There has never been a time in my life when I wasn’t competing. I played T-ball, soccer and basketball as a little kid — eventually getting into tennis and even a little tackle football with friends. My family would play Trivial Pursuit, Connect Four, Sorry! and Life, and that’s when we weren’t all at the miniature golf course. I don’t know how it is for other kids, but for me the supposed benefits of these activities — exercise, quality time together — never meant that much to me. What mattered was the winning. Taking on my mom, dad and younger sister, I developed at an early age an innate understanding that defeating them simply made me feel a lot better than losing. So I was focused on trying to win.
This hyper-competitive mentality is not unusual in boys. I see how much my 12-year-old nephew enjoys besting his opponents on the field or on the court. We tolerate it in kids because, well, they’re kids. But a competitive spirit doesn’t age well. And what was once a source of pride eventually became a horrible shame, one I’ve only recently been able to untangle — all thanks to staring down the most benign of grownup activities: game night.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times noted that, “Games and puzzles were the fastest-growing toy category [of 2015], climbing 11% to $1.6 billion…continuing into the first four months of 2016, with game sales jumping 24% — four times the pace of the overall industry.” Despite the ongoing popularity of video games — or, perhaps, in response to it — it seems that old-fashioned games are enjoying a renaissance. And everyone’s doing it: Take popular TV shows like Hollywood Game Night, in which celebrities team up with ordinary folks to play word games and quizzes. For aging millennials and Gen-Xers, game night is the new club night.
Game nights have been popular for me and my friends for years. In theory, these adult group activities are meant to be fun — a chance for people with busy lives to catch up and share a few laughs — but for the longest time, they were a source of massive angst. Do you know how hard it is not to enjoy a night of playing Celebrity or Apples to Apples? Well, I do.
Through these casual game nights, I discovered that I was a horrible rule-stickler. You ever played Trivial Pursuit and the person asking the question gives a helpful hint just because, y’know, it’s a game and we’re all just trying to have a good time? This drove me crazy. It took all of my Midwestern politeness not to yell at the guy, “Hey, that’s not fair! You’re cheating!” Sure, it was just a game, but it was the principle of the thing, damn it. There are rules, people! Otherwise, how do we know who really won?? Didn’t these people understand that we needed to determine a winner?
Then, there would be the losing. I wasn’t what you would describe as the typical “sore loser” — I never threw a fit, never stormed out or took my proverbial ball and went home. Instead, I wanted to fool others into thinking I wasn’t some raging psychopath. (Which, okay, maybe I was.) Instead, I quietly seethed. For days. During the drive home from a game night, I would replay in my head the moves I had made that had led to my defeat. Why did I say The New York Post when I had meant The New York Times?! Why didn’t Janice pick my card in that last round of Cards Against Humanity?! (There were even nights when I had trouble falling asleep, my brain retracing my actions, as if I could somehow, through the power of thought, change the outcome.)
Admitting all this now is embarrassing — but probably not as embarrassing as the fact that, for years, I didn’t think it was anything to be embarrassed about. That competitiveness — the insistence that shaking off a loss was as unforgivable as losing itself — was actually something I considered a badge of honor. For so long, I looked at being incensed about winning as an indication that I was living life full-tilt. I never let anything slide. Whether it was fantasy sports, NCAA basketball brackets or board games, I couldn’t allow myself to “enjoy” the activity. Losers just “enjoy” something, I’d tell myself — winners are always prepared and treat everything they do with 100 percent seriousness and commitment.
I didn’t mind that other people might think me extreme — it just verified that I was dedicated and driven, while they weren’t. My game-playing competitiveness was about control — confirming to myself that I was competent, masculine, successful, the guy with an edge over everyone else. Winning was important, but almost as valuable was putting myself into the position at all times where I could win — and then not forgiving myself if I lost. Delineating from that rigid mindset was tantamount to wimping out, taking it easy, tumbling into mediocrity. That sounded like death.
Eventually, part of me became frightened of how I could get. I still remember the night, about 15 years ago, when I was playing with friends and my girlfriend at the time, and I just had a moment where I thought, “Why am I here? I hate this, and I hate what it’s doing to me.” I was an adult — a professional with a job who paid his taxes and otherwise behaved like a grownup — but I was so wrapped up in what would happen if I didn’t win this damn game that I felt like some petulant child. (To this day, I don’t think anybody in the group noticed. But the sensation was so strong that I felt like the anger and anxiety were all over my face.)
And so I started declining game-night opportunities. This went on for years, afraid to put myself into situations where that competitive ugliness could flare up. Sometimes, I’d be in the same room with people playing a game and beg off. “I have a headache,” I’d say, or I’d explain I was going to have to leave soon anyway so I shouldn’t play. As far as secret shames go, an inability to act like a rational adult around other adults while playing Ticket to Ride has to be among the most humiliating. But exposing that mania seemed even worse, so I cordoned myself off.
I’d like to point to one grand ah-ha moment that turned my attitude around, but there was nothing so revelatory. I just decided I was tired of being such a freak about competing. If shame had kept me from playing games, a kind of reverse-shame got me back on track: Seriously, you’re gonna let something so silly keep you from being with your friends? That need to compete and beat other people had translated into me missing out on socializing with the people I really loved. What kind of winning was that?
Gradually, I learned how to unchain the process of competing from a belief that the results “meant” anything. When I was young, winning was proof that, basically, I was okay. If I won, that meant I hadn’t lost, which meant I wasn’t a loser. Winning was how I knew I was smart or good or competent — until I faced the next competition, of course, which would put all those questions back into play. It was such an immature, shortsighted way of thinking about things — and yet, I held onto this notion that if I abandoned that philosophy, it somehow meant I wasn’t going full-throttle in every aspect of life. It meant I didn’t care anymore.
In the last few years, I’ve finally been able not to feel stressed when someone invites me to a game night; I even look forward to it. It’s a new sensation for me, so it still feels a little strange, but I’m learning how to look past the rules and the idea of needing to win. I’m getting comfortable with the idea that just being there is what’s fun.
I have no clue how others process playing games. Maybe they don’t think about it beyond it being a great night out with friends and loved ones. I’m figuring out how to get used to that. Here’s the weird thing, though: I’ve noticed I’ve won a lot more at these game nights since I made the mental shift. Not that it matters.