Good at board games: good at life?

Why do board games bring out the beast in the best of us, and can they make you win at life?
22 December 2015

Interview with 

Dr Mike Pake, Anglia Ruskin University


Chess christmas


Board games form a staple for many families at Christmas, as do board-game Chess christmasrelated arguments. But why are these games so popular, and can they actually make you smarter? Mike Pake from Anglia Ruskin University was on board to explain the psychology behind this festive competitiveness to Georgia Mills...

Mike - Well, I think they offer people a chance to practice skills that they wouldn't get in real life normally, so it's a bit like playing with animals, for example, kittens play fighting and that helps them hone their reaction times, and their hunting skills without actually threatening them. So, it's a bit like that with us, so when you play something like Monopoly, it gives you a chance to be a cut-throat business person and bankrupt your Granny without actually causing any long term harm.

Georgia - Without actually ending up with a bankrupt Granny at the end of the day.  If this is a form of kind of practicing real life, is there any evidence that board games can actually make you any smarter?

Mike - There's a lot of different skills involved with board games and, if board games are a sign of performance in real life, then I'm doomed because I was really bad at the game of life; I always used to get bankrupted in the last few stages of the game.  But psychologists have studied more serious board games, like chess, for many years and they've found that there's a lot of expertise associated with the game but that doesn't necessarily generalise to other games, but I think that just the general give and take of playing games and learning simple rules, does help children, for example, to develop their cognitive skills for later in life.

Georgia - And why is it that board games... actually how are you guys getting on?

Chris - We're already becoming property magnates over here.  I own Angel Islington, so someone - who is the hat?

Connie - Me.

Chris - So Connie owes me rent.  Peter's already bought up the whole of Whitechapel.  We're back in the good old days when you can buy Whitechapel for £60.

Georgia - This brings me into, why does Monopoly make some people - I'm thinking of Chris here - so competitive?

Mike - Well, some people might say it's down to testosterone, but I don't know if that's true.  I think because it's like a simulation of real life; a lot of the rewards that we get from really winning, really getting money, still motivate us when we're playing games,  so even Monopoly money can be motivating.

Georgia - But they always seem to end in arguments.  I'm hoping it doesn't today, but I know at my family home there's been dogs and irons thrown around many times in the past.

Mike - Well, yes.  People get very annoyed by cheating, for example.  So most families have at least one person who's known as the' family cheat,' and there's some that argue that humans are specially geared up for spotting cheaters, so we're very conscious of rules when they apply to social behaviour, especially social contracts.  So, because we live in social societies, we benefit from ultraism and the reciprocity of living in groups, but we also have to watch out for cheating, so we seem to be particularly sensitive to cheating even if it's only a game.

Georgia - Can psychology actually help us to get better at games, win a little more? I'm thinking of cheating in a different way now.

Mike - Well, it's funny, I was looking at an interview with a guy called Rick Marinaccio, who was the world champion monopoly player a few years ago, and he takes it very seriously and says he actually looks for his opponents weaknesses and exploits them.  But in terms of things like chess, we know that to become an expert, you need to put in about 10 years, or 10,000 dollars of practice to become something like grand master.


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