Building Goodwill at the Table – Part 1 – Empathy and Communication

Whether I’m playing with friends or strangers at a gaming table, there are a series of policies that we can all follow that increases goodwill and keeps gaming fun.

I’ve encountered few gamers who don’t let some amount of negative emotion override their kinder nature.  They’ve been burned by untrustworthy people at the table before, and hell if they’re going to let you do it to them again.  It isn’t fair to you, but escalating their feelings or a situation isn’t going to result in a positive outcome for anyone.  Your job in a social setting is not to be social police.  It is to be social therapist.  I know, I know, you’re not a therapist.  Neither am I.  But the truth is that my time as a teacher, active professional, and friend to many gamers has helped me to learn a lot of de-escalation strategies that can really benefit people at the table, ourselves included.

Learn Who The Other Person Is and What They Need

The first thing that you can do to be a “protector of fun” in a gaming situation is to learn who the other person is.  I don’t mean their pets or siblings or whether they’re employed, although knowing that can’t hurt.  It isn’t about facts.  Its about emotions.  Asking a series of questions that can lead to you knowing why they’re even there in the first place is important.  Why do they game?  What do they like best about playing games?  What is fun to them?  How is what they like different from what you like?  Are they Win At All Costs?  Are they Ego Trip? Are they a competitive gamer?  The links all go to the “Common Pitfalls in Gaming” post on this blog.  That’s a lot of questions and you certainly shouldn’t just mechanically rifle them off.  That’s  many meetings worth of questions.  Rather, your goal should be to answer those for your own private knowledge, not directly.

Understanding the desires and needs of other people is called empathy.  It may seem like a very simple concept.  Simple concepts often have very challenging skills associated with them.  What makes empathy so difficult is that, to use it well, it requires giving up yourself and your personal desires (at least partly) to help another person. That is harder than a lot of people are willing to admit.  It requires you to be vulnerable and often requires you to give up a social position of strength in order to help someone else.

In the classroom, empathy means a few things: 1) We treat all students fairly no matter our personal feelings, 2) Our feelings do not enter into the equation when a distressed teenager, raging with hormones, does something that distressed teenagers do.  We don’t meet disrespect with disrespect, 3) We keep a cool demeanor and keep the focus on the learning goals, and 4) we continually think of ways not to punish, but to rehabilitate, distressed teenagers.

That last one is especially hard for most teachers, especially early in their careers.  I’ve violated all of the above at one point or another but I work very hard not to do so.  Some teachers don’t attempt to work on those at all and I’m sure many readers have had those teachers.  The point is that those are all examples of what it means to deal with other people empathetically.  The Cherokee proverb: “Don’t judge another man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” is a proverb about empathy.  The goal of empathetic discourse is to use your knowledge about someone in an altruistic way to help them get what they need.

What someone needs and what someone wants are sometimes aligned and sometimes not.  The toddler who wants to gorge on candy needs to eat healthy food.  The child that wants to stay up late needs their rest.  Parents are often at the center of the want vs. need issue and the difference between a good parent and a not so good parent are those that focus on the needs versus enabling the wants.  A good parent says no to potentially dangerous, unsupervised activities, for their teenagers, for example.

So, will you enable poor gaming behaviors or aide other gamers in unlocking their good sides?  Once you figure out the differences and similarities between what a gamer wants and what they need, you can actively work to make the situation positive for everyone.  You don’t do it by trying to be a therapist.  You aren’t going to change the other person.  But by making active choices at the table, you can de-escalate negative situations, and drive the “feeling” of the game to a positive outcome.  It starts with you being mindful of the other person.  You’re not trying to “dissect” them.  You’re not trying to “figure them out.”  You are simply gathering information that you can use for the good of all by putting the needs of the gaming group above your own personal needs.  When you do that, you actually find that your needs often coincide with the needs of the group, and that helping the group has included helping you all along anyway.  Slow and steady wins the race.

What follows are a series of examples of how gamers can use empathetic thinking to create a positive gaming environment and minimize conflicts.

Communicate as much as possible

The first thing you can do to establish goodwill with an untrustworthy player is to establish as much goodwill as possible.  Even if you are not trying to cheat at a game, suspicious players who have been burned before will often seek out and destroy any event that takes place in a game that suggests foul play.  If your pride is hurt or it is hard for you to imagine it, its a signal that you can improve by simply doing everything in your power to stop this.  Some quick and dirty suggestions are:

1) Fully explain your moves, especially in games with complicated mechanics

Many players are set at ease by the fact that it isn’t their lack of knowledge that is causing a game to not go their way.  That may very well be true!  But true or not, it is good form to explain, concisely and clearly, the exact series of steps you are taking with a complicated mechanic.  If you are playing with a new player as well, you can really build trust by explaining the strategy and tactics behind your moves as well.  Since we know there are gamers that try to use their knowledge as a weapon against other players, detailed explanations send the signal to the other player that “I’m not that kind of gamer.”  The mood immediately improves.

2) Roll open dice (except when it defeats the purpose of hidden dice)

Rolling open dice simply means that you roll the dice in full view of the other players so that they can see the outcome at the same instant as you.  This works very well in most games for building trust.

The rare case where open dice can get you into trouble is in role-playing games.  This can backfire because although open dice tends to engender trust, they can also really mess up a story by leaving it unnecessarily to chance.  Most experienced Game Masters strike a balance between these two, and I’ll discuss that in a future article on how to be a great Game Master for role-playing games.

3) Know the rules back and front (and be prepared to defend your use of them)

Players can tell instantly when someone knows the rules of a game.  Experienced gamers who play a lot of games can usually also tell when a rule doesn’t seem to make sense and when their teacher may unintentionally (or in their minds intentionally) are getting it wrong.  The most successful teachers of games not only know their rules very well, but they have spent time thinking about which rules are controversial, where they can be found in the rulebook, what errata might pertain to them, and how to approach questions about questionable rules in a positive way.  This is another big trust builder, because followers and leaders alike enjoy seeing someone in command of a game’s idiosyncrasies.  Have a rulebook handy and have controversial or confusing rules bookmarked.  Go to the web and cue up a video or an article that explains the rule in a way that is easier to understand.  Use your resources!  You don’t have to go it alone.

4) Teach openly

Many games have “hidden” aspects of the game where your opponent cannot see some aspect of your side of the board, field, etc.  When someone first begins learning games, it often can be easier, from a cognition perspective, for them to see how a normally “hidden” mechanic plays out as the game progresses.  This may or may not increase positive and truthful feelings, but it will certainly help visual learners to literally see how the basics of a game turn out.

5) Own up to mistakes immediately, or as soon as you catch them

If you think you’re going to go mistake free in teaching games I have a bitter pill for you.  The most competent people make mistakes.  I’m prepared to argue that if you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not taking any risks.  One of my core hypotheses of the culture of learning in the United States is that our learners (and adults) have been trained to think that there is a such a thing as a mistake-free world.  The problem with this line of thinking is that it induces people to teach mistake-free philosophies to others.  

From an assessment perspective in schools, this is where the whole “responsibility versus achievement” argument comes in.  The rationale goes that “if I don’t punish the hell out of this kid when they do something that is not ‘adult’ behavior, then they will make a mistake that will get them fired in their future.”  This rationale is skipping steps and making a lot of assumptions about a person’s future.  It is a very common philosophy in education and the only students it actually works for are those who have already developed responsibility.   The punishment policy really only helps one person:  the educator struggling to deal with the fact that teenagers need time to develop responsibility.  We shouldn’t be teaching mistake avoidance.  It is naive to think that people won’t and shouldn’t be allowed to make mistakes in their futures.  Instead of mistake avoidance we should be teaching mistake mitigation.  I can’t count how many mistakes I have made as an adult.  But I do know that since I have approached those mistakes with a rational head and haven’t flipped out and made things worse, that I’ve recovered from those mistakes very well.

That means that when you teach games, you need to have the guts to admit when you’re wrong.  There is nothing more dishonest than a player screwing up and then pretending that it didn’t happen.  Now, if you don’t realize and it comes to light later, there is no greater trust builder than you saying:  “I was reading the rules in between this time and last time and I realized that I messed up this rule.  Sorry about that.  It works this way, and I’m going to work hard that we all play it correctly this time.” There ya go: an example of what you can say.

So, not only is it important to own up to mistakes, but it is also important to be prepared to rectify the situation. Consider going back a “turn” or part of a turn if it is convenient to do so.  If it isn’t convenient to spin back the turn, then vow to play it the correct way from that point on.  Vulnerable honesty builds trust.

In Part 2, we’ll examine positive action and thinking as important techniques for crafting goodwill at the table!  Stay tuned!

Part 2

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