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Play to Laugh, Not to Win

Dr. Erwin Tan for AARP February 18, 2019

Every time you lose when you play, you are actually winning in far greater ways.

At Labyrinth Games & Puzzles, a locally owned board game store, I was reminded of the value of losing, even when you’re at your job.

I was there with my AARP Thought Leadership team for a team building experience that would allow us to step out of our usual routine to learn about how people are living as they age. For us, it turned out to be a no-holds-barred throw-down at a small shop near the Capitol that has become a center for board games in Washington, D.C. 

I already had been to Labyrinth many times, but on this day I was opening myself up by including my colleges from AARP, including my boss. The day had an element specific to the aging-issue work we do. We were here to play with the Capitol Hill Village board game club. The Capitol Hill Village is one of many “Village” organizations that have sprung up in communities with many retirees. Staffed by volunteers or a small paid staff, Villages provide services to older people that allow them to remain in their homes as they age. Among its many functions, the Capitol Hill Village connects its members to social events like the board game club.

Winning, Losing and Trash Talking

As we started our session, I was eager to show my expertise to my colleagues and the regular players alike about how games provide both mental and social activity that can keep a brain healthy. As a physician with fellowship training in Geriatric Medicine, I know how leisure activities support brain health; in fact, at Labyrinth I shared with my fellow players recently published research that shows cognitive health benefits of jigsaw puzzle play.

But while the regular players and my co-workers found the study interesting, they were more interested in winning. Perhaps their high level of engagement confirmed the study’s findings.

My first taste of defeat came at a memory game called Distraction, the ground rules of which ensure no one can focus on anything—including my coworkers and me. This of course was a great source of joy for the regular players from the Capitol Hill Village.

“You do realize how good you are making me feel,” said one regular player, “to have someone so young play so badly.”

Now, understand that I, too, consider myself a bit of an expert on tabletop games. I personally knew the store owner, Kathleen Donahue, as Labyrinth Games & Puzzles is an important social hub for the local role-playing game community; through her I met my current Dungeons and Dragons crew, a group of dads and people from various generations that I role-play with once a month. I’m even surrounded by it within my family. My son has enjoyed a summer camp at Labyrinth, which has led to Saturday night board game sessions at my house, where I am frequently defeated in “exploding kittens” (a card game, for those not in the know) by my 8-year old son and 4-year old daughter. Luckily because of my children I was used to losing, and to trash talk. My kids and the regular players at the Capitol Hill Village, it turns out, share something in common: both seem to like trash talking even more than winning. 

What the Game’s Really About

At the Labyrinth event, the dust from the trash talk and obsession with winning eventually settled.  Soon I realized something: The value of the games was not only in the strategy and the tactics, it was in the play

The value of play is that we learn by embracing the experience, because it is the experience that’s the benefit. In so much of our daily lives it’s a fear of failure that limits our creativity—but that fear is not present when we play. Around the game table we allow ourselves to take chances and sometimes be loose and daring. 

In fact, some games actually embraced our failures. Through the game Telestrations, a cross between Pictionary and Telephone, we learned that we had more fun when the word was hard to draw or the player was a bad artist. And why was this fun? Well, let me remind you of the trash talking.

When people think of brain games we think of jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, or chess. But we don’t think of the cognitive value of social contact found through other games, yet that value is evident even in game elements you may have dismissed.

Let’s deconstruct trash talking, for example. Many cognitive processes go into trash talking. There’s the understanding of the game as well as knowing how your opponent has failed and identifying what’s funny about it. There’s the understanding of the specific people you play with, judgement and insight that allow you to understand who can take a joke and how far you can take it. Then there’s simple processing speed, because in humor—and at a table when everyone is speaking at once—timing is everything. 

So every time you lose when you play, you are actually winning in far greater ways. A game’s takeaway is the same, whether the impulse to play comes from the excuse to leave your house and meet old friends, the chance to connect with a child or a grandchild, the desire to be creative by role playing your inner goblin (all in an accent), or the spark to create a new business that you enjoy (as was the case Labyrinth owner Kathleen Donahue). The takeaway, in fact, is even the same when the game is a way to connect to colleagues through shared play: Board games are an example of in-person play, games that you can win by laughing, even if you lose on the board.

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Dr. Erwin Tan for AARP

Dr. Erwin Tan is AARP’s Director of Thought Leadership – Health and a physician exploring healthy longevity. For more on the work of AARP Thought Leadership on the importance of play visit aarpinternational.org/living100. This story is sponsored content and the author is not part of the Stria News editorial team.

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