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Raising Gamers 2.0

Carol Rifka Brunt

May, 2005

Just Say No To Cooperative Games

I live in a "progressive" town. It's the kind of place where the general store is a co-op that sells organic produce and locally crafted goat's milk cheese; where every other car is adorned with an anti-war bumper sticker; where the elementary school spring concert consists of old Pete Seeger songs. It's the kind of place where parents adore cooperative games.

Now, I'm good with all the political stuff. I'm right on board with peace and sustainable agriculture, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. For me, that line is big and thick and lies right between myself and anyone playing a cooperative game.

Case in point: Harvest Time. My daughter received this Family Pastimes creation as a birthday gift a few years ago. The gift was well intentioned and was chosen with care. The giver, a very dear friend, wished my kids only the bestóno nasty competition, no mean rivalry, just a small glimpse of the utopia that could exist if we all pitched in and helped each other out. Though my friend has many admirable qualities, thinking like a gamer is not among them.

Still, I gave the game a chance. It couldn't be worse than the dreaded Candyland or Chutes and Ladders... could it? Beyond the fact that this particular game consists of pure luck, just like the other two games mentioned, it manages to go one step further by taking away the tension of a winner. After rolling again and again to plant gardens, players then roll the die some more to harvest them before winter (controlled by the roll of a die) makes its first chilly appearance.

Ok, maybe you're thinking this isn't so bad. The player that harvests all their veggies first wins, right. But no, this is a cooperative game. If you've picked all your carrots and you roll a carrot you can help harvest somebody else's. If you finish your garden first you have the power to make this game even more nicey nicey by taking pieces away from the winter scene when you roll "white," allowing the other struggling gardeners a few more precious harvesting opportunities before first snowfall.

Ok. I know I'm beginning to sound bitter. The spirit of Harvest Time is admirable, I know. But what gets lost here is the fact that it's a game. A game. Games are supposed to be fun, aren't they? As far as I can see, a lot of the fun in games comes from the fact that they are competitive by nature. Kids and adults come to the table hoping to win, hoping to click into a strategy that works.

Cooperative games seem so intent on teaching the lessons of peace and harmony that the key element of "fun" is buried deep under soft, fluffy layers. Games have a hundred and one lessons to teach. With parental help kids can learn sportsmanship, probability, arithmetic, planning ahead, timing etc., etc., etc. All these lessons stem naturally from game play. Cooperation does not. Taking away that sense of striving to win flattens the experience of game play, rendering it a tedious exercise.

What's more, in watching my kids play Harvest Time, I've observed something very interesting. The kids actually feel the pain of "losing" without getting the benefit of the excitement that usually leads up to it. In Candyland the whole table gasps with the horror of a child being sent back to Plumpy just as they were nearing the end of the path. Will they be able to catch up again? Do they still have a chance? In Harvest Time, kids know when they are the one with the unharvested garden. They realize that they are the one who didn't finish, the one who needed help from the others. The true nature of losing a game comes through the back door, leaving the whole experience unsatisfying.

Of course, not all cooperative games are bad. Knizia's excellent Lord of the Rings and many role playing games are cooperative yet are still great to play. Why? Why does Harvest Time and its ilk get the big thumbs down while these others are hunky dory? I've boiled it down to this: in the good cooperative games the strategy is to balance self-interest with the common goal. In kids' cooperative games the strategy, if it can be called that, is to pretend you don't have any self interest at all.

As I've said, this sentiment is to be fully commended in the real world. It's beautiful to watch siblings cooperate to build a sand castle or share the last few potato chips, but games are something different.

Kids' cooperative games seem to be born out of a fear that if exposed to unmitigated competitive situations, children will become Machiavellian, war mongering and ruthless. We don't buy toy guns for our kids because we don't want to reinforce the idea that violence is ok. But just look outside. Kids pick up sticks and aim them at each other. They turn wiffle ball bats into swords. They are working out the age old human problems and we can't stop them. Games are one of the best ways I know to help kids explore conflict and competition in a safe and meaningful way. Teaching kids how to win or lose without gloating or engaging in meanness is far better than never exposing them to these things at all

So, if I want to do something cooperative with the kids, I build a sand castle with them, we paint a mural, we might even go out and plant a family garden and try to harvest it before winter comes. When we play games, however, we want something that is first and foremost fun. That means choosing games that are thoroughly uncooperative, and I think that's just fine.

- Carol Rifka Brunt

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