Monday, May 30, 2011

Warhammer: Being a sore loser

The Psychology of gaming – Why are some of us so sore losers?
“Win as if you were used to it. Lose as if you enjoyed it for a change.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today’s blog could be perceived as a reply to Jervis Johnson, who wrote the brilliant article in White Dwarf’s ’Standard Bearer’ in issue 361. Actually, it is a reply, as I’m going to mail him a copy of this entry.
One could argue that this would be going a bit far and wide for something as trivial as a blog which nobody reads anyway. One could even argue that he wouldn’t read it.
I’ll argue that he will. Either way, it doesn’t really matter ‘cause Jervis really manages to touch upon a subject which is a bit of hot potato for quite a few gamers I know. Myself included, more than anything.
The strikingly simple title for the article is “Losing with grace”. In the article we are introduced to that which Mr. Johnson precisely baptizes ‘The Face’. In case you haven’t been fortunate enough to become acquainted with his article, allow me to tell you a short bit about myself.
I’d tell you right away about The Face, but do me a favor and keep reading for a short moment.
I’ve been a long-term D&D and Warhammer-Fantasy player. I’m pushing 16 years of experience, to be precise. It’s fair to say that I’ve seen my share of gaming. And losing. Frankly, I’ve seen a lot of losing. I’m that guy, you know. When I’m reluctant to join in on a board-game it’s because I pretty much know that I tend to be the last one to finish. If the dices won’t kill me, surely some beard is making an assassination-attempt at me from turn one, and from thereon it’s all downhill.
The human mind is strange like that, in the ways we learn to adapt. We tend to find ways and make rules that let us compensate and rationalize the most notorious of bad luck. In my case it’s hardly a coincidence that I decided to always be the GM when we started doing D&D. It provides you with a sense of control.
It doesn’t matter if you roll your tenth 2 on the attack-dice that night. You can still make your ogre smash the stupid fighter. You have power.
Perhaps this is the reason why I’m such a terrible opponent, once my defenses have been removed. When the GM-screen is pulled away, and I’m the lowly level 1 Wizard. Or when I drum out my legions of Skaven to face whoever might dare stand against me. I become a terrible person.
In my experiences with the psychologically ill people, I’ve often noticed how much of a relief it is for them to finally have a name for their disability. In a parallel situation, I was actually a bit relieved when I read Jervis Johnson’s article. It seemed that my condition really did have a name. It was called The Face.
In earlier times I used to refer to this as ‘The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-effect’. But Face is better. And shorter. Frankly, it should be in the dictionary. It’s one of those rather unique words which don’t really have any proper synonym.
I suppose you could label “The Face” as the physiological and behavioral aspect of the sore loser. In continuation from the original article in White Dwarf, its name is basically a bit misleading, as it comprises the entirety of body-language seen in a person who’s looking into the bitter eyes of defeat. In a sense, it’s certainly not wrong to point out the striking resemblance to your basic, childlike instincts.
You know, all the way  back when we wanted that pirate-ship and Mom kept saying no, and we decided to scream out in anger as the forces beyond our meager control decided to conspire against us. It’s basic, primal rage, balancing notoriously between the aspect of bitter self-pity and anger towards anyone you can throw a punch at.
As we grow older we tend to develop (although some players I’ve met in my Warhammer-time really make me think twice about this statement) and navigate through this tendency. Understand me here; it doesn’t go away. We just acquire a tiny basket of tools that help us keep the beast at bay. Like a more efficient frontal-lobe. It’s pretty basic.
But sometimes our defenses crack.  Keeping the beast at bay takes effort, and certain events tend to trigger certain responses. After all, I don’t go into every game of Warhammer like a raging idiot. It tends to build up. For me it’s usually between the start of the first magic-phase and at the end of the shooting-phase. Skaven-players, I know some of you are nodding your heads.
Some people are better at handling defeat than others. As Jervis points out there are various reasons for this and, at the same time, even methods than can influence this tendency one way or the other. But I’m pretty sure that everyone has felt it, one time or the other. When the whole game comes crashing down around their ears.
“You must never be satisfied with losing. You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing. But the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself and not his victorious opponents or on his teammates” – Richard M. Nixon.
‘The Face’ is the middle-ground, placed tightly in between not giving a damn about the game and blasting your (victorious) opponent into oblivion with a sledgehammer. Cold, socially semi-accepted rage, which symptoms are often quite visible, albeit a lot more in some individuals.
I’m blessed with being a part of around 10 other real-life friends who meet to play Warhammer on a regular basis, and I frankly can’t say anyone hasn’t encountered this state of being.

Personally, I’m a horrible person once I enter that state. I mentioned that before but it bears repeating. When I play as a GM, I play to provide fun. When I’m a player, I play to win. And objectively speaking I have no problems with defeat, but if I have the slightest impression that it’s on an unfair basis a nasty degenerative process begins. It’s not entirely unfair to label this neandertal in nature. At first, symptoms are subtle. I don’t throw around as many jokes, I tend to look out the window a bit more and so on. Then I start making remarks and curses upon my bad luck, and if this doesn’t improve, it’s clearly ‘not meant for me today’. If this downright spiral is allowed to proceed, eventually I’m right there not paying any attention to the game, talking to people in the other end of the room (naturally throwing in remarks about how overpowered the other guys army is) or even walking away, asking my opponent to just call me whenever it’s my turn.
On the physiological side my blood is pumping, my muscles tighten and my chest gets really heavy. I start snapping at people, eventually becoming extremely patronizing. After all, I really didn’t care about this stupid game. Right?
That’s the Face. And I’ve been fighting it for years. I’m aware there are more severe cases than me. People, who go out of temper, cheat and/or canalize it into endless biggering and rule-debates. These are all just another, albeit worse, aspect of The Face. After all, it’s a juvenile reaction to try and change the rules of the game once you realize that you’re losing.
As you can imagine I was happy to read Jervis’ article in White Dwarf, mostly because other people than me seemed to be battling their inner demons. I know several players who face the same reactions (a friend of mine tends to just shut off for good when it happens, almost go into a coma) but so few of them seem to take up the battle.  And I think we all, as gamers, owe it not only to ourselves but also our fellow community-members to at least ask; Am I liable to wear The Face? And furthermore, how can we best manage it? The implicit importance in this speaks for itself, I think.  After all, very few people like sore losers. And whereas you might consider yourself as “the grumpy gamer-guy everyone forgives” the next game might be the one which your opponent decides to call the last.
“We lost because we told ourselves we lost” – Leo Nikoleavitch Tolstoy
There is an arsenal of methods which can be utilized to keep The Face at bay, but none of them really come easily if you’re acquainted with sore losing through several years of practice. In his article, Jervis presents some good advice, which I’ve decided to elaborate and comment a bit upon.
Preventive MeasuresFirst and foremost it’s not rocket-science that we sometimes snap more easily than others. Jervis suggests looking out for the initial symptoms of The Face, such as the first markers of slumping shoulders and static-frowning-eye-brows. Going back another step, it’s also viable to identify a few of the risk-factors that help promote irritability and generally dull your judgment. These can be as obvious as the lack of sleep, food and/or dehydration. Heat is another factor which has been speculated to increase aggression and short-temper. Take breaks, open a window, sit down, eat. At other times there may be factors beyond your control, i.e. stress due to an upcoming exam. At least make sure to notice these factors. Personally, I’ve found it beneficial to remind myself that since I’ve been up painting my army all night, I likely need to watch myself more closely. I also tend to politely mention it to my opponent before we even begin.
Be mindful of your thoughtsBasic cognitive psychology dictates (in a simplified nutshell) that the way we think and interpret our situation heavily influences our reaction to it. This is also true regarding gaming. The bad thing about this is that it often evolves into a cycle, going from Situation -> Thought -> Emotion ->Action, and then rinse and repeat. When my Warpfire Cannon decides to misfire and blow a nice cut through two regiments of Clan Rats,(for the second time in that game) my immediate thought of the situation is how insanely unfairly I’m being treated by the dice. I become bitter. I concentrate more on being bitter and make mistakes which turn out bad. I’m reinforcing my own conclusion. I’m a helpless victim of bad rolls. I lose interest in the game and stop giving a damn. And before I know it, I’m giving my fellow player a really bad time.
This process happens extremely fast. We’re likely not noticing it at all before we start looking for it. Jervis also mentions this, regarding childish delusions. They key here is being mindful about it happening in the first place. If this means you need to call for a timeout or just take a deep breath and analyze your thoughts for a bit, do so. Dices can seem really unfair, but they aren’t really able to hate you (this coming from a guy with 12 misfires in one battle).  It’s a pretty common mechanism for a lot of people, on the level with walking past some guy in the street, thinking he just laughed at you. Though you’re not entirely sure. People make tons of these misattributions every day, and in our line of hobby it’s a very easy mistake to make. Keep the counter-arguments ready, and you’re that much better prepared.
Remember the premisesFrom time to time it really is beneficial to step back and ask yourself why you’re doing this whole thing again. As Jervis points out, a game is implicitly a social contract between two players, with the ultimate goal of having fun. Fun. For as many people as possible.  After all that’s why we took time out of our calendar and spent our wage on miniatures. Ultimately the premise is about having a good time. But there has to be a loser whenever there is to be a winner, which really goes without saying. It’s another premise of the game. The thing to remember is not to narrow down your scope of attention to a reductionist view in which winning is the only path to enjoyment. Granted, I love winning. It’s wonderful and gives you that special rush for a short moment. But in just one hour it’s all down in history. People won’t remember me for my games. Neither will they remember me for my win-loss-score. They will remember me for my personality at the gaming-table. I’m in no way surprised that in my community, pretty much everyone has a reputation about what to expect once you challenge them to a battle. Not surprisingly, since it mirrors so many other aspects of life. People don’t invite you to a night out based on what drinks you buy. They (hopefully) invite you based on what you bring to the social interaction.
Know that fun shows itself in many ways. My favorite example is previously mentioned Skaven vs. Warriors of Chaos-battle. Fittingly named “12 Misfires”. I could write a whole blog on this subject alone, but suffice to say, I managed to nuke three quarters of my army into the ground before Chaos even got into melee. At first I was severely angry, but as the game progressed I noticed a bigger and bigger crowd gathering at the table. They were laughing, but not at me as such. They were, in fact, having a hilarious time watching the Skavens blow up. When the last slave had left the battlefield (screaming), Chaos had technically won. But it was my army everyone was talking about for the rest of the weekend. Those are the events that will make you remembered. And being a good sport about it actually blurs out the established definition of ‘winning a game’. That day I felt everyone had won and had a great time. Could we really ask for more?
“That is what learning is, after all; not whether we lose the game, but how we lose and how we’ve changed because of it and what we take away from it that we never had before, to apply to other games. Losing, in a curious way, is winning.” – Richard Bach.
When all is said and done, rules debated and the respective armies compared, Warhammer is a game of randomness. There’s chance involved. Sometimes chance is kind and other times pain has no limit. Deep down it’s understandable why we all succumb to The Face, because winning is in our blood and winning is a basic premise of a game. In the end that’s likely what makes Warhammer so fascinating amongst other games. With so many variables and circumstances that can go wrong, you can’t really safeguard yourself from the occasional moment where everyone is petrified in shocked fascination of the dice-roll. These are really the times we remember. Just as everything can go horribly wrong, there will be times when a Slaan is eaten by a Brass Orb or back in the days when my Black Ark Corsair made The Green Knight run off the table.
We owe it to ourselves to celebrate these moments in the best way possible, and remember that we’re actually all in this together with the sole purpose of having fun. Thus defeat is an inevitable part of the game, and once it happens, it might be best to resort to one final quote which we should all take to heart:
You lost today, kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it” – Fedora (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

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