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It’s something of a holiday tradition in many homes: after a day of idly opening presents, chatting with family, and eating everything, we break out the board games. This is my favorite part of the season because I absolutely love a game of Scrabble or Apples to Apples or The Settlers of Catan. I may love them a bit too much though, as they tend to bring out the worst in me. I may become competitive, petty and paranoid, convinced that someone is cheating or that fate is working against me. If I don’t win, I do my best not to show it (a façade that took years to master), but on the inside I’m sulking, and stewing over the defeat for the rest of the night.
Why do some of us take these games so seriously? Why do they have the power to transform us from amicable adults into bumptious brats? And why are we so quick to forget that it’s just a game?
Our Brains Are Processing Imaginary Losses As Real Ones
Well, that’s just it: once engaged, our brains don’t really know it’s just a game.
“The human brain never evolved a mechanism to separate a game from reality,” says Don Vaughn, a postdoctoral scholar at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “If a lion was chasing one of our ancestors on the savanna, it was real, every time. There were no movies, plays or simulations. Modern neuroscience has revealed that just thinking about imagined situations activates the same brain regions as the actual experience. So when you have to pay $2,000 to your sister for landing on Boardwalk, your brain is really experiencing loss.”
This feeling of loss results in a chemical reaction, as Vaughn explains, noting: “If we could look into your brain at that moment, we would actually see dopamine neurons (the same ones that give you that feeling of reward from food, sex and approval) stop firing as much: the hallmark sign of a real, negative outcome.”
It works the other way around, too. When we have a victory or experience a sense of bonding with our teammates, our brains release pleasurable chemicals.
“It is possible to get some of the neurochemical benefits of board games [including] the release of oxytocin (the ‘love’ hormone) from social connectedness.”
These Games Are Competitive By Design
Board games are designed to rile us up. Like sports, these games work by creating division. We adopt a “me versus them” mentality.
“By their nature, board games bring out our competitive spirit because they divide us,” says Dr. Alok Trivedi, a psychological performance coach and founder of The Aligned Performance Institute. “Whether it’s a family, couples hanging out on a Saturday night or just kids having fun, board games usually are an ‘every man for himself’ scenario, or separate us into teams. This automatically turns on our competitive switch in the brain. We start producing adrenalin and cortisol and we become ready to fight.”
Moreover, while most board games involve some level of strategy, a win almost always entails something we can’t control at all: luck. Knowing that somebody else won because they got lucky when we know we played better can really fire up that competitive streak.
Dad May Be The Head Of The House, But You Rule This Game
One of the more fascinating social qualities of board games is their ability to shift family dynamics. If your big brother is always getting his way, it may be extra satisfying to dominate in a board game, just as it may be particularly humiliating for said big brother to lose to you.
“There are some games where the 45-year-old cardiac thoracic surgeon has the same chance of winning as his first grade son,” says Trivedi. “So if Dad is usually the ‘know-it-all’ of the family, this is a chance for others to challenge him and take him down for a change.”
Having this rare chance of role reversals may be rewarding, but as Dr. Trivedi notes, it tends to make some of us “more aggressive in our approach.”