Wanna Play?

There's no such thing as "just" a game. Sure, games are fun. But the play that's built into them makes them psychologically truer than other experiences.

By Jay Tietel, published on July 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Sure games are fun. Yet the play that's built into them does not make them false; it makes them psychologically truer even than everyday life. Games can solve major crises, train war heroes, and civilize us all. What the world needs is not less time for playing games but more.

ONE MORNING in the late 1980s, Richard Duke received a phone call he would later characterize as "somewhat amazing." The call came from the of[ice of the Secretary of Defense, at the behest of the man who had just been appointed Secretary. General Colin Powell was apparently finding himself stymied in his efforts to reorganize his new and notoriously complex department, in particular the coordination of the three service branch bureaucracies. Being an "old war simulation guy himself," he'd directed his staff to contact Duke, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, to help solve the problem. Duke knew exactly what the crisis required—playing a game.

At about the same time, coincidentally, I was spending my Wednesday nights sitting on a couch in a psychiatrist's office, trying, not to exorcise my demons, but to devise a board game based on the universe of therapy itself. I ended up on the couch because I was the only nonshrink in the room. At the time, our thinking was fairly linear: how to take certain hallmarks of the therapeutic process and reduce them to a game that would be entertaining and informative.

What we encountered, though, once our game—called Therapy, as it happens—was finished, were two remarkable things, both of which Colin Powell and Richard Duke might have told us. First, of all the professions, psychiatrists and psychologists tended to do worst at the game; secondly, the synthetic process worked even better in reverse. Playing the game expanded people's grasp of human nature in general and their particular group's dynamics. But even more, watching people play revealed a depth of information about them, and about the world at large, that you would ordinarily expect only from months of official therapy.

The more we became immersed in the world of games, the more we realized that games weren't simply revealing and therapeutic by nature; they were terrific tools for informing people about themselves, for getting them back in touch with the world of pure play and even for civilizing them. The idea was remarkable: 25 bucks and a Monopoly game might tell people as much about their own emotional truths as 25 hours on the couch, or 25 volumes of Shakespeare.

'Just' a Game?

In fact, the phrase "just a game" is a masterpiece of cognitive dissonance. Games are anything but "just" anything. They cover the gamut of human endeavor and come in every package and medium you can imagine. Last year in the United States alone, 126 million board-style games were sold for $1.14 billion; video and computer games accounted for another 55 billion. It is impossible to calculate how much people benefit from games:

o Games are primers on turntaking, the basis of all relationships.

o They can solve major crises in industry and teach people not to pilfer pencils from the company storeroom; in fact, companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on them for that.

o They can be training grounds for legendary generals and make the difference between winning and losing wars.

o Finally, and most important, games can reopen doors into the world of pretending and childhood, reminding us of unadulterated fun, sparking creativity.

Psychologically speaking, games have a knack for setting us free.

People have been playing games at least since recorded history. The earliest form of games involved a combination of entertainment via gambling (the words "game" and "gambling" share the same Anglo-Saxon root) and practical divination; primitive games were the ancient equivalent of the TV phone-in psychic show. In Assyria in the 12th century B.C., the knuckle bones of animals were the forerunners of dice used for wagering money as well as allocating inheritances and--a possible pointer for modern times--the election of public officials. An Etruscan vase from the same period shows Ajax and Achilles playing a board game during the Trojan War, both for recreation and to divine the whims of the gods. Even the precursor of chess, a Mesopotamian game called "shah" (meaning "king"), was employed to forecast how the reigning monarch would do in battles.

The Good Stress

From the beginning, games were indispensable for revealing secrets. What separates early games from the modern pantheon of games we love to play (and lose the pieces to) is the direction of revelation. Ancient games tried to plumb the secrets of the world outside; modern games can be eerie at disclosing the mysteries within.

If there's a deep template for language in our brains, there seems to be one for games, too. Where does this come from? And why do we show parts of ourselves playing Sorry we'd be sorry for revealing in any other activity?

Every game is a social world unto itself. What every great game does is take the bad stress of socializing out of the social situation, while leaving the good stress, the frisson of competition, in. Games do this by providing stress-reduced settings for socializing we usually play with friendly people, at a time of day when there's less outside pressure that might be inhibiting--and by imposing a structure or protocol on the interaction to take place, a structure that removes the often-paralyzing onus of social improvisation from the players.

According to Bob Moog, owner and president of University Games in California, the value of protocol can't be overemphasized. "No matter how ritualized they are," he says, "most other social situations we get into---dates, job interviews--lack a specific structure and are much more anxiety-ridden than a properly designed game. Games have rules and structure, which make things safe." Moog believes that the lack of eye contact during play, with attention focused on the board instead, lets players say things they ordinarily wouldn't.

These are critical concepts. Imagine you're sitting down to play Monopoly. What you have in front of you is a circumscribed universe, Atlantic City, and a set of rules, simplified real-estate capitalism, that will govern your behavior for the next few hours. You've just rolled a 6 from Community Chest and landed on Boardwalk, which no one owns. Boardwalk costs $400; you have $500. You have only two options: to buy or not to buy. Your action will be determined by strategy and personality.

Now imagine that you're on a first date. If you were at dinner and trying to interact--either trying to give your date an idea of who you are or disguising who you are--your social option list (what to say, how to gesture) would be virtually infinite. You'd have to come up with the choice yourself.

Who Are You?

But sitting at the game board, with $500 and Boardwalk (as opposed to your date) staring you in the face, you can decide to buy or abstain without social anxiety and coincidentally demonstrate how risk-taking you are without saying so directly, a revelation (wanted or not) that might take 10 dinner dates. The game forces you to make a choice, but the choice, as psychologists say, is "stigmanegative" and "insight-positive." "Games are incredibly projective," says David Gamer, Ph.D., an Ohio psychologist and game inventor. "They allow people to present elements of personality that reveal who they really are."

Stress-balancing is an important component of game play, and the balance is nothing if not delicate. A game that's anxiety-free will present no challenge; one that's too stressful won't be played a second time. Thus the short life of A Question of Scruples in Britain.

A smash hit in North America, Scruples was an ethical-judgment game in which players evaluate each other's moral qualities. Riding its American success and an ad campaign, Scruples sold half a million copies in Britain its first season. Soon, complaints started rolling in about the discomfort, even domestic discord, it was causing. What had been titillating on one side of the Atlantic was offensive on the other.

Within two years, the game retreated to the other side of the Atlantic, where we were learning similar lessons developing Therapy. In comparing reactions to ethical questions like "Which player would be most likely to sneak into a movie theater without paying," and off-beat lifestyle queries like "Which player would most likely enjoy spending the night in a coffin?" we found a marked preference for the latter. Even in a game, revealing you're perverse is one thing; admitting you're crooked is another.

Playing a Role

"All the world's a game," Jaques might have noted in Shakespeare's As You Like It, if there had been a Toys 'R' Us in the Forest of Arden, "and all the people merely players in it." The only caveat would be the "merely": roleplaying in games does not reduce the psychological reality or "truth" of the game-play--it enhances it. The key is a game's ability to find the perfect balance between the fanciful and the real.

In everyday interaction, we spend a large part of our time either trying to fill a role other people expect or want us to fill, or avoiding that role. But a game removes this type-casting stress by telling us exactly what our role is. It gives us an arbitrary alter-ego into which we can escape for an hour and a half. We're not John or Jane Doe trying to balance career-family-mortgage, we're Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with a revolver. And we can act accordingly--which means, paradoxically, that we can act more like ourselves.

For many players, this means they can give themselves license to be unabashedly competitive. It's hard to believe that Western society might not provide ample outlets for the release of aggressive impulses, but watching a group of adults play Trivial Pursuit after office hours is enough to quell anyone's disbelief.

In the evolutionary sense, it's not a stretch to regard games as collections of dramatic roles meant to safely channel potentially deadly primitive instincts. In other words, if we hadn't invented games, natural selection might have. Studies have shown that people become visibly competitive in game situations even before play starts. Who doesn't remember squabbles for the milk bottle in Monopoly? And who hasn't seen a timid acquaintance turn into Attila the Hun at the gameboard? Which is the real person? In one survey following testing of Therapy, 90% of the players said the way they played the game was closer to their "inner person" than the persona they presented in everyday life.


Of course, a yen to rule the world isn't the only tendency people satisfy by role-playing in games. In the early '90s, a new wave of games appeared, with a mirror-image dynamic to the winner-takes-all model. These were cooperative games, usually teamoriented, with built-in win-win paradigms but without politically correct sterility. In familiarity, one of the most ingenious, one family member takes on the role of another during each turn. The other players then have to figure out who the first player is pretending to be. An eight-year-old boy might end up, secretly, with his mother's identity and the following situation-card, which he reads aloud:

The family decides to have a silent meal during which we can use only sign language. I last: a. 5 seconds b. 5 minutes c. 5 hours (I don't want it to end)

The eight-year-old then chooses the option he thinks his mother would choose, and the others have to figure out who he "is." Critically, the idea isn't to deceive but to reveal; other players are rewarded for correct guesses, as is the role-player; it's the player who cooperates most insightfully, who displays the most empathy, who wins. Role-playing in cooperative games is doubly revealing: players find out how others see them, and everyone finds out who knows everyone best. (Trials show kids know best; parents, especially fathers, worst).

Maybe the most intriguing and revealing role-playing game ever devised, though, one that incorporates both competition and cooperation as well as razor-edge strategy, harks not from your local mall but from the annals of classical game theory. It is the brainchild of Hungarian mathematician John Von Neumann, who in 1944 wrote a seminal book, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.

Games Play You

For Von Neumann, behavior was the key. Game theorists believe they can predict the behavior of people in any "rationally constructed gamesituation" provided the situation has a set of "rules" and a "payoff." One outcome: the Prisoner's Dilemma.

As anyone who's taken Philosophy 101 may remember, Prisoner's Dilemma is played by two people taking the roles of two prisoners who have been put in separate interrogation rooms and asked to confess to a crime they've committed together. Their fates depend not just on what they say in private but what their accomplice says. If both prisoners hold out (cooperate with their accomplice), both get a light jail term, say, a year; if both confess (defect, or fail to cooperate), they both get three years; if one holds out and one confesses, the holdout (or cooperator) gets "the suckers payoff" (five years) and the defector goes free.

The strategy behind the Prisoner's Dilemma can be fascinating (see page 46); the instant character studies it provides are even more so. As much as your decisions will be governed by logic, they'll be determined by how much you like other people, how much you trust others, and how much you know others, particularly the person in the next "interrogation room." For its ratio of time to revelation, the Prisoner's Dilemma might be the most powerful psychological probe ever invented.

Try this little experiment yourself. Select the person you think you know better than anyone in the world and play Prisoner's Dilemma together. Use a three-minute time limit. See how much you know them after all.

In early 1979, a widely anticipated new product was unveiled at the New York Toy Fair: the Atari 2600, the first video game system. Intellivision and Colecovision followed, then Nintendo and Sega. The deluge was on.

But it didn't quite work out as predicted. Just as it was assumed that TV would spell the end of radio, so it was suspected that video games would kill off board games. But board games have proved even more resilient than radio; 20 years after video, an equal number of traditional and electronic games (125 million each) are sold yearly in the U.S.

How did traditional games survive? One factor is the same piece of human psychology that figured in the survival of radio--imagination. Both board games and radio are creative by nature; they show less rather than more and require that listeners and players build the scene themselves.

Civilizing Acts

More Important even than imagination in distinguishing traditional from video games and in accounting for their superior social and psychological depth is interaction. Because they're played on a vertical screen easily seen from only one direction, video games are best played alone. Their sightlines make them onanistic; playing Mario Brothers, you might interact with Mario but not anyone real.

By contrast, traditional games, played over a horizontal board that acts as the hub of attention the way tribal fires did in prehistoric times, don't simply promote interaction, they require it. "I have a possibly unique view of games," says Richard Duke, who, also heads the graduate program in gaming and simulation at Michigan. "I believe they're primarily extremely powerful tools for communication. In many situations in the world we live in, communication tends to be disconnected. If I'm talking to you, you're generally waiting for a chance to talk, usually about something else; actual listening is a bonus. This is not exactly productive communication. But a well-designed game not only facilitates listening but demands it."

For Ron Weingartner, head of development at Hasbro games, the imposition of "civilized communication behavior" in games is exemplified by the idea of taking turns. "Probably nothing a child learns in life is more important than the need, and the skill, of waiting for your turn. Games are perfect teachers of the skill, because if people don't take turns, games don't work." Neither do relationships. Nor democracy.

Listening and waiting not only make games pleasant, Richard Duke points out, they grant us access to a game's "schematic," its inner map (sometimes the board itself), which always provides us with a context larger than ourselves. Four people traveling by car from New York to L.A. might be able to get there without a map, but the map focuses options and reduces informational static. "I've had clients working on a $300,000 gaming project," Duke says, "who tell me that just presenting the schematic is worth the price of the project."


"Client" is the operative word. Besides his academic duties, Duke is an editor of the journal Simulation 6,, Gaming, a founder of the International Simulation and Gaming Association (ISAGA), and author of Gaming, a Future Language. For the past 25 years, he and others have been designing a brand of game you won't find in any store but that nevertheless has become a huge industry: policy games, tailormade training or problem-solving simulations commissioned by corporations or governments. They are usually aimed at resolving problems that have stymied CEOs or cabinet ministers.

Simulation gaming is hot. Nine nations have groups like ISAGA with at least 200 consultants doing what Richard Duke does. Last fall Duke ran a game called Slogan for 1600 employees of an international consulting firm underneath the Louvre in Paris, for a fee of $32,000. Of the $20 billion spent yearly by European industry on training, $200 million is probably spent on games.

An exercise like the one Colin Powell requested usually takes three months to design; Duke devised his in three weeks and administered it over four days. The first three days, the three military branches were kept to their separate universes. On Day One, 25 to 30 top-ranking Army officers filed into a large hall and sat in groups of three at separate tables. Each table was then assigned a single composite identity: General Jones, say, in charge of munitions.

A sound and light show introduced a critical, extreme event drawn from the day's geopolitics. Today, Richard Duke explains, such an event might be, "war has broken out in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein has just tossed a nuclear bomb at the Israelis, and you have to respond cooperatively with the other military services within seconds."

"General Jones" had to first integrate his three-part personality then refragment it to tour the room, gathering data from other Army personnel, and come up with a course of action. Similar scenarios were repeated on successive days for the Navy and the Air Force. On the fourth day, Duke convened all the services and had them switch roles: the Army people who had been General Jones were now Admiral Smith, attempting to coordinate a Navy air attack with the Air Force.

One of Duke's main functions at this point was to keep everyone's eye on the aim of the exercise: reorganization (being military and human, most players just wanted to win). Meanwhile, the real general, Powell, sat in a corner, quietly observing.


No discussion of the policy-game galaxy would be complete without a nod to the most venerable and at times wackiest of all simulation scenarios, the games Colin Powell cut his teeth on: war games. No other games resonate so clearly with childhood (what else is Cowboys and Indians?) or reverberate so powerfully through history.

Take a game played at the Naval War College at Newport, R.I., in the 1920s. In certain military simulations, it's permissible to invent weapons that don't yet exist, and at one point in this particular game one of the players realized that if he owned a large boat that could launch a fleet of airplanes from its deck, he'd have an offensive weapon that could help him win the game, which it did. Enter the aircraft carrier.

Then there was the game the Japanese military played in 1944, before the Battle of Midway During the simulation, the planners predicted correctly that they would lose some aircraft carriers during the battle; but later, when they extended the game to include the invasion of Borneo and Samoa, one of the players decided it would be nice to have the carders back; so he simply resurrected them. Says Air Force Lt. Greg Wilmouth of the Pentagon's history department, this was "sort of against the rules. It also turned out to be not such a good idea."

But who hasn't had the impulse to put that lost bishop back on the board when no one's looking? The difference is, all you can lose when you break the rules in a chess game is your lift home. All the Japanese lost was World War II.

If games are such subtle and accurate yardsticks of human behavior, why hasn't the therapeutic world embraced them as diagnostic or therapeutic tools?


Toronto psychiatrist Edward Brown, M.D., points out that although therapy is itself not a game, it can be seen as a vehicle to "discover what everyone's game is." The vocabulary of games--how we "score" life, what we consider winning and losing--is fundamental to who and how healthy we are.

In the few instances where they've been utilized, therapeutic games have been highly successful. In 1976, at a conference on the family, Ron McManus, Ph.D., professor of religion and psychology at Texas Wesleyan University, developed Family Reunion, a game intended to promote family communication by having members re-create past situations, such as singing a song from childhood or telling a family joke. "For certain populations," McManus says, "it was more effective than usual therapies."

In the Fort Worth area, the game has become a staple as a court referral aid. Our own game, Therapy, designed strictly as entertainment, has been cited by therapists as beneficial to their group practice (especially with adolescents).

Generally, though, the professional attitude toward psychological games is to dismiss them as innocuous or brand them as dangerous. This may reflect a discomfort in the institutional world with the dissonant gestalt behind any true game--which is passionately trivial, profoundly antic, compared with the highly orchestrated exercises adults engage in or impose on their offspring.

Nietzsche once said that the aim of all adults should be to rediscover in their work the seriousness of children at play "It's significant," says psychiatrist Brown, "that for the first decade and a half of our lives, games are our lives; they only become devalued with adulthood." Instead of "What are you playing, a game?" we hear, "Oh, they're just playing games."

Games are potentially dangerous; they're touched by the mysterious power that is usually the province of childhood. They're about entering the simulative universe of play and the subversive freedom of that universe. They're about following rules so we can free our spirits. They're about pretending.

The sky is the box, the earth the table. Monopoly is Atlantic City and the stock exchange, Clue is a courtroom, Trivial Pursuit is an era, Prisoner's Dilemma is two cells on Rikers Island.

Whether we're reading about Ulysses or playing chess, the conceit that we're deciding the fate of the universe comes from the same suspension of disbelief: a willingness to forget ourselves and so, paradoxically, find ourselves in a world that is more real and rich than the one we just left.

Whether it's a three-day epic simulation for 1600 people in a hotel conference hall or three couples playing charades, games hold an uncanny spell over us, telling us much about ourselves. Maybe this is no coincidence, either. What entertains us as a species tends also to be our destiny. As Edwin Arlington Robinson pointed out, "Life is the game that must be played."

Therapy is available at The Gamekeeper stores. For Cowgirls, call 1-888-726-9447.




So accurate and prevalent a research tool has the Prisoner's Dilemma become, that Robert Axelrod, Ph.D., calls the game the "E. coil of social psychology." It has been used to study everything from the effects of Westernization in Central Africa to the levels of aggression in career women.

Played as originally conceived in 1950 as a one-shot affair, the Prisoner's Dilemma's optimal strategy seems cynically simple: rat your buddy out. Defecting, that is, appears to provide the highest percentage in one-shot play, regardless of what the other player does.

The only problem is, the other player's no fool and will logically come up with the same strategy: to defect as well. The result: a three year sentence for both, instead of the one year you'd both receive if you'd cooperated.

But what happens if you had to play the game over again? Axelrod, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan and author of The Evolution of Cooperation, invited professional game theorists to submit strategies to a Prisoner's Dilemma computer tournament. Each entry played every other entry, itself, and RANDOM, a program that "randomly cooperated and defected with equal probability."

The winning entry was submitted by Professor Anatol Rapoport, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto. It was one of the simplest and most famous: tit for tat. A player cooperates on his first move and, on all subsequent moves, simply mirrors his partner's previous move.

Cooperation by the partner ends up being rewarded and defection punished, while redemption (a change of heart on the next move) is always possible. In addition to tit for tat's victory, "nice" strategies in general-never being the first to defect-took the top eight spots in Axelrod's tournament.

Maybe Leo Durocher (who declared that "nice guys finish last") was wrong after all.--J. T.


It's billed as the only game for women. But it's fun, too, when guys join in. So choose your steed and survey the landscape of life as Cowgirls Ride the Trail of Truth.

Its gorgeous board is a map of the old Southwest dotted with such landmarks as Pregnancy Pass, Career Move Hill, Emotion Mountain, Menopause Mountain. Players gather at the roundup to begin their journey to Paradise Ranch. Along the way, they pick up some history, learn about themselves and each other, and share their stories as they meet real cowgirls who settled the West, pictured on the cards drawn with each roll of the die.

"I chose to make the theme cowgirls, because I wanted a game about all the ways women are strong, independent, and adventurous," says Prasuti Kirk, the game's inventor. And conversation is at its heart, as players answer questions about feelings and memories, hopes and ambition--and, yes, sex.

SAMPLE CATEGORIES AND QUESTIONS: SEX AND BODY: What is the most unusual place where I've made love?

Would I want my friend to tell me if my partner made a pass at her?

HISTORY AND EXPERIENCE: If I were to receive an award, who would I thank?

FAMILY AND FRIENDS: Can I share both my positive and negative feelings with my partner?

SPIRIT: If I woke one morning and found myself a man, what are the first three things I would do?

SHADOW: The biggest mistake I ever made was...

TASTE: Do I throw away old photos of myself if they're not flattering?

"It's rollicking good furl in that sensuous way women are fun," adds Kirk. It's verbal. It's enlightening And it's competitive in a friendly way. You can win without beating your opponents. Show me a man who can do that."