Game nights bring out your true personality. Play at your own risk

You don't really know someone until you've played a board game with them

27 May 2018 - 00:01
What's wose: playing a game with a sore loser or a bad winner?
What's wose: playing a game with a sore loser or a bad winner?
Image: 123RF/akz

You don't know someone until you've travelled with them. Or so some cliché goes. But actually, you don't know someone until you've played a game with them.

While "in real life" we can often be on our best behaviour or at least fake some decency, one of the times where our true selves shine through is when we play competitive games with or against each other.

In the same way parents show their true selves when their children are playing in sports matches, it's impossible to hide who we really are during games nights.

This isn't the expert opinion of a psychologist - it's the lived experience of someone who doesn't play games because they make you turn into a truly unpleasant human being, a surly loser afterwards.

(This is in the highly dreaded event of a loss. Play for fun? Who does that?)

Some people don't like photographs of themselves because they show them as they are rather than how they would like to be. I don't play games for the same reason. I'm ultra-competitive but pretend I'm not. And if I lose, I can't help but sulk. Games remind me that I'm not as relaxed as I like to pretend I am, therefore I generally just avoid them.

Because games aren't just games.


While the outcome of a game depends on things outside of our control - such as your opponents' skills, strengths and weaknesses - they are one of the few circumstances in life that we feel we can control, and therefore we're more likely to be ultra-competitive.

If we hadn't invented games, natural selection might have
Psychology Today

A Psychology Today article states that "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."

The article continues that games "can be eerie at disclosing the mysteries within" and that they give us "an arbitrary alter ego into which we can escape for an hour and a half. And we can act accordingly - which means, paradoxically, that we can act more like ourselves."

Speaking to NBC News, neuroscience and human behaviour post-doctoral scholar Don Vaughn says part of the reason people get so invested in game playing is that our brains don't separate the game from reality.

"If a lion was chasing one of our ancestors on the savanna, it was real, every time. There were no movies, plays or simulations. Modern neuroscience has revealed that just thinking about imagined situations activates the same brain regions as the actual experience.

"So when you have to pay $2,000 to your sister for landing on Boardwalk, your brain is really experiencing loss."


Relationships (romantic or otherwise) have been fractured because of games gone wrong. Or perhaps the games were a catalyst for revealing something that was already there in the first place.

I asked around to see if my ultra-competitiveness is unusual - and thankfully it is not.

Nqaba shares a story about a couples' retreat gone wrong because of a game of 30 Seconds. "I am extremely aggressive. Winning absolutely matters. That's the fun more than the partaking. It embarrasses my girlfriend a little. A lot, actually. But it's the one place where it's socially acceptable to not hide your competitive streak for some reason," he says.

"Two years ago we went on a couples' getaway. I was getting along with everyone - and one other guy in particular.

"After the first game of 30 Seconds I remember wondering how he can even tie his shoelaces. He wasn't bad - I've played with bad 30 Seconds players. You can always carry them and be super literal with them. He was beyond that. We've never been the same since. I greet and keep it at small talk. I just really struggle with him."

Nqaba's story isn't unusual - some people use 30 Seconds as a way to suss out the newest addition to a friends group or even their family. No matter how lovely someone may be, if they can't give a clue for Joe Slovo because they don't even know who he is, they're definitely losing points.

Other people use games to show how solid their romantic relationships are. Larry says: "Usually when we play in groups there's some stakes in showing out that my husband and I know each other well (if we are in the same team). It's petty, I know."

If they are in opposing teams, however, Larry plays gentler, otherwise he is "very competitive. Aggressive even. I say assertive. People who have played with me say aggressive. It's not just a game. I like winning."

Megan also considers herself "very competitive" and she excels at analytical games like poker because they suit her perfectionist personality best.

"My strat is always to analyse the other player, get a sense of how competitive they are, how they think, play the game and then play to that. I'm all or nothing - so if I find myself on a weak team, I play to enjoy and don't even try to compete. People are predictable. And the goal is to win."

I talk shit and get people riled up. It's a lot more fun when everyone is hungry to win

But there are some people who actually think games are just games and that games are actually played for fun. Sanelisiwe is one of them.

"I'm a trash talker," she says. "I talk shit and get people riled up. It's a lot more fun when everyone is hungry to win."

And while our desire to win no matter the cost (sometimes that could be a relationship, as some of us have learned) doesn't reflect positively on us, neither does being the one who stirs up shit just for fun.

One of the most memorable quotes from The Dark Knight was Alfred explaining The Joker's motives to Bruce Wayne: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Those people are even bigger psychos than those of us who sulk after losing at a game of cards.

If you're looking for something to restore your faith in humanity, a games night (or even a quiz night) isn't it. We're actually all terrible human beings - sometimes it just takes a game of Monopoly to bring out our inner Patrick Bateman.