January 05, 2012

Gaming with Kids: Losing

Sore losing certainly isn't unique to kids.  Any adult can handle a loss poorly - running the gamut from giving the silent treatment to refusing to play again to throwing a royal temper tantrum that would make any 3-year old proud.  Yet the issue in adult gaming groups will generally be less prevalent and, when it does occur, not as extreme in nature.  In children, sore losing can be a significant obstacle to hurdle in developing as hobby gamers.  Kids just don't always lose gracefully.  Perhaps it is a lack of social experience.  Or maybe it can be chalked up to immature intellectual development.  And there's always the concept that they just haven't mastered controlling the baser emotions that we all feel, but have gradually suppressed in certain contexts when necessary or desirable - you know, like restraining yourself from running a car off the road that just cut you off.  I'm no psychologist.  No matter how much you may stress the fact that, "It's just a game," emotions can still flare.  As a father (and a former child with a horrible game temper), I've tried a few things to help my kids learn to be competitive while taking loses in stride and to enjoy the game as an experience and hobby.  It's not 100% effective in subduing the errant temper, but it has kept them from gouging out each others' eyes or breaking one anothers' necks, so I'll call it a success.
  1. Don't necessarily start with cooperative games.  Yes, that teamwork element is dangling out there like a carrot as a means of introducing your kids to the hobby sans confrontation - ergo sans the sore losing.  They certainly play a nice role in acclimating kids to the hobby.  However, if that is their baptism to gaming, it could inadvertently cement a preference for the genre.  That could sour their taste for other games in a hobby where coop titles are in the decided minority, hence achieving the exact opposite of your original goal.  Instead, think of coop games as either a) an alternative for kids who are simply having too much trouble with losing competitive titles, or b) as a break from those more traditional and numerous games that can sometimes prove stressful.  In that manner, they provide a refreshing change of pace where the focus is solely on family fun.
  2. Engage them in the theme.  I'm not talking about my Ameritrash bias here.  Now, I'm not one to say that you really feel like you're the subject of the game - Mission: Red Planet never makes us believe we're real, Martian-bound astronauts in the Victorian-era.  However, that title's theme does provide a fun atmosphere and creates an engrossing story that can distract your kids from the fact that they are losing - or at least minimize the impact.  Consider passing on pure abstract titles which focus solely on strategy.  Even if weak, take advantage of the game's theme to enhance the narrative.  Which leads to my next tip:
  3. Ham it up.  When kids see you having a good time, the mood will be infectious.  Especially so when they see you making light of your own disastrous situations.  I'll make it a point of declaring how much the dice are out to get me when I roll poorly.  Or I'll react humorously when one of the little twerps derails my plans in any manner!  I've found my kids will even sometimes imitate me now when suffering their own setbacks.  Goofy, silly, and over-the-top are all good.
  4. Help them all equally.  Make sure that if you offer suggestions and advice, that you are consistent.  Nothing seems to exacerbate sore losing like a perception that you're playing favorites!  Also, be up front before you begin and let them know that you'll be offering tips.  You may only want to do this for a new game's first play or two, but you'll be able to judge their desires for assistance beyond that and plan accordingly.
  5. Little details.  Don't overlook some very simple basics that will go a long way in creating an atmosphere conducive to sporting play.  Beyond giving them say on which games you bring to the table, let them pick their color or character or country preferences.  Allow them to go first.  Even let them decide where, and to whom next, they sit.  These sorts of considerations are typically minor for adults, yet are oddly important to children.  This sets the stage positively from the beginning.  Of course, kids being kids, they can sometimes fight over even these smallest of details.  A fair and consistent rotation of sorts has worked in our household.  But sometimes you can't win for losing, as they say.
  6. Make sure your kids aren't tired.  Playing a game late into the night can be problematic.  Capping a long day of sporting events or outdoors activities with an evening game can also pose an issue.  Keep in mind how much homework they may have just completed.  Mentally or physically exhausted kids equals touchy kids.  They become grouchier, more sensitive, and tempers naturally flare more easily.  Okay, so this is an issue for adults, too.  Just keep in mind it is exponentially greater with children!  So be patient and wait for ideal times to play with your kids.  And if a game is longer than average, consider frequent breaks or even splitting game play between two days - it'll alleviate factors that can lead to exhaustion.  And if all else fails:
  7. Threaten to quit!  This is not a means of punishment, but instead a manner of depriving the fire of its oxygen, in a sense.  If your child is having difficulty and acting inappropriately merely because he/she is losing, and is spoiling the game for other players despite your pleas, then it may be necessary to end prematurely.  Unfortunately, this will often be unfair to the other players/siblings.  If possible, you can simply remove just the child who is having issues.  If that is not possible, then quit your current game and start up a different one with the other kids.  It may sound harsh, but sometimes the tough decisions are necessary.  And hopefully such an abrupt measure will reinforce to all the kids that no one likes playing with a sore loser.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! One thing we really try to model for the kids is to appreciate and compliment the clever plays and accomplishments of the other players. When we're all high-fiving each other, laughing over the game, and applauding good moves, the kids don't seem to care as much about winning or losing. We also try to make sure to practice good sportsmanship with handshakes and "thanks for playing!" afterwards no matter who wins. We also try to make sure we remind the kids when we sit down that the goal is to have fun together, and that we all have different skill levels and experience and that's ok. Our kids are still little, but I think its building a good foundation for healthy competitiveness and a focus on fun!