It’s just long enough after Christmas that most kids have played the new games they’ve received. And perhaps you joined with relatives during the holidays, to sit around a table where you found out who’s a good sport, who’s smart, who cheats, who’s ultra-competitive, and a dozen other things you may wish you hadn’t learned about your loved ones.
My family loves to play games. We know each other so well that we make formidable Taboo partners, we know from a sigh if our Rook partner has a bad hand, and we know which kid has the fastest reflexes in speed games. But there’s much more to game-playing than we often realize.
Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and the author of Perplexities of Consciousness, said of the Jewish dreidel game, “Dreidel is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and to others.” This caught my eye. I’d always thought it was nothing but a game of luck that encouraged gambling with a four-sided top. But Schwitzgebel opened my eyes, not only to this game of another faith, but to the concept that games might teach more than we realize.
“Here’s the twist,” he says, “and what makes the game so brilliant: The chocolate isn’t very good. After eating a few coins, the pleasure gained from further coins is minimal. As a result, almost all of the children learn that they would rather enjoy being kind and generous than hoarding up the most coins. The pleasure of the chocolate doesn’t outweigh the yucky feeling of being a stingy, argumentative jerk. After a few turns of maybe pushing only small coins into the pot, you decide you should put a big coin in next time, just to be fair to others and to enjoy being perceived as fair by them.”
Suddenly my childhood of playing Life, Sorry, and Old Maid took on new meaning. Had there been opportunities to learn generosity, patience, teamwork, and a host of other traits? It occurred to me that we might steer our children to embrace more than just the glory of winning. Here’s a list I’ve compiled of some games you may own that may surprise you when it comes to teaching morals and values:
Apples to Apples: On the surface it’s easy to see that this popular game teaches comparisons and vocabulary. But it also gives a distinct advantage to those with social skills, who’ve made the effort to learn one another’s preferences and idiosyncrasies. Knowing your uncle will pick the most ridiculous card possible just to be funny will help you tailor your choices. Knowing your kid sister will pick anything to do with animals will also give you an edge. The more gifted you are in human relations, and the more you can predict the choices of others, the better you’ll fare. So taking an interest in others, and really caring how they think, pays off.
Boggle and Scrabble: For us, these games have taught the unexpected lesson that if you beat everyone else all the time, soon no one will play with you. And when you think about it, what’s the point of playing games together? Is it always to win? What, exactly, do you win? Or is it to share family time together, laugh and enjoy each other’s company? Maybe our priorities need adjusting.
Candyland (and Chutes and Ladders): While these games frustrate those who can’t stand getting almost to the finish line and then, in a flash, getting knocked back to Square One, they teach the important lesson that life can change on a dime. And when circumstances deal us a tough blow, we need to roll up our sleeves and start over again. We also learn to sympathize with those whose luck ebbs and flows as our own does.
Chess: This ultimate game of strategy teaches the value of thinking ahead. Waaay ahead. It teaches patience, perseverance, and admiration for the wise choices of others. It punishes the impulsive, the hasty, the careless. Much like life.
Dominoes: Strategy, odds, and number groupings are all inherent in this classic old game. But variations, which each family seems to develop on its own, give everyone a chance to brainstorm, contribute ideas, agree upon the rules, and get creative.
Dungeons & Dragons: When our two eldest sons started playing this is grade school, I thought I’d join in. But when I saw the thick instruction manual I tossed it aside immediately. Could I have learned tenacity? To tackle the difficult? No doubt. But this game also teaches teamwork, and how to learn from the mistakes of others. Pretty valuable life lessons.
Go Fish: Even this simple children’s game can build memory and strategy skills. Best of all, it’s a chance to let a kid feel Big. By summoning the patience to play with very young children, we underscore their importance, we see their personality shine, and we give them a chance to win in a world where many games are just too hard.
Monopoly: Though one of our kids despises this money-grubbing game of, well, greed, it has some virtues. It teaches the important skill of reasonable risk-taking, without which many are paralyzed, afraid to make decisions. It also teaches financial management, never a bad idea. And if you agree upon ways to shorten the playing time, it can foster creativity as well.
Risk: This game teaches strategy, even geography. Who doesn’t remember the first time they encountered Irkutsk and Kamchatka? But, as the name implies, it mostly teaches players how to take calculated risks, a frequent requirement in successful living. (Is there a missionary anywhere who didn’t once stick his neck out and take a chance?)
What Were You Thinking? Being the clever, original one counts for nothing in this game. You want to match others and engage in “groupthink.” A good exercise in fitting into a committee, anticipating what others will think about various ideas. If you can guess how others will react, it can give you great social advantage. This is one of our favorites for groups of five or more, and teaches us to laugh at ourselves as well.
These and other games teach critical thinking, problem-solving, logic, and how to recognize patterns—all good lessons. But from a spiritual standpoint, playing games together is also a great lab for learning to practice the virtues we espouse as Christians. Will we slaughter the child just because we can, or let them win now and again so they enjoy playing with us? Will we be completely honest about where our Battleship is hidden? Will we break the rules and expect to advance our token to the next spot on the board? Or will we act with integrity and realize it’s just a game?
Dozens of websites also espouse the positive aspects of videogame playing—with or without an opponent—but I must admit a complete lack of expertise (and, okay, fast reflexes) in these games. I still recall with horror the time I tried to race a sportscar through a virtual city, with my experienced son out-maneuvering me at every turn. Finally I zoomed toward a shortcut, flipped the car, and was stunned that the animators had even created little passengers who flew from the car and landed in piles of bloody wreckage on the ground. “Whaaat?!” I shrieked. My son laughed for ten minutes at this “surprise.”
Most of all, game playing teaches sportsmanship—the gracious winner and the well-mannered loser being able to congratulate one another on a game well played. When we can genuinely be happy for someone who bested us, we advance toward maturity and build relationship bonds. And when we can win without gloating, well, that’s when we really do win, isn’t it?