What Board Games Teach us about the Stoic Life

Experienced ball players can also be seen to act in such a way.  None of them is concerned about whether the ball is good or bad, but solely about how to throw and catch it…

Now, Socrates certainly knew how to play ball.

—Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.15,18.

Believe it or not, board games and real life share a great deal in common.  No no, stay with me: just think about it.

In a typical family-oriented strategy game, you have a little bit of choice over how you play (you have to at least try to be clever and competitive) but in the end, the outcome of the game is largely the result of chance.

As a result, even if one player is objectively more skilled than the other on average, it’s anyone’s guess who might win a particular game.  The outcome of the game is only loosely correlated with the player’s strategic skill.

Today, two things happened to me:

  • My part time job gave me a raise (hurrah!).
  • I learned how to play a table-top dice game called Qwixx.

Taken together, these two things drove home a point for me: career events pose very much the same sort of emotional challenge that playing a strategy game does.  Whether we consider a game of pure chance (like gambling) or of almost pure strategy (like chess), there is always a component of a given game that is outside of the player’s control (if only the decisions that other players make).

Moral Luck and Apatheia

It all comes down to what philosophers call moral luck.  Long story short, we often find ourselves paying far more attention to the outcome of a game than we logically ought to. This leads to a kind of mistake or fallacy, as if we believed that morality itself were subject to the whims of Fortune:

Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck.

—Nagel, Moral Luck (1993), p. 59.

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As Stoics, our whole philosophy is basically dedicated to avoiding the moral luck fallacy: we sort everything into “things we can control” and “things that we can’t,” and we try and remind ourselves every day that the things we can’t control never reflect our worth as human beings—neither positively nor negatively.

This principle is really what the famous Stoic doctrine of extirpating the passions is all about.  It’s not that we suppress emotions: it’s that we try to identify and correct the four broad ways that we might harbor irrational feelings toward things that are beyond our control:

  1. Desire (epithumia): If I win the game in the future, it means I played well!
  2. Fear (phobos): If I lose the game in the future, it means I played poorly.
  3. Delight (hêdonê): I’m winning!  Hahaha, I’m the best!
  4. Distress (lupê): I’m losing.  Ugh, I suck.

In modern psychological terms, Desire and Delight would be called approach-oriented emotions, while Fear and Distress are avoidance-oriented emotions.  Both kinds of emotions are an essential part of the human motivational toolkit, and we really can’t live our lives without them!

The core insight the Stoics emphasized, however, is that it doesn’t make sense to apply approach-oriented and avoidance-oriented emotions to things outside our control.  Instead, we should wish (boulêsis) to perform at our best, we should be watchful (eulabeia) about making mistakes, and we should feel joy (chara) when we know we or others have displayed moral excellence.  But we should never confuse moral luck with something that is genuinely good or bad!

Board Games as a Spiritual Practice

I typically don’t have much trouble avoiding the fallacies of Desire and Fear when playing a strategy game.  I know I won’t always win, and that’s okay!

But when I started looking at board games through a Stoic lens, I was quite surprised to notice that I do in fact feel a great deal of Delight when I am winning a particular round (“ha! see! I’m a good player!  Take that, losers!”), and I feel a lot of Distress when I am losing (“pfft.  This game is either stupid, or I’m a bad player.  I can’t wait until its over!”).

I feel this even though, cognitively, I know that the game is largely chance-driven, and that my strategic decisions only account for a small fraction of the outcome.  If I really want to know how good or bad I should feel about how I’ve played, I need to look at my internal states of mind as I play: not at the outcome of the game!

If I have troubles making good emotional judgments about dice games, how much more difficult do you think it is to keep Delight and Distress at bay when a grueling job hunt, good or bad career developments, or my reputation in general are on the line?  Or if I am involved in the topsy-turvy world of political activism or other efforts to impact society?  Yeah, for serious.  “We should practice, by heaven, with little things,” says Epictetus, “and after beginning with those, pass on to greater things” (Discourses, 1.18.17).

A simple card or dice game may be worlds away from the horrifying and beautiful throws of real life—but even the mathematically precise world of games, I think, if we adopt it as a discipline of ethical habit-formation, has a lot to teach us about how we can cultivate healthy emotions while we vigorously engage in the pursuit of the goals nature sets for us.  And that, after all, is what Stoic progress toward excellence (virtue) is all about: training ourselves to value the substance of moral choice, instead of the fruits of moral luck!

You must fashion your life one action at a time, and if each attains its own end as far as it can, be satisfied with that; and that it should attain its end is something in which no other person can hinder you.  ‘But some obstacle from outside may stand in my way.’  None at least that can prevent you from acting justly, temperately, and with prudence. ‘But perhaps my activities will be hindered in some other respect.’  Yes, but if you accept the obstacle itself with a good grace, and redirect your efforts in a sensible manner to what is practicable, a new action is immediately substituted which accords with the course of action of which we are speaking.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.32.


Thanks to Sophia Shapira for suggesting in the Stoics for Justice Facebook group that strategy games might be a good sandbox for applying Stoic principles.

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3 thoughts on “What Board Games Teach us about the Stoic Life”

  1. Game theory and the use of games for education and strategy development seems to be a trend. I’m also a bit skeptical about how useful such training is to simulate real life, or whether it serves once more the entertainment effect of training and the legitimization of decisions.

    Like

    1. Aye—I’m always skeptical about how well people can transfer lessons in things like game theory (or Bayesian probability, or formal logic, etc) to real-life contexts. From what I understand of the literature on skill transfer, it is only possible in very particular cases!

      Which is why here I focused on the emotional aspect, not on strategy itself.

      Liked by 1 person

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