Wanting to Lose: Painful Cognitive Dissonance

Let’s start by observing that there’s an obligation, when playing most games, to try to win. Obviously this obligation doesn’t exist in a vacuum–it doesn’t trump your obligation to, for example, not cheat or not stab your fellow human in the neck–but it’s nonetheless binding all things being equal. Your average game ceases to function if the players play purely arbitrarily, or if someone is colluding to help another player win, or whatever. The other players will not be able to play the game as intended if the game state is being constantly undermined by someone who refuses to acknowledge this background consideration. I will not go into whether this is a social or moral obligation, but it’s there.

Now, most of the time, your obligation to try to win is not a motivating factor, because all things being equal people want to win. If you told me that I had an obligation to eat chocolate, that wouldn’t substantially alter my behaviour, because I already want to. My obligation to not be rude to people, on the other hand…

Sometimes, though, you want the game to end. Maybe the game is just bad, or perhaps it’s merely overstayed its welcome–even good games can do that. Then your obligation to try to win and your desire to no longer play can be very starkly at odds, especially in games where the end condition is someone winning (as opposed to a game that lasts a fixed number of rounds, or a game where the ending player isn’t necessarily the winning player). Many of the games I mentioned in my Zimby Mojo review can potentially fall victim to such circumstances–such as Cosmic Encounter or Munchkin.

Whether you like any of those games are not, when and if the game drags (and if you don’t like them they might start dragging pretty early in the game!) you’re in a very awkward position: your obligation starts to clash with your self-interest. Moral philosophers find this phenomenon interesting and illuminating (except for those misguided souls who argue that this conflict is impossible, like Aristotle), but I find this tension prevalent enough in ordinary life that I can safely say I want no part of it in my leisure activities. That’s not so say morality has no place in how to play a board game (q.v. the above examples of cheating or puncturing), but I vastly prefer my moral conflict to be minimized when I’m ostensibly doing something chiefly to enjoy myself.

That cognitive dissonance–between wanting to win because you have to, and wanting to lose because you want to move on–is such a unique sensation and one I find extremely characteristic. I don’t dislike all games that have ever featured it, but I never regard it as a good feature.

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