Bicycle Kick

I’m sure we’d all like to be better at playing games.  While I keep telling my son that the point of playing games is not to win, but to have fun, it still feels good when you do win!

Some people seem to be a lot better at boardgames than others though.  How do players develop skill in playing games?  Is it just practice or are some people born with the right kind of brain for it?

I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time over the past few years researching this question.  Not specifically in relation to boardgames, but the conclusions I’ve discovered in terms of skill development in general apply equally well to games.

The reason I’ve done this is in connection with my other business, where we provide teacher training.  How students learn is a very important consideration for teachers.  Having a good understanding of how a student can improve their ability in Maths, for example, can significantly improve a teacher’s ability to teach Maths.

We have a lot more evidence than we used to.

A lot of this boils down to the old ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ debate, but the good news is that we have a lot more evidence to base conclusions on than we used to.  Let me try to summarise the current understanding and then we’ll apply the results to boardgames.

In case you’re not familiar with the two basic positions, the ‘Nature’ argument says that abilities are inherited from our parents: if you’re good at football, it’s because you’ve inherited the ‘sports gene’ from one of your parents.

The ‘Nurture’ argument, on the other hand, says that abilities are developed through experience and practice: if you’re good at football, it’s because you’ve had a good coach and spent a lot of time playing football.

The only way to actually decide between these two points of view is to look at twin studies.  This is where you study lots of pairs of identical twins.  Since their genes are identical, any differences between them must be as a result of their environment and not their genes.

Now you’d be surprised at just how different identical twins can turn out to be.  Not in terms of appearance obviously, but in terms of personalities, skills and interests they really can be very different.

Genes only determine potential.

So to cut a long story short, the conclusion is that genes do affect abilities, particularly IQ.  However, genes only determine potential, not the actual level of skill achieved.  Actual skill development is determined by experience and practice and invariably people fall a long way short of their potential.

Imagine it this way (and realise I’m simplifying quite a lot here to make the point).  If a couple both had a potential maximum IQ of 160, then their children would each have a potential maximum IQ of around 160 as well.  If they have three children, you may find that they have IQs of 128, 110 and 104, say.

The eldest child might have the highest IQ and people might say they take after their mother, who is a doctor and very intelligent, whereas the other two take after their father (a salesman) and are more practical and emotionally intelligent than their elder sibling.

These conclusions are wholly inaccurate.  Each child (even the bright one) has fallen way short of their potential maximum IQ.  They could have each had very high IQs (compared with the population as a whole) if they had had appropriate teaching/practice.

So while genes might determine your potential skill level in, well, anything really, in practice, your environment, your experiences, upbringing, opportunities, etc. are the things that really determine how good you are at any individual activity.

This means that being good at boardgames comes down to experience and practice.  Let me be clear though, I don’t just mean practice at playing that one particular game.  You may well find that if you teach two people to play chess who have never played before that one of them picks it up much faster than the other.

This is not because they have the ‘chess gene’.  It is because their prior life experiences have enabled them to develop the kind of skills required for chess more than the other person.  Maybe they have played other games that require similar thought processes.  Maybe they spent a lot of time playing with Lego as a child (which develops the child’s ability to visualise potential arrangements of pieces).

If you practice a lot, you’ll improve a lot.

There is a real message of hope here though.  If you’re bad at Maths or football or boardgames, you just need a bit of coaching and practice and you will improve.  If you practice a lot, you’ll improve a lot!

So when I find myself being beaten by Steve at Terra Mystica again, I just think, “It’s only practice.  If I keep playing, I’ll get better!”  The problem is though, I need to play without Steve, or he’ll just get better as well!

Do you find you always tend to do better at certain types of games?  Could it be because you’ve spent more time developing the required skills for those games?

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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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