The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Ethics in Gaming 5.0

Yehuda Berlinger

February, 2006

Board games are excellent opportunities for examining the good and bad ethical qualities in yourself and others, and for cultivating good ethical practices. More often than not, games naturally lead to developing these good qualities.

Games Teach Ethics

Games, by their very nature, teach ethical principles. The vast majority of games require patience and fair play, which tends to be naturally enforced by your fellow players. You are required to adhere to various rules. You are expected to finish what you have started, unless you can peaceably obtain consent from others to resign. You are expected to be gracious, both in winning and losing. And so on.

Strategic games are a perfect facility for opening the mind to intellectual and emotional growth. For some games, a single playing is enough to break open those rusty neurons and get the mind thinking. However, the real path to growth is gained only through repeated play as you work to develop yourself.

A single game can teach perseverance and fortitude against opposition, but most games last no longer than a few hours, at most. A few hours of fortitude is not much in the real world. By working to get better at a game for months or years at a time you develop a type of moral quality that simply cannot be gained from casual play. This type of perseverance can be learned in games and transferred to other aspects of your life.

Consideration before acting is another important principle you learn while playing. Whether or not your group allows you to take back moves, at some point you have to commit to your actions. When you make a mistake, you will soon know about it in a game, a lesson not always as accessible to you in other areas of your life.

Parallel to this are the principles of leadership and teamwork. Certain games require you to make decisions on the spur of the moment. There is not always time for consideration, yet you must act! In other games, you win or lose only by your ability to cooperate with others, either because you need their resources, or because you win or lose as a team. Balancing all of these requirements is often tough. By facing these choices, you can develop within yourself stronger skills to deal with these issues.

Another essential lesson from games is delayed gratification. It begins when you understand that you may not just pick up your piece and move it to the end of the game board, and continues until you realize that you are not going to be able to win the game until you have worked hard at learning the game by playing it numerous times. This helps you to navigate the cognitive dissonance between the disparate goals of winning the game and having a good time: that, while working towards winning, the essential part of a game is the process, rather than the goal.

For younger children, or people who act like younger children, playing games is an important step in developing a good appreciation for etiquette. In the case of games, this is the sometimes arbitrary limits and rules imposed by a game or game group, and the contentment that can be gained by not violating them.

Speaking of young children, of paramount importance in all areas of life is the acquisition and practice of good manners. Games can be a perfect step in helping with this, if, as a parent, you can manage to set a good example while losing (or winning) to a persnickety four year old.

All of these lessons, and many more, can be carried from the field of gaming into the rest of your life. In this way, games inculcate ethical principles.

Playing Games is Valuable

Beyond the benefits of playing games, it is a worthwhile activity in and of itself.

Studies indicate that people learn better through play, rather than through rote lessons filled with facts. Many games are excellent for teaching math and vocabulary. Some games, chosen with care, teach history or politics. It is a magical thing to watch children actively want to learn.

More than this, by its nature of being a coordinated activity, playing games forces you to identify with and cooperate with other people. The act of arranging with another person to spend time committed to following a thread of action from one end to the other is an act of defiance against the world of the self-absorbed and the transitory.

In our short life, there are many distractions that tempt us to abuse and lose our time. Few activities are inherently a waste of time, but for many activities it is difficult to gain something permanent from indulging in them. So many people in this day and age choose activities based only on how entertaining they are at this very moment, after which they are the same bored person that they were before.

While I seemed to have just denigrated the concept of "entertainment", let me say that the very act of allocating precious time to play a game sends an important message to yourself and to others: that enjoyment is important. That enjoyment is, in fact, a goal. Not an all-pervasive one, but an important and necessary one, nevertheless.

More important than entertainment is transformation of character; any good game should be able to provide both. It is the nature of games that a game requires something from you in order to make it happen. Games, other than mind-numbing die-rollers, require active participation. The more active the participation, the more likely the game imparts some important transformative benefit.

We need to balance the things we do in order to live with the things we live for: love, play, faith, community. So often nowadays we choose activities only for ourselves—sleeping, reading, watching television, playing on the computer, etc. Make sure you allocate some of that time for others and with others by playing games.

- Yehuda Berlinger

(This article originally appeared on Gone Gaming.)

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