If you’ve been following ze blog for a while. you know that I’m a competitive person. I love playing games, and I love winning those games even more. I’ve been like that for as long as I can remember. Each summer I’d fly out to spend time with my cousins, and we’d play board games and card games into the wee hours of the morning. If there’s one thing I learned during all those games, it’s that your inherent worth as a human being rests primarily on the ability to screw the other team over in Rook as effectively as possible.

And we all know that I take my lessons very seriously.

Another thing you might have seen on Facebook or Twitter is that I’ve started playing Magic the Gathering off and on, competitively. What this means is that I’ll go to an event, buy cards to enter, and then play. If you play well, you get fabulous prizes (more cards) and the adoration and envy of those present. Magic is a complex card game where the rules periodically change every three months or so, and you need to be up on your strategy to do well. The style of Magic I like to play (limited) is one where you don’t even know what kind of cards you’re going to be playing with before you show up, so you have to develop a brand new strategy each time.

I love it. It scratches all sorts of gaming and strategy itches, all at the same time.

I went to another game on Friday, and I managed to go undefeated–4-0. It was a blast. I played against some really strong players, and I played quite well, making few mistakes. It felt great on one hand.

On the other, I don’t recall being so stressed in my life. Ever. And I’m not exaggerating.

I know–that’s pretty sad, isn’t it? That I can get so stressed out over something that’s supposed to be light fun? But I do. My stomach was just roiling, mainly because I wanted to win so bad.

In the days since the game, I’ve reflected on why it was like that, and I’ve come up with a few reasons. First is the obvious-to-everyone-else-no-doubt conclusion that I am just too competitive. I want to win too much, and that’s something I need to work on. I need to be better at not having to be right. Not having to prove I’m a superior gamesman. Because really, isn’t it enough to know I’m a good player and accept the fact that even great players lose? (Plus, when you ditch the nerves, you also inevitably play better, since you can think more clearly.)

But I also noticed that I cared more when my opponents cared more. It was like I was this competition mirror. The more I could sense my opponent was getting invested in the game, the more I wanted to win, which no doubt made my opponent even more invested. It was a vicious cycle, and one I really don’t want to repeat.

The question is, how?

Yes, I could just stop going to the games, but like I said–it’s a format and a game I really enjoy. I bring my son along with me, so we get some together time which is a huge plus. I like it, so I don’t really want to stop it. My hope is that now that I’ve gone 4-0 once–proving to myself that I could–then I won’t be as worried about proving it time and time again. After all, when I go play games with my cousins in Utah these days, my desire to win has actually lessened. I don’t feel like I need to prove anything. They know I’m a good player. I know I’m a good player. And that’s enough. (Plus, no shiny awesome cards are on the line when I play my family . . . )

In a conversation with a good fellow Magic player, he mentioned he has the opposite problem–he doesn’t care enough about winning, and so he doesn’t play to his best abilities each time. So clearly there’s a spectrum of approaches here, and I just need to find the balance between them.

How about you? Are you competitive by nature? Too competitive? Know someone who is? What have you–or they–done to cool down a notch or five? I want to note that I don’t think I’m being a jerk when I play. I hate bad sportsmanship. It’s not that I’m being an obnoxious player. It’s mainly an internal thing. I don’t even know if my opponents know how vested I am in the outcome. So take the problem from that angle.

5 thoughts on “Competitors-Anonymous”

  1. Reading this article massively changed the way I view motivation and competition:

    In a nutshell, some people do better with a little bit of stress at a time (like doing a small part of a project every day), but get overwhelmed when they get a lot of stress all at once (like having to cram for a test or write a paper all night). Other people do well with a lot of stress all at once, but don’t find a little bit of stress at a time to be enough of a motivation to do something. (And some people are in the middle—it’s not an either/or thing.)

    I am very, very firmly in the former camp, but I noticed that my roommate was very much in the latter camp. (E.g., I would start packing for a trip a few days in advance; she would put off packing until the night before a trip, even for an international flight.) I also noticed that she tended to make common tasks into competitions, I think because making something a competition was an artificial way of adding more stress to the situation, and thus giving her more motivation to do it.

    All of which is a very roundabout way of saying “No, I am not very competitive at all, but I think this article offers a good explanation for why I’m not, and maybe it will give you some insights on the other end of the spectrum.”

  2. I am pretty competitive, and I love board games. But the winning/losing thing doesn’t matter as much to me as a good strategy game against expert opponents where I’m facing the competitive brain-stretching challenge of trying to squeeze every last point out of a game. It’s a thrill regardless of how it ends. Space Alert is a favorite game of mine, co-op, and we die not infrequently…but that makes it better. It’s hard. It’s a challenge. That makes it fun for me.

    Conversely, this means that I’m usually not very invested/interested in high-luck games (Killer Bunnies). There’s no challenge, no stretch, no excitement of laying plans and seeing them come to fruition or explode horribly.

  3. I know exactly how you feel Bryce. You know from playing games with me that I get pretty competitive. I feel that need to win, and when there is a higher level of competition, I tend to get more intense.

    I actually had the same thing happen to me when I would play video games online. I used to play Uncharted 2, Halo, and even Starcraft 2-each in a different part of my life-almost daily. I found that after a while I would get super stressed if I kept losing. While, I also found that If I had a great winning streak, I would lose that stress and feel great.

    I have since reduced the amount of time in those kinds of games, favoring single player, or co-op. I feel less stressed when I play. Plus, I don’t have to deal with all the trash-talkers who feel the need to belittle others in their non-excused French.

    I still do love a good board game though, and have tried to reduce the amount of outward competitiveness while I play. Though it can be hard at times. I have found in the past if I get too overboard, some people won’t play with me anymore. Others find the same competitive spirit and want to see me lose and won’t rest till they see my loss come to pass. Plus, with more sportsmanship people don’t tend to get offended and they play more.

  4. Great comments, all. Really enjoyed the NYT article. I guess I’m a worry warrior. I do both. 🙂

    Competition is tons of fun, and with strategy games, often the more complex, the happier I am. It’s a lot like hiking for me. I sometimes wonder why in the world I’m doing it while I’m in the middle of it, but I always look back on the memory fondly. Go figure.

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