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Winning is Everything. Almost.

February 7, 2018

The other day, I was talking to a friend about the need to win. Not winning in business or in sports, but the need to win in every game we play. No matter who is our opponent. No matter what is in our way.  Even when it is our own flesh and blood.

 A guy enjoying another winning moment. Source:ABC news


My oldest son is in second grade and at his school learning Chess is mandatory. This is awesome not only because he gets to learn strategic thinking from a young age, but also because part of his homework is to play. With no older brothers or sisters, and with his mother totally clueless about Chess, I must be his domestic opponent.


And what I find most difficult in this situation, is not winning all the time.


Winning is in our blood. You could argue that it’s a male thing. Genetics and history taught guys they need to conquer, pillage and destroy, or they will be the ones conquered, pillaged and destroyed. You’re kind of right.


Women do tend to be much more relaxed about it. They can live with losing one or two rounds of chess, which in the grand scheme of things really means nothing. But guys? losing?? To a child???


Science tells us that from a pure biological perspective, winning has the same effect on women and men, humans and animals alike. Genetics means nothing – success releases Testosterone and ramps up the brain’s chemical messenger dopamine’s activity. This Dopamine rush makes winning and succeeding as rewarding as winning the lottery, getting a raise or having sex.


This rewarding mechanism is an important biological factor which makes the strong stronger and confident, so they can get the lion share of everything – sex, food, social status.


By contrast, losing starts a terrible reaction. When we lose, the first thing that we fear is what other members of our group may think of us. We fear that we may lose our social status. Losing may lead to what scientists call a Social-Evaluative Threat (SET), which in terms of neurological reaction is worse  than financial insecurity, health worries, work strains and pressures and even the fear of death.


A girl after losing too many times.


So when we have a chance of winning we will almost certainly act on it. When we have a chance of losing, our brain will almost always sharpen our skills and senses to avoid the dreaded SET.  Why almost? Because like in the case of all primary instincts, this is where socialization kicks in. Just like we don’t have sex with everyone we know, there are norms, routines and social costs to pay that may prevent us from acting on our most intimate desires.


Because we live in modern and (generally) sophisticated society, our need to win is more affected by social norms than by our genetics and hormones. We want to win because winning makes us feel good. But we don’t want to act upon it if the perceived social cost is too high.


This may be a rough generalization, but women are usually nurtured to be empathetic, while men are usually nurtured to “go for it.” Women might think, “I’ll hurt her feelings by winning too often or too many times. I should let her win this round.” Men won’t think. They will act to win, no matter what.


Here comes the dilemma. On one hand, when you play with your kid - boy or girl - you want to instill this need to win in their head. You know that even a small taste of that dopamine rush will create a crave for more and build their confidence - you know this will be good for them. On the other hand, this means losing yourself.


When we are fully engaged in a game it won’t happen unless we are doing it intentionally. And in most cases, kids are smart enough to know that we did it on purpose.


So, is this the right thing to do? What message are we sending by losing? Alternatively, what message are we sending by winning all the time?


I’m happy to quote here a well-known psychologist or a life-coach saying that you should choose one strategy and stick to it. But the truth is, that there is ‘right’ way to act in this case.


If your kid loses all the time, there’s a good chance they will lose interest in that game. As mentioned in previous posts, play is about developing new or existing skills. When a kid plays, and nothing seems to improve his or her skills, the game becomes less attractive.


But if they win all the time, their brain knows that they have all the necessary skills to win, so there’s nothing left to learn. They will lose interest again. 


When we developed the first prototype of OneByTwo’s Archipelago, the rules were so simple, that my son beat me in the first, second, third and fourth rounds. We had to tweak and adjust the rules and even the board, so it would be more challenging to players. But now, I can’t get him to play with the new rules, because the game seems just like the one he mastered so quickly. 


Just like any other decision we make as parents, we must find the right balance for playing and winning. Preventing our kids from experiencing aggressive opponents is over-protecting them.


There’s now mounting psychological evidence that dealing with failure, frustration and even anger is an important part of growing up. Several decades of positive-thinking have made parents and kids helpless in the face of negative feelings, and what now looks like a depression epidemic.


My main insight here is to use your playtime to teach kids the game of life – you win some and that makes you feel great, but it doesn’t make you invincible nor perfect; You lose some, but it doesn’t make you weak nor helpless.


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