Roll For Insight: Is Winning Everything?

April 5, 2019 by cassn

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My life has been fuelled by competitive desire. Whether sports, games, or education, I have always pushed myself to outrun, outmaneuvre and outshine my competition. And that desire to succeed has been the driving force for most of my life.

Roll For Insight: Is Winning Everything?

My earliest memories revolve around wins and losses - my 100% completion achievement on Final Fantasy VII, the 99% completion rate on Rayman that haunts my nightmares, the meagre participation trophy I was handed every single sports day in high school (I was never, and will never be, an athlete) - these defiant wins and devastating defeats have shaped who I am as an adult. 

Indeed, this driving force of sheer successive will inevitably shapes who I have become on the tabletop.

Ryan refuses to play Quantum with me because I’m so aggressive it messes with the equilibrium of the game’s mechanics. I refuse to play Dixit because, even though it is stunningly beautiful, it has a ‘not-quite-competitive-not-quite-co-operative’ dynamic which I find tedious. And let’s not revisit the Jungle Speed stories - needless to say only masochists will partake in that particular game with me now.

My point is this: I like to win, and I do what is needed to ensure it happens.

However, a recent article in Offspring magazine, ‘How to Help Your Kid Improve at Board Games, According to a Game Designer’, raised some interesting questions for me about the psychology of winning.

After all, even as the most competitive person in my social group, losing a board game rarely phases me. While I live for that hit of sweet dopamine flooding my system when I decimate Sam at Magic: The Gathering, all too often his well-crafted deck and years of experience simply steamroll my valiant attempts. And, in those moments, it is not upset or sadness I feel.


On the contrary, I find myself in rapturous joy and excitement throughout the battle, regardless of who emerges victorious. If life is meant to be driven by success, then why on the tabletop do all players derive such enjoyment from playing the game?

Is winning everything?

Creating Champions

To answer the question, I must first return to the piece which provoked the debate. Michelle Woo’s article focuses on the work of game designer Nick Bentley (Evolution) who suggests that in order for children to enjoy and develop as board gamers, they must have encouragement to succeed.

nick bentley

His theory, based on neurobiological reasoning, adopts the concept of a Variable Ratio Schedule to suggest four stages of progression when introducing children to board games:

  • The first time you play a particular game, let the kid win.
  • Thereafter, let the kid win some of the time. 60% of the time is good to start (you can dial it down slowly as the kid improves if you want).
  • Make the sequence of wins and losses as random as possible.
  • Critically, make the outcome as close as you can every time, especially when the kid loses. She should always feel like she barely lost.

The aim of any Variable Ratio Schedule in Neurobiology is to keep rewards feeling always achievable but as random as possible, thereby giving a reward maximum impact without creating tolerance. Animals, children, and even adults can be trained in this way (as long as they remain unaware of the behaviour). As Nick Bentley points out, all slot machines utilize the Variable Ratio Schedule to ensure return play. Indeed, slot machines are perhaps the greatest example that winning, or the knowledge that we may win, remains a driving force behind play.

The Winner Takes It All

But is winning all important? Jeffery Spencer, ex-Olympian turned life coach and mentor seems to think so. In an article for Psychology Today, he states that becoming a winner is ‘essential to your happiness, contribution to humanity, and in creating the legacy you are capable of’.  

He argues that in life ‘we’re all born potential winners and genetically programmed to pursue lofty goals’, and that ‘the world is full of people with incredible talent and will that have dismal, unfulfilled lives because they never developed the planning and technical skills to manifest their ambitions.’ 

Of course, we’re all also born with the potential to be serial killers and genetically programmed to do that weird oh-crap-I’m-falling twitch when we’re drifting off to sleep, but Jeffery Spencer seems to have left this out of his life-coaching mantras.

My intentional flippancy aside, there is a lot I genuinely disagree with in Jeffrey Spencer’s philosophy, not least his conflation between winning and achieving. To achieve something valuable does not mean you have 'won' at life.

Life is not a game, and while hard work, effort, and drive may produce tangible results, the concept that you can ‘win’ or ‘lose’ at existence is, quite frankly, a little depressing for my palette. Furthermore, when it comes to games, both losing and taking part are just as valuable teaching tools for children.

Redefining 'Winning'

Anne Steinhoff argues that losing provides children with important coping mechanisms for negative emotions, teaches them that different people have diverse talents, and develops their emotional empathy for other people.

It also allows children to learn from their mistakes and rethink strategies for personal growth and improvement. It seems, then, that losing the game is just as, if not more, important than winning. As Samuel Beckett once wrote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”


Despite winning and losing having their psychological and neurobiological necessity in play, I find myself returning to the same thought; that in my happiest gaming moments, I can rarely remember who actually won the games.

I remember laughter, fun, and a lot of screaming. I remember casually threatening my friends. I remember being betrayed by comrades and fallen alliances, but an outright winner alludes me.

What I do know is this: in tabletop gaming we find our community.  We find friendship in our faux-anger at an excellent counter-strike or strategic loss. We find solace in the joy of gaming triumphs, even when they herald our defeat.

Most importantly, we find our home in each other and the worlds we have decided to explore together. Because achievements are little comfort in a life spent alone.

We’re a close-knit community here at OnTabletop and, although we get pretty busy, we still try to get together and game as often as we can. And when we get big gaming events arranged and the whole group comes together, the thought of whether or not I will be successful could not be further from my mind.

Heck, I don’t even care what game we’re playing. Because when I look around the table, I see an unlikely band of truly wonderful human beings united through the joy of play.

And I know, I’ve already won.

What do you think? Is winning the most important part of gaming?

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