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Games without frontiers: A brief look at the psychology of play

In a previous blog I examined my favourite board game (Scrabble) and the extent to which someone could become addicted to it. Today’s blog takes a broader look at the psychology of play more generally. Arguably, many of the topics that I research involve the psychology of playing games with video games and gambling games being my two most obvious areas of interest.

It’s been argued by myself (and others) that the ritualized play of several childhood games provides ‘training’ in the acquisition of gambling behaviour and that some games are pre-cursors to actual gambling (e.g., playing marbles, card flipping, etc.). Some authors (such as Igor Kusyszyn) hold the view that gambling is in itself ‘adult play’. Unsurprisingly, Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the ‘functions’ of play and concluded that play in all its varieties (a) provides a wish-fulfilment, (b) leads to conflict reduction, (c) provides temporary leave of absence from reality, and (d) brings about a change from the passive to the active.

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Since Freud, most psychologists have concentrated on the idea of ‘conflict reduction’ and in doing so have ignored his other three postulations. A more modern approach in the 1970s by Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi asserted that during play a person can “concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which he or she can use skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting his or her own problems and separate identity” (and provides one of the reasons that a small minority of people can develop problems playing games). Seminal research on the sociology of play by Roger Caillois states notes that play is a “free and voluntary activity”, “a source of joy and amusement” and “bounded by precise limits of time and space” whereas Erving Goffman views it as a “world building activity”.

Games provide the opportunity to prove one’s superiority, the desire to challenge and overcome an obstacle, and a medium by which to test one’s skill, endurance and ingenuity. Games, unlike some activities (including life itself!), tell us whether we have won or lost. As observed by James Smith and Vicki Abt in the 1980s:

“…in the context of a competitive and materialistic culture that has become increasingly regimented and standardized with little room for individual creativity and personal achievement, games (including gambling) offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance”.

Perhaps the best categorisation of game types was formulated by Roger Caillois who listed four classifications – agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo). In the context of games involving gambling, alea and agon are crucial in that they offer a combination of skill, chance and luck. As was previously asserted, most people desire opportunities to test their strength and skill against an adversary, and those games which offer a component of skill or talent combined with luck and chance provide the most favourable conditions. This is particularly prevalent in males who are deemed ‘masculine’ if during the socialization process they show (socially) important traits such as courage, independence, and bravery.

According to Caillois, play is “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money” and is a “free and voluntary activity that occurs in a pure space, isolated and protected from the rest of life”. According to Caillois, play is best described by six core characteristics:

  • It is free, or not obligatory.
  • It is separate (from the routine of life) occupying its own time and space.
  • It is uncertain, so that the results of play cannot be pre-determined and so that the player’s initiative is involved.
  • It is unproductive in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins.
  • It is governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours and that must be followed by players.
  • It involves make-believe that confirms for players the existence of imagined realities that may be set against ‘real life’.

Back in 2000, I published an article on the psychology of games in Psychology Review and what makes a good game. I noted that:

  • All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. In short, there will always room for improvement.
  • For games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die.
  • There needs to be competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play (and likeminded people to play with) there will be little development within the field over long periods of time.
  • Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship of some kind.

I was recently interviewed by Lucy Orr for an article on board games for The Register – particularly about the psychology of winning. For instance, why is winning so important? I responded to Orr by pointing out that winning makes us feel good both psychologically and physiologically. Winning something – especially if it is a result of something skilful rather than by chance – can feel even better (unless the chance winning is something life changing like winning the lottery). Winning something using your own skill can demand respect from other competitors and brings about esteem (that can feed into one’s own self-esteem). Winning can be a validation that what you are doing is worthwhile. Other parts of my interview were not used.

I was asked whether beating other people makes winning more rewarding? Of course it does. Any time we engage in a behaviour that feels good we want to do it again (and again). Winning can be reinforcing on many different levels. There may be financial rewards, social rewards (peer praise, admiration and respect from others), psychological rewards (feeling better about oneself and feeling that the activity is a life-affirming and life-enhancing activity that feeds into self-esteem), and physiological rewards (increases in adrenaline and serotonin that trigger dopamine and makes us feel happy).

For some people, winning can become addictive. You can’t become addicted to something unless you are constantly reinforced and rewarded for engaging in the behaviour, and (as mentioned above) there are many different types of rewards (e.g., financial, social, psychological and physiological). Any (or all of these) could lead to repetitive and habitual behaviour and in a small minority of cases be addictive. However, as I have noted in a number of my papers, doing something to excess is not addiction. The difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that excessive enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it. For most people, winning behaviour – particularly in the context of playing board games – will be highly rewarding without being in any way problematic

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brown, J. (2011). Scrabble addict. Sabotage Times, May 16. Located at: http://sabotagetimes.com/life/scrabble-addict/

Caillois, R. (1961). Man, play and games. Paris: Simon and Schuster.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1976). Play and intrinsic rewards. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 16, 41-63.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). The psychology of games. Psychology Review, 7(2), 24-26.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Kusyszyn, I. (1984). The psychology of gambling. Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 474, 133-145.

Orr, L. (2016). Winner! Crush your loved ones at Connect Four this Christmas. The Register, December 16. Located at: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/12/15/beating_your_family_and_winning_this_christmas/

Smith, J. F. & Abt, V. (1984). Gambling as play Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 474, 122-132.

Walsh, J. (2004). Scrabble addicts. The Independent, October 9. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/scrabble-addicts-535160.html

A night on the tiles: A brief look at addiction to ‘Scrabble’

In previous blogs I have covered some arguably frivolous (and alleged) addictions including addictions to cryptic crosswords and Sudoku. Today’s blog looks at an equally frivolous topic in the same vein – Scrabble addiction. I have to be honest and say that I love playing Scrabble and have been playing a lot against the computer over the last few weeks (and is one of the reasons I decided to write an article on the topic). According to a 2004 article ‘Scrabble addicts’ in The Independent by John Walsh, there are numerous celebrity Scrabble lovers including Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, Nigella Lawson, Christina Aguilera, Sting, Avril Lavigne and Alison Steadman. He also  asserted that the secret of Scrabble’s success is threefold.

“First, it’s a game of skill (like chess) that depends on the luck of the tiles you get (like cards). Second, it deploys a commodity common to every human being, namely words. Third, anyone can play it”.

Back in 2000, I published a paper on the psychology of games in Psychology Review and what makes a good game. These are all applicable to Scrabble. I noted in that article that:

  • All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. In short, there will always room for improvement.
  • For games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die.
  • There needs to be competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play (and likeminded people to play with) there will be little development within the field over long periods of time.
  • Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship of some kind.

But is there any evidence to suggest Scrabble can be addictive? Jan Kern published a book in 2009 called Eyes on Line: Eyes on Life – A Journey Out of Online Addictions. She noted the case of Tom who started out his story by saying: “Hi, my name is Tom, and I’m an addict. I don’t have a problem with the bottle or with any kind of pharmaceutical product, legal or illegal. No, my problem is with games. I’m addicted to them…And now the Internet has made this potential to get hooked all too easy. My particular poison these days is online Scrabble”. I then came across these examples:

  • Extract 1: “[I] have struggled with Scrabble addiction. When I play Scrabble on the Internet, I lose all track of time. I promise myself I’ll just play one game, and the next thing I know, the sun is coming up and my eyes are a shade of crimson. I’m just glad to know that I’m not the only one” (Raphael Pope-Sussman, New York Times, 2007).
  • Extract 2: “I read ‘Addicted to L-U-V’ while I was in the midst of a Scrabble game…Whenever I encounter a new word, I calculate the number of letters, roots, prefixes and suffixes. I’ve got it bad. My Scrabble buddies both live out of state…When we are together, we have cut-throat marathon games…When we’re apart, we practice our addiction online” (Cheryl Beatty, New York Times, 2007).
  • Extract 3: “Phew! I am not the only one! Scrabble with my friends and daughter was my addiction for years. These days I play it on my computer when I take a break from work…O.K., that’s enough writing; time to get back to another game of Scrabble” (Beth Rosen, New York Times, 2007).

These extracts were all published in response to American journalist and film director Nora Ephron’s 2007 article ‘Addicted to L-U-V’ in the New York Times about her addiction to the word game Scrabble. In her article, Ephron admitted that:

“I stumbled onto something called Scrabble Blitz. It was a four-minute version of Scrabble solitaire, on a Web site called Games.com, and I began playing it without a clue that within 24 hours – I am not exaggerating – it would fry my brain…I began having Scrabble dreams in which people turned into letter tiles that danced madly about. I tuned out on conversations and instead thought about how many letters there were in the name of the person I wasn’t listening to. I fell asleep memorizing the two- and three-letter words that distinguish those of us who are hooked on Scrabble from those of you who aren’t…My brain turned to cheese. I could feel it happening. It was clear that I was becoming more and more scattered, more distracted, more unfocused…I instantly became an expert on how the Internet could alter your brain in a permanent way”.

Ephron went on to report comments from other people in the online Scrabble games (“I’m an addict, lol”, “I can’t stop playing this, ha ha”). Ephron concluded she was no different from the other players. She then went onto say:

“The game of Scrabble Blitz eventually became too much for the Web site. Lag was a huge problem. From time to time, the Scrabble Blitz area would shut down for days, and when it returned, so did all the addicts, full of comments about how they had barely withstood life without the game. I began to get carpal tunnel syndrome from playing. I’m not kidding. I realized I was going to have to kick the habit…I was saved by what’s known in the insurance business as an act of God: Games.com shut down Scrabble Blitz. And that was that. It was gone”.

Obviously I’m sceptical about whether there are genuine cases of addiction to Scrabble (particularly as there is nothing in the psychological literature whatsoever). There have also been other lengthy first-person journalistic accounts of Scrabble addiction such as the 2011 article by James Brown in the Sabotage Times (who also did some interesting background research for his article). According to Brown, the recent upsurge in Scrabble began in 2007 when Indian brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla developed a Scrabble application for Facebook (‘Scrabulous’). It quickly became the most popular game on Facebook (but was then removed due to a legal dispute with the original developers of Scrabble – Hasbro and Mattel. The game later returned as Lexulous). Brown then confessed:

Hello, my name’s James and I am a Scrabble addict. I have been playing it all day everyday from last Christmas until my summer holiday when two weeks without a computer allowed me to crack the habit. I am not alone, there are over a hundred thousand Scrabble players on Facebook. We play each other at any time of day or night because we are situated all over the world and timezones are helpful like that. We decide how long we will allow for each move to take, how many people can play, and what standard we play at…On an hourly basis day after day I played people in Australia, Britain, South Africa, India, the West Indies and pretty much anywhere else where the Scrabble application could work. Eventually I spent more time talking and playing with these new Scrabble partners than I did the people I lived with. It was madness. A genuine obsession, I would go as far as to say addiction. I was late to pick my son up from school, late to sports matches I was playing in, I ignored writing work I had to do, I took the computer to bed with me and played last thing at night until my eyes hurt and then started again as soon as I woke up… For me it eventually became too much. One day I looked at the 18 consecutive games I had going on at once, many of them with just two minutes at a time to play my word, and realised what that would look like if I actually had 18 people with 18 boards in the room with me. This moment of clarity gave me some perspective on how it had consumed my life”.

I have to admit that this case account is quite compelling and does at least suggest Scrabble could be potentially addictive. Finally, as a Professor of Gambling Studies I was also interested in Brown’s analogy between Scrabble and gambling as he noted:

“Not knowing what letters would appear next had that random appeal that watching a horse race has.  The excitement at using all seven letters and scoring a bingo, or taking a game to the very last tile to reach a conclusion was immense, there was always just one more game, one more opponent, maybe the same one you’d already played five times that day and you wanted to take another victory from or avenge an earlier defeat. The international 24 hour pull of the game is relentless, for some it over-comes loneliness for others it fuels addictive personalities”.

Playing with what you get given is almost an outlook on life itself. However, unlike life, I seriously doubt whether excessive and/or addictive playing of Scrabble will ever become the topic of scientific study.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brown, J. (2011). Scrabble addict. Sabotage Times, May 16. Located at: http://sabotagetimes.com/life/scrabble-addict/

Ephron, N. (2007). Addicted to L-U-V. New York Times, May 13. Located at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/opinion/13ephron.html

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). The psychology of games. Psychology Review, 7(2), 24-26.

Hayward, A. (2014). Can New Words With Friends reignite your competitive pseudo-Scrabble addiction? MacWorld, October 14. Located at: http://www.macworld.com/article/2825932/can-new-words-with-friends-reignite-your-competitive-pseudo-scrabble-addiction.html

Kern, J. (2009). Eyes on Line: Eyes on Life – A Journey Out of Online Addictions. Accessible Publishing Systems PTY, Ltd.

Walsh, J. (2004). Scrabble addicts. The Independent, October 9. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/scrabble-addicts-535160.html