There’s a popular social movement in schools these days, compelling teachers and coaches to minimize competition on the playground while increasing collaboration.  It’s gone so far that one school I heard about even removed the scoreboard from their high school football field, insisting that keeping score put too much pressure on the students and inflated the competitive element, reducing self-esteem.

This type of thing begs the question:  Is competition all bad — or none of it — or just some of it?

Although the answer to this question is complex,  I think it’s worth noting that not all games are equal; in truth, some games are designed to be more competitive than others.  Consider the classic board games.  In chess, for example, you find a classic “zero sum” activity; in order for one person to win, he must compel the other person to lose.   The vast majority of two-person games are set up this way, as a personal battle of wits and wills.  Winning is a “successful” outcome; losing is an “unsuccessful” one.   In chess, where there’s no actual scoring, it can be difficult to measure your progress and mastery.   About all you can say to yourself in a losing effort is, “I stayed alive a little longer this time.”  In other two-person games, by contrast, scoring is built into the activity, increasing your ability to assess personal progress.  For instance, in cribbage you can see exactly how many points it will take you to win; you can measure by how many points you’ve won or lost.  As analyzing your success is more manageable, you can console yourself in a loss with, “Well, at least I’m getting closer; I only lost by 15 points that time.”

Multi-player games are no different.  Some games are zero sum (you either win or you lose), while others allow you to rate your progress by the toting up of points and keeping score.   Scrabble, for example, is zero sum in the sense that there is one winner and everyone else is a “not winner”.  Because there’s a final score, however, you can keep track of your own personal milestones and continually strive to get better, improving your metrics after each round.   You might say, “I lost, but at least I got a 300 that time, only 20 points below my all time high.”

One phenomenon you sometimes see in multi-player games is the “piling on” syndrome.   Consider the game of Risk.  The status of your assets (armies) is always transparent.  Nothing is hidden.  Since no one wants a particular player to get too far ahead (making a personal comeback impossible), what often happens is that everyone gangs up on the front runner.   “She’s getting too far ahead–let’s all work together to bring her back to the pack.”   Not very pleasant if you’re the one in the pole position!

Although far outweighed by the sheer number of competitive games on the market, a few collaborative board games do exist.  One of my favorites is Pandemic, a game which casts you in the role of a CDC (Center for Disease Control) researcher endeavoring to stop a world-wide disease epidemic.  Significantly in Pandemic, you work together with the other researchers (not against them), both to find cures as well as to stem the flow of the outbreak.  The common enemy is the pandemic.  If you discover the cures, you all win; if the world becomes consumed by the contagion, you all lose.  Other similar collaborative games operate with this “all for one” team ethic, games like “Forbidden Island” and “Break the Safe”.

But is a collaborative game as “fun” as a competitive one?   Do you receive as much “benefit”?  It all depends on what draws you to games in the first place.  For some of us, working together to stop a collective evil (like in Pandemic) is a real adrenaline rush.  For others, the fun derives from pitting yourself against the mind of an actual player.   And for still others, the enjoyment has little to do with the other players at all; like in solitaire, your goal is simply to improve your skills (as reflected by higher points and improving scores).

Myself, I don’t see competitive games as a bad thing.  As described above, there are just so many different types of games out there, all of which carry their own distinctive virtues (and pitfalls).   At their best, games force you to exercise your wits; they challenge your ability to design tactics and execute strategy. In many ways, games are the antithesis of passive activities like watching TV.  While playing a game, you need to be active!  You have to think.  And more often than not, you also have to interact and communicate with another person, in real time (we’re talking about board games today, not video games, which are different kettle of fish).

The major trap of competitive games is their ability to inflame your insecurities.   For a person with low self esteem, winning and losing can become something very personal.   How many times, for instance, have we all seen a losing player “cross the line”, bombarding the other players with inappropriate behavior, crass language and poor sportsmanship?  In short, he’s losing, he doesn’t like how that makes him feel, and so he tries to “kill the messenger” (his opponent), the person who has made him feel this way.

Most especially for today’s kids, I believe the key — no matter the game– is to emphasize the personal takeaways.  You might ask, “What did you learn about yourself today?  What did you learn about others?  What skills did you develop?   And what might you work on next time around.”   In the end, there are no winners or losers in games:  just areas for growth and learning.