Of Hate and Other Demons: On Anger in Board Games

Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;

Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.

– Lord Byron, Don Juan

Build a different world – hate will help you find what you’ve been looking for.
Hate is everywhere, inside your mother’s heart and you will find it there.
You ask me what you need – hate is all you need.

– The Delgados, ‘All You Need is Hate’

Last week, I posted about the lack of games which meaningfully simulate or stimulate kindness and generosity in their players. This week, let’s be less wet.

Let’s think about where hate comes into play (so to speak). I contain multitudes, I make no apologies.

It’s no accident that there’s a tradition – in art, if not philosophy or science – which connects feeling hatred with feeling alive. ‘Hate keeps a man alive,’ Quintus Arrius states in Ben Hur. ‘I hate, therefore I am,’ Marilyn Manson puts it on ‘Get your Gunn.’

And, personally, no dialogue in a novel has ever energized me as much as Winston Smith’s declaration in Nineteen Eighty-Four – ‘I hate purity, I hate goodness! I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.’ Though partly the passage’s resonance owed something to its familiarity (it is recited at the beginning of the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Faster’), the power of these words written was striking. I knew what Smith (and Orwell) meant. I was entirely on Smith’s side.

What’s the point? Well, there’s a feeling which nags me that the board game is, in the great majority of its instantiations, a castrate form. It’s very rare I can say I’ve really felt vitalized through a board game. Which may be odd, given that playing games is less passive in its nature than reading books or listening to music.

Perhaps games should be calm exercises. Certainly, I wouldn’t play them if I didn’t enjoy doing so, and feel enriched in one respect or another. However, can this form be less sedative? To this end, let me ask in what respect board games and hate can – and could – mix. No jokes. I believe there’s value to exploring this thought.

It may be gross in some respect to distill one of our strongest and richest emotions to mere anger, but to make this task manageable, it shall serve, for now, at least, to seek anger in games: it’s a more definite sensation than hate (albeit, doubtless, less useful). So, let’s go through the process. Where is this anger in board games, and should it be there?

An important distinction must be made between anger towards a game, and anger towards its players. The former may be stimulated by elements of luck within the game; for instance, a player might become upset about poor dice rolls, or an undesirable hand of cards. Beyond this, game mechanisms which do not provide a fun experience might also create anger in players. A player might, for example, be upset by a game which includes player elimination (though, of course, some will direct their ill-feeling towards the player who directly caused them to be eliminated from a game).

Ever felt the bile rising while playing this? (Photo by Raiko Puust)

It is worth noting that a great many of the games played most frequently with children might stimulate such anger. Snakes and Ladders, for instance is seldom other than a frustrating experience. The ubiquitous Monopoly, meanwhile (house rules aside), will frequently see the first player to complete a set grind his or her way to eventual victory, eliminating other players on the way – a problem partly connected with luck, but also with game mechanisms which unnecessarily prolong the duration of the game. The continued success of each game may, in part, be a consequence of the fact that many are not aware of alternatives, but it can rarely be due to ignorance about the game which is being purchased. In other words, it is hard to imagine that any substantial proportion of people buying Snakes and Ladders to play with their children did not play themselves in their youth.

With this in mind, then, it is a simple matter to conclude that those buying such games wish to reproduce experiences which they themselves had in their youth. Teaching number recognition – and simple addition – might be a motivation for buying Snakes and Ladders, comments on Amazon suggest so, but the games is also used to teach children to win and lose with grace. Anger, we may say, is stimulated in the child in order to be corrected.

Moving on, a game may also provoke anger towards another player or players. This I think will frequently stem from unfair play, or the perception of it. This may be intentional cheating, or, indeed, careless play which provides unintented benefit (to give a single example, I find that Agricola can often suffer from this: many administrative mistakes are possible, and a great many of those mistakes will benefit the player in error – such as not paying for an improvement, or, perhaps, failing to pay to put an occupation into play). The fact a player did not mean to do wrong does not always prevent annoyance, since there can often be reason to feel he or she should have been more attentive.

A lot of bits means a lot of potential for irksome mistakes (Photo by Laura and Gabriel)

Another form of unfair play which might provoke anger is to target an opponent, through legal game actions, in a way which is perceived as unjust. This may be the result of incorrectly reading the game situation. Though etiquette may well vary from game to game, I would venture that, most often, it is felt most legitimate to target the leader in a game requiring direct attacks (assuming that attacking another player would not, for one reason or another, directly and obviously benefit the attacker more). However, players might not be able to deduce accurately who is that leader.

For instance, the area-control game Small World insists that victory point tokens accumulated by each player be kept secret (though they are always received publicly, meaning players can follow, roughly at least, how many tokens each opponent has). Given that the greatest presence on the board does not always equate to holding the greatest number of points, this can often lead to a player being erroneously ganged up on, while not in realistic contention to win – which can, of course, create frustration and, perhaps, anger.

I'd say the skeletons (at the bottom) are winning. But maybe not.

Of course, humans being humans, attacking other players within a game can have numerous other unjust motivations. If I personally dislike someone with whom I’m playing, maybe I’ll single him or her out, regardless of his or her position among my rivals, and perhaps fabricate a legitimate-sounding reason for doing so. Should I be hated for this? Or is a board game a valid, useful tool for expressing personal feelings not normally accepted in polite conversation? Perhaps. Certainly a lot of our means for addressing the failings in others have to be indirect, so we ourselves maintain decency.

However, what about board games which explore these feelings anger and hatred, in addition to provoking these feelings? I think this is where a traitor mechanism can have particular potency.

Battlestar Galactica, to take a single popular example, sees a team of up to six players attempting to navigate a spaceship towards their home planet. However, one or more of the players may be a cyborg saboteur, convincingly disguised as crew of the ship. Thus, the game is built upon deception and suspicion. If you are playing a genuine human crew member, you must be wary of all of your crew mates as potential threats.

In addition, players suspected of being saboteurs may be sent to the brig – a mechanism designed, it feels, to foster ill-feeling, since that suspicion may not be vindicated. A human (i.e. non-cyborg) sent to the brig will, almost inevitably resent those who sent him or her there.

My guess is the one on the left with the laser-emitting red eyes is a cyborg. Dead giveaway.

Importantly, these emotions are encouraged in an environment where the distinction between player and character is complicated. In that the character card sitting in front of a player may be false (i.e. that player may be a cyborg, not the human depicted), players can not so simply console themselves with the fact that bitterness or annoyance they feel are exclusively directed towards the character, rather than the player. The character a player is apparently playing may be, within the space of the game, a fabrication (from which, of course, it only takes a sly little thought to remember that all the other characters are also, ultimately, unreal). And, if my real emotions are not linked to these characters, what are they linked to?

Battlestar Galactica, then, is a rare example of how board games can employ rule-regulated play to explore anger and its related emotions. It tests the emotionally-restricted safe space common in board games. Though distant from reality in the limited processes it allows its players to enact, the reminders it contains of the artificiality of its characters stand in contrast to the sincere emotional engagement the game tends to be successful in encouraging. As a direct consequence, it’s an atypically enlivening board game to play. It isn’t rock ‘n’ roll in a board game, and it doesn’t generate the most heart-pounding of righteous anger, but it’s interface with emotions has a richness, a palette with darkness and light, that few other board games do.

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