when he lost on more than one occasion, but he was younger than me and I can’t imagine I was gracious in any way when I won.

My sister seemed to swing the other way.  She was a peacemaker and grew to dislike gaming entirely.  It was so entwined in her mind with us all falling out with each other.  I wonder if there is a healthy middle ground though.  A competitiveness that strives for victory, but cares not for the outcome.

If you play a competitive game with people who don’t try to win, it’s no fun.  Healthy competitiveness adds challenge and excitement to games.  You pit yourself against the other players to see who can manage their resources, or plan their strategy the best.  But, as I tell my son, the point of playing games is not to win, it’s to have fun.

Mary Schmich puts it well: “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.  Your choices are half chance.  So are everybody else’s.”  Boardgames certainly have their fair share of chance.

Some people really are put out when they lose though.  I certainly was.  As adults, we may try to hide it, but people with any emotional intelligence can usually tell.

I genuinely don’t mind if I win or lose anymore.

I’ve made an effort over the years not to care about the final outcome.  I genuinely don’t mind if I win or lose anymore.  Why have I done this?  Two reasons.  The first is love.  The second is because I want to be ‘beholden to nothing’.

It all sounds rather religious, doesn’t it?  Here’s the thing though: I enjoy playing games far more than I used to and I think getting the competitiveness balance right has a lot to do with that.

I’ve talked before about the reason I play boardgames.  At the end of the day, I play for the community of people with whom I’m playing.  People are more important than games.

If someone’s having a bad game, I feel for them.  I’ve had plenty of bad games over the years and I know what it’s like when everything, even the dice, seems to be against you.  So on occasion, I might play in a slightly less optimal way if it means someone else has a more enjoyable game.

As a child with two younger siblings, I could usually thrash them at games that required skill.  I was older.  I’d had more time to practise and develop the requisite skills.  I revelled in it, to my shame.  I realised after a while though, that they no longer wanted to play those games with me and so I ended up with no one to play with.

More fool me.  If people enjoy playing with you, you’ll get to play the games you enjoy more.  If I come second, rather than first, but everyone else enjoys the game more, that’s a win in my book.

Now this isn’t to say that I throw away victory so that my friends don’t feel bad about losing all the time!  Far from it.  Many of my gamer friends are a good deal better than I am at many of the games we play.  I can try my absolute best and still come dead last!

But if I’m in a position to really hurt another player’s chances of victory for a small personal gain, I usually won’t bother.  Unless they’re in the lead!  Then they’re fair game!

My second reason for not caring about the outcome of games stems from a lovely book that I had to read when I was at school: To Kill a Mockingbird.  I almost wish that I wasn’t made to read it.  Somehow it sucks all the enjoyment out of a book when you’re forced to read it.

The novel is told from the point of view of Scout, a young girl who lives in Alabama during the 30s.  Most of the novel centres on the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of raping a white woman, and his legal defence by Scout’s father, Atticus Finch.

However, the bit that stood out most to me involved Scout’s mean neighbour, Mrs. Dubose.  As a punishment for trampling Mrs. Dubose’s flowers, Scout and her brother have to go round every day and read to Mrs. Dubose until an alarm clock goes off and she receives her daily medication.

Every day the alarm clock is set slightly later so that they have to read for longer and longer.  Mrs. Dubose though, seems to pay no attention, but stares off into space and even drools on occasion.  The readings end after a month and shortly after Mrs. Dubose dies.

She wanted to die “beholden to nothing”.

Only then does Atticus explain to the children that Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict and knew she was dying.  Before she died, however, she declared that she wanted to die “beholden to nothing”.  The readings were a way of delaying her morphine injections for longer and longer until she was able to wean herself off them completely.

Atticus describes her as “the bravest person I ever knew”.

If I care so much about winning that I become upset when I lose, I am beholden to the game and to my emotions.  There’s a line I love from a U2 song that captures this idea: “You can hold onto something so tight, you’ve already lost it.”

Over the years I’ve been learning to let go of all the things I clung onto when I was younger, and it’s incredibly liberating!  I highly recommend it.

Where do you fall on the competitiveness spectrum?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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[…] few months ago, when I blogged about competitiveness, I quoted Mary Schmich, who bears repeating: “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too […]

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