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Losing Without Losing It: Monopoly and Self-Regulation

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Have you ever lost at Monopoly?  I mean, really lost.  If it’s been a while since you’ve played a board game, think back for a moment.  Imagine that the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas are filled with other nations’ ships. Visiting St. Charles’ or St. James’ Places requires that you pay rent; even prayer costs. Your only free options are occasional parking or jail visits.  Sadly, a stay in jail is a welcome reprieve from staggering hotel rents. The only consolation is that you don’t have to pay for street repairs, because you have no real estate.

Take this in, and it makes sense why winning and losing at games bring up feelings. There are primal desires involved with game playing; not only for the needs for growth and competence, but even survival is on the line.

I speak from experience.  I recall having a lot of real feelings come up over the course of board games and card games played throughout my life.

When I was seven, my dad beat me at chess. Frustrated, I read a book and defeated him, and he repeated that tale yearly. As a teenager, I made a strong play in a three-handed pinochle game, and my dad offered me a handshake. I was elated. Skill, effort and courage were rewarded in my house, and they are rewarded in strategy games.

As an adult, I played Monopoly and Risk back-to-back with my brother, and we then didn’t talk for eight months. I have taken multiple year-long breaks from Settlers of Catan.

The pretend scenarios of games bring up real feelings, and they can be safe battlefields to face our growth edges. 

Sometimes, in my play practice and coaching with kiddos, my task is to match their skill level, and allow them to be in a comfortable challenge zone that neither overwhelms nor bores them.  Once, after working with a kid for a few weeks and determining his needs, I intentionally won against a ten-year old for ten consecutive games of Settlers.  He had needed to learn humility, and to ask for help.

Asynchronous learners are often so used to being precocious, that they may avoid challenges that they do not instantly excel at. Games can be used to push them, let them face their limits, and let them have intense feelings about their loss.

For some, they need a confidence boost and a taste of success.  A fifteen-year old asked me questions about my sense of his prospects for Monopoly, and I suggested that he could fare well at the state competition in Bakersfield.

Competition is useful not only for perspective taking, seeing the world from another’s vantage point, but also for empathy and making reasonable predictions about others’ thinking.

Sometimes I switch seats with an opposing player in Connect Four so that they can see what I see. I tell them how they are three red checkers away from forced victory, and they can enjoy the challenge of solving the puzzle.

Sports psychology speaks of anger as an excuse, that by throwing your tennis racket (or flipping over a board game), you project an image that “I’m not normally this bad: must have been my bad ankle or bad dice rolls.”

True self-confidence comes from embracing whatever your skill level is.

I went to the Go club in San Francisco a couple times, once to see a lecture by Janice Kim, whose Learn to Play Go series rocked my world. On my second visit, a more experienced player not only gave me a handful of handicap stones, but also after destroying me, re-placed all the stones by memory and showed me places that I could have made stronger moves.  I thanked him.

So, take a ride on the Reading Railroad and let the games continue.

And tell me in the comments below: Have you noticed life lessons in your family games?  I’d love to hear about your experience.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Jade February 18, 2014, 12:47 am

    I avoided games and competition for so long for so many reasons. I didn’t like winning because I was afraid of being responsible for another person’s hurt. I didn’t like losing because I was afraid of looking foolish.

    Being forced to participate in beauty pageants only exacerbated my intense dislike of competition.

    As a grown woman I’m still uncomfortable with games, I make myself play them though. It’s part of my self-prescribed treatment plan. 😉

    Thanks for another great article.

    • byamtich February 18, 2014, 1:15 am

      Hi Jade,

      Thanks for your comments. I had considered the role of intense feelings, but you point to something new for me. Your reflections remind me of what happens when people not only have emotional OE, but also enough life experience to make reasonable predictions of what emotions can come up in certain situations. Understandably, a self-prescribed treatment plan for competition would extend into adulthood- it has for me.
      I am considering in what domains of my life I have been consistently surprised by outcomes, and how that may have contributed to bravado. I am considering in what domains of my life I have made predictions of outcomes, and how that may have contributed to avoidance. Dang, I need some pinochle, my long-standing strategy for self-soothing.

  • Anita Schnee February 19, 2014, 1:22 pm

    I’m really interested to apply the insights in your article to the “game” — pause to appreciate the sheer terror of that idea — of practicing law. Everything you say has meaning for me in that context. Combat with the judge as parent-figure, as a (not-so) safe battlefield to face my growth edges. True self-confidence coming from knowing where my skill level lies and, in outlier situations, seeking colleagues “on the same side” for the necessary experience-base, when I don’t have that base. Really cool, Bob!

    • byamtich February 25, 2014, 3:57 pm

      Game on, Anita! Confronting growth is a worthy game. Marshall Rosenberg talks about “making life wonderful”; sometimes I go for “find the joke in any moment.” Experience-base reminds me of attachment theory also, which has a “go forth and conquer” element like a territory control game such as Go or Risk.

  • Kristie March 14, 2014, 10:26 am

    As a child board games created extreme opposites. Complete failure rubbed in my face or sheer luck. I never understood the point of competition. I played to play.

    I was intelligent in a different way. Strategy never appealed to my brain. Give me a shape puzzle. My mind loved and still loves spatial relations. I could out puzzle the best. When I am waiting… I play candy crush. Over the last year and a half I have passed over 500 puzzles.

    I never understood the point of winning. I never understood the point of crushing your opponent. I just wanted someone to accept it was not my thing.

    Gracefully losing over and over did nothing but peg me as “stupid”. In fact, I am far from the notion there of.

    • byamtich February 26, 2015, 10:25 am

      Hi Kristie,

      I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond! Who knows how many puzzles you have passed in the interim 😉

      I’ve been dealing with some shape puzzles in my personal life lately. Different thinking styles make me wonder what we translate to our dominant thinking style.

      I often don’t trust IQ tests to measure intelligence. A board game may reveal more about how we were socialized than how our brain works. A professor once told me, “Sometimes a conversation is the best assessment.”


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