Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Kids Mostly Aren’t Allowed to Play Games Anymore

I observed my children in a game of “Simon Says” the other day. My son and a couple of other kids were out early on in the game and had to stand to the side for a good well. The tricky part of the game came when the facilitator said, “okay… Simon Says… crouch down and build up your super charge….” All the kids got down and mimed a rocket ship about to blast off. “Blast off!” the leader exclaimed. And then all the kids except my daughter jumped into the air. He tried to call them all out: “I didn’t say Simon says!” But one of the kids answered back that what he thought was two separate commands were actually joined together as one. The whole thing came down to what we mean by an interpolated ellipsis! And I sat there and watched as he caved in and let them all keep playing… after my daughter had basically won the thing!

Now, one thing I try to teach my kids is… if they’re playing a game that requires a referee, then they have to abide by his rulings or else there is no game. And for another thing, my daughter wasn’t offended in the slightest– she just wanted to play with the kids that were there. But I really wonder what his thinking was. I kinda wonder if he thought that being “out” was inherently unfun. Maybe there’s this principle that it is a good idea to keep as many kids engaged as possible. But if that’s the case… what about the kids that are already out? Why not declare a winner quickly so that there’s time for an entirely new game… and give someone else a chance at playground glory? You see… not only was my daughter denied her victory… but my son was denied the chance for a rematch. All because some kid was able to rules lawyer the referee when other children would just meekly accept a ruling and keep on.

What do I do, though? I quietly told my daughter later that she had, in my opinion, won that game, but that she did well in not fussing about what seemed to me to be a bogus ruling. Yet part of me hates it that teaching my children to be good sports seems to indirectly hand the playground over the uncountable number of “squeaky wheels” out there, but what can you do…?

When I took my daughter to family camp last week, we did a canoeing class together. We played this game where the facilitator would toss rubber ducks into the water. We’d all go after them and put them on our fore deck. The other boats would then try to maneuver so that they could take your rubber ducks from you. This was actually a cool game. My daughter and I were racking up the ducks, when I overhead the teacher say something to the effect that he was tossing in extra ducks in order to purposely keep everybody about equal in terms of score. I admit, I was a bit miffed at that– my daughter and I were doing well and now there was no way to gauge just how well that was! But whatever. We’re just there to “have fun,”eh? For my to say anything negative would be for me to be a spoilsport, right?

But here’s the kicker: he set up one last game at the end of class. He threw ducks to various places on the lake and we all were to go after them. Once they were all captured, we were to return to the docks to see who had the most. My daughter and I did not get a single rubber ducky! That was the agony of defeat right there– exactly what I’d asked for. We had a clear ranking of the various teams… and I was at the bottom. But here’s why it rankles: when I was winning, we had the referee adjusting the game’s state in order to make everyone feel about the same. But when I was losing, that artificial balance suddenly evaporated!

Later on I was in a cooking class with my daughter and they were playing duck duck goose while something baked in the oven. This cute little girl gets tapped as the goose… and the gets up… and runs the opposite direction that she was supposed to! Aww…. Of course, this is the exact moment that one of the moms in the room had to shout out, “good job!” The same thing happened back when I had my kids in soccer. Some little kid would get the ball and then head towards his own team’s goal and try to kick it in. Inevitably, a dad in the crowd would scream, “GOOD JOB!!!!” You want to pump up a kid’s self esteem? Fine. You want to give some encouragement and direction to someone that’s struggling? Go for it! You want to deal out a little positive reinforcement? Have at it…. But I have just one question here. Where in the hell did we get this idea that kids should be praised no matter what they do? No, it’s worse than that, actually. The amount of praise that we lather on them seems to be inversely proportional to how good they actually do!

Taken all together, it’s as if these people want to keep everyone engaged, make everyone feel like they’re competitive, and then make sure that (most of the time) everyone gets praised just for being there. It’s almost as if they are religiously opposed allowing children to experience real games and the ups and downs that go with them. This is where you scoff at me. But no, this isn’t just a couple of rogue parents. This isn’t just a handful of mediocre referees. This is some sort of strange religion of “fairness” that is aggressively evangelized by its practitioners. No, really. I will look at these referees and say… hey, it’s their game. They can run it like they want to. And these “good job” type parents. Sure, I criticize them here… but I would never call them out personally or cut them down in front of their own kids. And yet… if I happen to be the one running the game… they don’t give me the same benefit of the doubt that I give to them.

You see, when I was playing chess with the kids at camp, someone made a point to criticize me for winning against them– like I’m some sort of big meany or something. Why is that? Are kids really that fragile? Oh yeah, like I’m going to beat this kid in a game and suddenly he’s going to be up all night crying about it. I don’t think so. That kid… he actually came and found me the next day and made me sit down and play him a second time. I don’t think I bruised his ego at all. And even if I did, I doubt it could compare to, say, lying to this kid about his relative skill level for twenty years. Honestly, I think these aggressively “fair” and “nice” people not only hate games, but they hate civilization itself. But the worst thing is, they really aren’t any fun. Whatever it is that they’ve been poisoned with, in the end they are actually just plain terrible referees and gamemasters. They are so attached to getting certain preconceived outcomes, that they don’t actually know what “play” is anymore.

Seeing as an entire generation seems to have lost this, I will go ahead and spell it out. These are the laws of play:

  1. A game without winners and losers is no game at all.
  2. The pain of finding out you’re inept is far exceeded by joy you receive in developing your talents to their potential.
  3. Time spent losing against a superior player is not a bad thing. Handled well it can be a master class experience. (Hint: take notes on how they beat you and see what you can do to address it for next time.)
  4. A referee should strive to above all be impartial.
  5. If the referee interferes in the game state in order to bring about an artificial form of fairness and balance then victory is hollow and losing has no educational value.
  6. The proper place to ensure a game is balanced is before it begins. A handicap can be applied if the players agree to it. Being subtle about the use of handicaps is disingenuous. Unbalanced scenarios can make for fun contests between players of varying skill levels, but there is no need to put people in denial about the fact that folks are different.

I’ve wondered for years now why it seems so hard to find players anymore. And when I do run an all-ages role playing game at conventions, I realize now that for a lot of people that show up I have to actually explain what gaming is. When consequences for stupid actions, player character death, and cause and effect emerge in the course of play, I inevitably get resistance. It’s almost as is they are offended on some level. Which makes sense because, if they haven’t been on a competitive sports team… almost every game they’ve participated in has had someone pushing for perks, exceptions, and “balance.” People think this is the right way to do it, too… it’s how they’ve been taught. Anything different just wouldn’t be fair, after all.

When I was a kid… I knew I’d probably live to actually see the years 2001 and 2010. I just assumed we’d have a base on Mars by now. We don’t… but we do have a lot of unbelievable developments in materials science to make up for it. One thing’s sure, I had absolutely no idea how fast our culture could change. And I never expected that people that thought “Harrison Bergeron” was an instruction manual could get this far. It isn’t just that my hobby is pretty well politically incorrect– though it was that just because we “glorify” war and have pictures of women in chainmail bikinis. It’s much more than that. We have collectively brought about a generation of kids that don’t even know what a game is.

They don’t know how to play.


29 responses to “Kids Mostly Aren’t Allowed to Play Games Anymore

  1. Christian Blouin June 5, 2013 at 6:13 am

    And with schools being averse to fail students, you get the next corollary.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 9:21 am

      This not only defeats the purpose of education, it devalues everyone’s diploma:

      In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
      By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
      But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
      And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

      — Rudyard Kipling

  2. Douglas Cole June 5, 2013 at 7:50 am

    “Everyone’s special, Dash.”
    “That’s another way of saying no one is.”

    The Incredibles covers some of the same points you’re making. I entirely agree. One of the reasons I have my daughter in the martial arts program she’s in is that come tournament time, the lesson is very simple. To win, you must train harder and be better than the rest on that day, in that moment. Anything less means you did not live up to that, and the answer is always the same: train harder.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 9:19 am

      Oh man, I was all ready to play the rebel here. And you come in and tell me that the Incredibles beat me to the punch. Spoilsport…!

  3. wylliamjudd June 5, 2013 at 8:46 am

    *Applause* – I don’t know what to say about these people. I was telling my friend the other day that I feel bad when I beat new players at Magic, and he said, “If you don’t beat them, how can they respect the game?” Then I thought about all the times my step brother beat the snot out of me at every game we ever played, and how much that made me strive to do better. Like this guy said, I respected these games for the loss.

    “Competitiveness” is considered rude but the people who complain about competitiveness are secretly the most competitive of all. If they weren’t they would take the loss in stride.. An important part of sportsmanship is losing gracefully – that’s basically what sportsmanship is all about.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 9:16 am

      Many of them actually think that competitiveness is outright evil. They feel this way because of their zeal for certain economic policies and their hatred for masculine virtues. I went to a small liberal arts college and could never figure out why it was so fashionable to hate on the football team. It goes back to ideology, unfortunately.

      This is what happens to people that start down the path of “the personal is the political.” Everything becomes a religious issue…. Even something as simple as two kids playing checkers.

      • wylliamjudd June 5, 2013 at 10:20 am

        Honestly, I didn’t follow you here. I too went to a liberal arts college, but I don’t know what you mean about a slippery slope of personal/political, or hatred of masculine virtues. I think people have a right to be noncompetitive, but if they were honest about it, it would mean not feeling bad when they lose.

    • RogerBW June 5, 2013 at 9:26 am

      When I demo board and card games, I don’t have any problem getting people to be competitive. And I always bring my top game, because anything less is disrespectful to the player. (Not to mention the substantial group of people who will be put off a game if a newbie can beat an old hand first time out – which is why I don’t demo Awful Green Things often, because I’m very bad at it.)

      • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 9:32 am

        I think video games have completely nailed how difficulty needs to start out low and then gradually increase while teaching the various components of the game. Think of the series of scenarios in something like Starcraft. I try to use the same principles in the games I run.

      • Rob Crawford June 6, 2013 at 11:26 am

        But Awful Green Things is fun!

    • Douglas Cole June 5, 2013 at 2:50 pm

      “Lose with dignity; win with humility, and learn from both.”

      That’s the lesson we teach at our martial arts school.

  4. Wayne June 5, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Great article, really go me to thinking. The “everyone’s a winner” meme is pervasive and unhelpful.
    Winning and losing can be a bit more complicated when it comes to RPGs, as opposed to baseball or chess. If it’s a simple kick-in-the-door-kill-monster-disarm-trap-collect-loot adventure, living is winning and dying is losing, sure.
    But if it’s more of an open-ended roleplaying adventure driven by characters interacting with the wider world around them, dying well could be winning, versus living at the cost of betraying your fellows…
    Or the result of the story could be more ambiguous, with no clear winners and losers, which often happens in real life as well. My kids aren’t quite old enough to learn that lesson yet.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 9:09 am

      My concern is that the non-gaming people go so far as to oppose even to the idea of cause and effect. And they seem to take joy in eliminating the sort of feedback loops that give children insight into that. Given the unforgiving nature of real life… this is arguably a form a child abuse.

  5. PeterD June 5, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Eh, I play game with my 1st grade students all the time. The point isn’t winning and losing at all. We aren’t playing to determine a winner. We’re playing for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with teaching a game. Or determining victory. I could rattle off a long list of things I’m looking for in a game – everything from reaction speed, to who is playing how, which students listen better and which speak better, who reacts how. I’ve totally caved during Simon Says, when I realize I’d hit them with something that was out of the reach of the majority of the kids. Then I’d issue a warning (“next time it counts”) and move on.

    “A game without winners and losers is no game at all.”

    Yes. And a game in a classroom isn’t a game. It’s a lesson. It’s just not a lesson about winning and losing, but it can be mistaken for one. It’s just using a play format to do something else.

    You make a lot of fair points – some people carry this too far, and people aren’t always consistent about their approach – but it’s not always true that a game is always a game. People do make too much of an effort to make things non-competitive – but it’s worth asking ahead of time why you’re doing the activity at all. If you perceive it as a competitive game, with winners and losers, but the facilitator/teacher/participants see if as something else. yeah, you’re never going to be happy with each others’ approach.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 9:26 am

      Sure, there’s a time and a place for patty cake. And as I say, I’m happy to let people run their own games their own way.

      But I do wonder if it’s no accident that kids culture mostly no longer includes actual games anymore. I used to blame video games, but I think it’s more than that now. Kids have largely stopped playing games because there has been an explicit effort on the part of “concerned adults” to take the fun out of them.

  6. Robert Eaglestone June 5, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Every time my parents visited some family friends in Sedona, I would play chess against their son, who was very kind, and several years older than I. He would win, of course. Even though I can’t be sure he didn’t fudge a bit, he did not let me win. I was fine with that. In fact, I was challenged by that. If he had let me won, I would have gotten very bored, very fast. Instead, I stuck it out to the bitter end, and enjoyed the experience. Just as important was that he was a gracious winner with no personal issues about winning or losing.

    Turns out he was a genius, and ended up working at CERN for most of his adult life. I miss him.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

      People that want to win just for winnings sake will often try to win by as little a margin as possible. That keeps their opponents from learning what their biggest misconceptions really are. It can actually be a favor to completely crush someone.

  7. mikemonaco June 5, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Part of the issue though is that kids under a certain age really don’t do well with competitive games. The idea of not making it about winning for little kids is fine. The problem is when people port this over to older kids and adults. I don’t know the exact cut off age (maybe 9?). But it’s just as much a mistake to think competition is inherently good as it is to think it is inherently bad.

    That said I think PeterD also made an important point above — classroom games are not necessarily games.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 10:26 am

      “But it’s just as much a mistake to think competition is inherently good as it is to think it is inherently bad.”

      I don’t think we’re in danger of overemphasizing the value of competition. The “sit in a circle” and “group project” people are firmly in charge at the moment.

  8. Karl Gallagher June 5, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    I taught my kids checkers by playing against them as well as I could . . . starting out with five checkers to their twelve. Now we have an occasional tabletop RPG (Tunnels and Trolls, though I’m being asked to come up with a different setting so we’ll probably switch to GURPS Lite) and they are totally convinced they can die if they’re too reckless.

  9. Ross Karnes June 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I enjoyed this post, and do not necassarily disagree with your points, but this is demonstrably wrong. Kids today still compete; online games where kids shoot each other up are as competative as chess. Jr high football games are still competitive. There are massively popular hobbies that have clear winners and losers.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 12:51 pm

      There is a clear theme across all gaming activities that I have observed my children participate in. I specifically mentioned competitive team sports as being an exception within the post. Maybe you haven’t run into the “competition is evil” niceness-police like I have, but from what I can tell… children are quietly being steered away from real games. You have to specifically go out of your way to include them on your kids’ schedule if you want them to experience them– like Karl Gallagher and Douglas Cole have described doing.

      Something has changed in the culture. Kids don’t grow up playing chess, checkers, backgammon, playing cards, Connect Four, Monopoly, and Risk like I did– not in the same percentages. The games they play in that are mediated by adults are too often corrupted. Fairness is defined in terms of outcomes rather than in terms of a level playing field.

  10. KarenL June 5, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    I think you miss the meaning of that one voice yelling “GOOD JOB!” It’s sarcasm. And the kids know it. I have seen 6 year olds, when one trips over his own feet in front of everyone, call out “GOOD JOB!” This, IMO, is a reaction to the idiotic spouting of meaningless praise that goes on constantly in kinder and first and maybe even second grade, much less in day care.
    The kids aren’t stupid. They resent it when they’re handed meaningless unearned brownie points. They also resent it when they earn points and someone else gets them unearned.

    • jeffro June 5, 2013 at 3:07 pm

      Ha! The “good job” thing totally tips our hands as adults. It’s a really great way to signal to them that we are all liars and that all our institutions are shams.

  11. Chris Mata June 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

    @jeffro I swear my friends and I have the exact same discussion at least once a month.

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