Monday, April 30, 2012

Gaming with Introverts

Wait--isn't that redundant? Who else plays board games except introverts? Good point. I believe that extroverts (and plenty of introverts masquerading as extroverts) play games, too. The obnoxiously loud table of chuckle-headed fist-pounders ruining your quiet, thoughtful game of Puerto Rico has become almost a cliche. A recent criticism of some modern games is that they are nothing more that multiplayer solitaire. Yet quite a few people seem to really enjoy these games. How does being an introvert or an extrovert play into the world of board games?

I just finished reading a great book on this subject called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.The author delves into the current scientific literature, mostly neurobiology and psychology, to explore the upside of being an introvert (or learning from them if you're not one). By the way, yes, I am an introvert. I'll pause for your to recover and compose yourself after reading such a shocking revelation.

I'm probably a little better at hiding it than some, but I do hit almost all of the basic indicators: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, and thin-skinned. If you don't see yourself in this list, maybe you are an extrovert: ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight.

While reading through the book, I noticed a few ideas that might apply to the world of board games. First, let me share a few interesting tidbits. Some of the most engaging research comes from Jerome Kagan. He divides people into two groups: high-reactive and low-reactive. And he can identify these two types in very small children and babies. High-reactive babies cry more and wave their arms when confronted with a variety of new and confusing stimuli. They become introverts. Low-reactive babies don't really bat an eye at new experiences. They become extroverts. Some of his long-range studies have tracked his predictions over the years and, sure enough, he was correct. Some of his students extended this research to track the early participants well into adulthood. These types remain quite constant as people grow older.

This relationship exists because of the relative sensitivity of a person's nervous system, specifically the amygdala. In introverts, the amygdala is triggered more easily causing them to become over-taxed by the surrounding environment. Too many strange people or loud noise begins to drain them of energy. They must be alone to recharge themselves. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain energy from being around other people. They begin to wilt during extended times of solitude.

Those loud tables of Munchkin/Werewolf/Resistance/ attract higher numbers of extroverts. The introverts gravitate towards the more strategic euros and wargames. Of course, lots of people play both, but everyone has a sweet spot of comfort.

Another interesting difference is how the two process dopamine, the pleasure-inducing chemical inside the brain. Extroverts tend to experience rewards in a much more powerful way. They can be called reward-sensitive. When extroverts achieve a goal or experience pleasure (or even consider the possibility of doing so), their brains go crazy with dopamine. However, introverts experience a much less-intense rush during pleasant activities. It takes far more to get them excited. This is why introverts are often better at poker. Extroverts can't keep cool as easily with all that dopamine flooding their system.

Studies show that introverts will work on a puzzle much longer than extroverts. They concentrate longer and in a more focused way. However, extroverts work more quickly. They don't "waste" brainpower assessing the situation surrounding the task at hand--they just do it. Introverts take longer because they are always asking "what if".

I think this explains why some games rub me the wrong way. I usually don't like time pressure in a game. I want time to ponder my options--like chess. Other people run away from games like that--they're far too boring for many extroverts. This introvert/extrovert dynamic can cause friction in gaming groups. However, we can also find that we can share wonderful experiences with people of the opposite temperament.

There were a few more insights related to game design and some indications about what gaming situations different people might enjoy, but I haven't had enough time to think through them yet. I highly recommend this book if you are at all interested in the topic. It was encouraging to have often-overlooked strengths pointed out and praised. Our gaming groups and opinions would also benefit from such analysis.

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