I’m Going Home and Taking My Ball With Me

Ever had someone ruin you favorite game by playing it wrong?

Aren’t they complete asshats for doing so?

I expect that most of us have had a moment where our supposed playmates just won’t take a game seriously or play by the rules and, if not, we’ve likely seen someone else erupt into table-flipping rage because of it.


I was forwarded a blog post that inspired me to consider why these moments happen and why we get so irate about them, but I’ll get to that post later. I’m hoping that some thought on the subject might help inform us as to why these events are so deeply affective and, perhaps, allow us to navigate them more rationally.

As I start, I want to be clear, I’m not talking about cheating. This isn’t about gaining unfair advantage, it’s about not playing the game properly. What do I mean by a game? That’s a complicated question, but I’ll go with the following definition for the purposes of this discussion:

A game is any activity that is undertaken for the purposes of enjoyment for which there are set rules of engagement

That’s pretty broad, and you’ll see why later. But to start, let’s talk about chess.

Chess is what I will call a perfect game. It is perfect in that the rules are immutable. There is no room for interpretation whatsoever. You can play chess by mail, with someone on the other side of the planet, and they will, without question, be playing the same game as you. With such well defined rules it makes it a good test case. When do people get annoyed or angry in chess? When they lose, yes, but also when their opponent “gives up” and starts playing randomly or the like. This is a breach in the unspoken rule of the game: that you are trying to win. There is, of course, no rule against playing badly on purpose, but it is easy to understand how one’s opponent might recognize this and be annoyed.

As with all things, Star Trek is instructive in this matter.

Strategema may not be chess, but it’s the equivalent: a game of perfect strategy. By changing his strategy, Data made Kolrami so angry that he took his ball and went home. Data didn’t break the written rules, but he did break the assumed goal of play: to win. By doing so, he outraged his opponent and sent him storming out of the room. Why?

I would argue that Kolrami was right to be frustrated. By changing his goal of play, Data was, in fact, playing a different game. It used the same mechanics as strategema but he was not playing to the silently agreed upon goal. Kolrami was right, it wasn’t a rematch. Data wasn’t playing with a superior strategy, he was playing a different game and hadn’t consulted his opponent. Perhaps Kolrami would have enjoyed the challenge of trying to beat someone that was specifically playing for a stalemate. We’ll never know. They didn’t have that discussion.

Next, let me speak about tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Unlike chess, these are games that have massive and nuanced rulesets that support a variety of interpretations, and more pertinent to our discussion, modes of play. I’m going to compare two fairly common and well recognized types of D&D players, the Dramatist and the Munchkin.

The Dramatist is someone that uses the rules of such games as a framework in which to create and explore characters and stories. They treat the game as a means of providing structure and direction to what is effectively collaborative storytelling. They are pure Role Players.

Munchkins, after which the game was named, are those that play to win. They attempt to optimize themselves numerically for defeating enemies in the strategic combat of the game using whatever resources are made available through that rule set.

These two present an interesting case. They are playing by exactly the same rules and yet they are playing unrecognizably different games. One appears to be an aspiring actor and the other an accountant. What is more interesting is that these two can be playing with each other at the same table. These games are, in some sense, remarkable in that they can support these divergent interpretations of the game in simultaneous play and many gaming groups accept and enjoy the different styles. Others, however, are destroyed by it. Without communication and acceptance of different players’ preferences and styles, shouting matches and occasional violence has been known to break out. Why?

Source: Thor
Source: Thor

I believe that has something to do with false-consensus bias. The false consensus bias is the tendency to assume that others share your beliefs, opinions, values, etc. In gaming, this manifests in a couple of ways.

The first is obvious, people assume the others with whom they are playing have understood the rules of play in the same way as they have. The other that I have noticed is more subtle, it is when the goal of play is different. Sometimes people play games for competitive glory, sometimes for casual laughs, to kill time, to be with friends, to test themselves… the list goes on. If either the rules of play, or the purpose of play is different between players, then each player is effectively playing a different game.

I believe that most of the fury, the friendship-ending rage, dice being forced into orifices in which they do not belong, comes from a lack of communication whose antecedent is the false assumption that one’s playmates are playing by the same rules and for the same reason. Without careful discussion beforehand, we can easily spend time becoming invested in a game before finding out that the other players are playing fundamentally incompatible versions of it.

Worse still, due to the subconscious assumption that everyone playing shares our understanding and interpretation of the rules, anyone not playing that way must be doing so by choice. And, due to another little quirk of the human psyche called Fundamental attribution error, we are likely to assume that this has more to do with a person’s character than the situation. The result, your playmate is an asshole that is playing wrong on purpose.

Source: Adventure Time
Source: Adventure Time

There is another kind of game that I haven’t yet discussed and it was the subject of the post that inspired this analysis. The author of that post is ranting about the correct rules to what appears to be her favorite game. That game, though, doesn’t actually have hard rules. It is cosplay. She is annoyed at all the people who don’t take it seriously and do it wrong. She clearly has a firm idea of how it should be done, however I don’t actually know anyone else that plays by the same rules.

There are many other games like it and many similar rants. Clubbing, blogging, hiking, facebooking, movie watching… these are all games that people play by their own rules and often assume that those rules are, or should be, universal. I’m sure most of us have felt that someone else is either foolish or malign for their mistakes and missteps in what is obviously a straight-forward and entertaining game.

So I guess after all the tl/dr the moral is be aware of your biases and understand that people might not be playing your game your way, not necessarily because they’re malicious and trollish tossers, but because they play by different rules for different reasons. Seems kind of obvious now.

Oh well. At least there’s an angry panda

Source: Panda Cheese
Source: Panda Cheese


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. 1. All three of those gifs were hilarious and worth keeping for future laughs.
    2. TNG ftw.
    3. I’m neither one of those types of gamers! What AM I?! I look at it from a technical (non-immersed) perspective, but don’t play to win. Never had to try to explain that before. o.o

    Everybody thinks they’re the best and that everyone else could learn something from them. Solipsism!

  2. Mindy, excellent contribution.

    Ryan, great post. I assume you realize that these biases apply not just to hobbies but also to politics, business, even relationships? I’ve spent some time in my MBA program exploring my own run-ins with false consensus bias. Why don’t we all just see the world the same way, dammit?!

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