Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Challenging Cooperative Games and Gobblet Gobblers

Pre-parenthood, I loved board games. I have a whole closet full of dusty, lonely games as evidence of this forgotten personal history. I have this fantasy that someday my daughter, too, will love board games, and my by then ridiculously-outdated collection will get a renewed life as a cornerstone for raucous family game nights.

Until then, though, I am stuck playing "age appropriate" games (which is really code for "mind numbingly dull" games) and pretending to like them because otherwise my child will grow to associate games with misery and doom and my fantasy will be dead in the water.

I'm kidding. They're not all that bad. (Smile! Is it working?)

I've written before about how playing board games meant for toddlers has given me insight into my career as a college writing teacher, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that my latest game purchase has led me to yet another connection to rhetoric studies.

I was browsing the toy aisle at Target and decided to buy a new game we could all play. As I was looking, I noticed a lot of games with labels pointing out that they are for "Cooperative Play." Cooperative games are those in which players are not pitted against one another but against a common challenge. They have to work together and either everyone wins or everyone loses. Peaceable Kingdom seems to be king of this market (at least at Target), and we have their game Feed the Woozle, a fun, silly, and interactive game that we really enjoy.

Apparently, this is not just a quality rising in popularity for children's game, as adult games like Pandemic have seen mainstream success using cooperative principles. And anyone who has had to ignore 753 million Facebook game invites in a single day knows that a lot of online games encourage cooperation among players (especially when it doubles as a tactic to make someone new play--and potentially pay for--the game).

Perhaps this is just a sign of the times. Millennials have been called a particularly cooperative generation, and the technology that connects people across former barriers certainly adds to that sense of working together. Couple that with the rise of the "sharing economy," and it seems like we've been stewing in a cultural milieu ripe for the promotion of cooperation.

In addition to Feed the Woozle, we've got a few other toddler board games built on cooperation like a  My Little Pony game where you have to build a rainbow together before the time runs out. They're fun, and I like that my intense little girl can focus some of that fierceness onto a shared task rather than competition. Cooperative games have both value and values, teaching skills that kids will need in a world wired for connectivity while simultaneously promoting attitudes of sharing and team building.

As a rhetoric scholar, though, I am suspicious of cooperation. As I wrote about at (probably too much) length in this post, my dissertation topic deals with agonistic rhetoric and the dichotomy between cooperative and antagonistic rhetorical approaches.

Antagonism often comes with a win-at-any-cost mentality that pits opponents against one another. You see it on any news show where two (or more) people are meant to show their opposition to one another's point of view by yelling loudest as the cameras roll. Antagonism is marked by a desire to come out of the debate unchanged and having (ideally) consumed your opponent into thinking your way. It is deeply competitive, as the risks of losing an antagonistic battle can be very high. There's also not much motive to listen to the other person because you're not really trying to understand your opponent; you're just trying to win.

There's not much to be said for antagonism except that it's prevalent.

Cooperative rhetorical approaches often develop as ways to combat an overly antagonistic environment. Cooperative spaces are typically irenic, spaces where conflict is avoided and seen as a threat to the goals of listening and working together. Particularly when set beside an antagonistic alternative, cooperative spaces seem inviting, peaceful, and very attractive.

But cooperation has serious rhetorical risks. Too much time spent practicing cooperation results in echo chambers where people only hear things they already believe. Cooperation can silence minority voices because they're seen as a threat to the stable, peaceful majority. (It also, as it turns out, might not be such a great way to generate ideas and promote hard work, a lesson proponents of open office floor plans learned the hard way).

Proponents of agonistic rhetoric (a rhetoric where conflict is embraced but destruction is not, where both opponents are changed through the act of struggling together to alter the other's point of view through listening and speaking) value cooperation as a space to get your ideas together before you turn to a more competitive sphere. If you're going to test your ideas against a hostile opponent, it makes sense that you'd want to first strengthen them among a nurturing crowd. Cooperation is important, but only when it serves as a starting point for a larger cycle of competition and growth.

It is through testing our ideas against others that we find out which are strong enough to hold up. This is how we formulate new ideas, discard ones that no longer seem worthy, and grow as people.

So what does that mean for cooperative children's games? If games are a training ground for real-life problem solving, what kind of games should we be playing with our kids?

I think cooperative games are important. Feeding the Woozle or building the ponies' rainbow helps show my daughter how to intertwine her skills with other people's. It teaches her that she won't always be center stage of every act and that sometimes she will have to sit back and let someone else make the final, winning move on a project she's helped create. These are important life skills, and I'm glad to see that there are so many games coming out to help her build them.

But I don't want to limit her to cooperative play. She needs the skills of competition and agonism. She needs to interact with an opponent and feel the risk of her own win or loss tied up in her individual actions. These are also skills she'll need, and they're ones I think games can help her build.

The game I finally settled on that day is Gobblet Gobblers (created by Blue Orange), and I am so glad I did.

Gobblet Gobblers is basically tic-tac-toe with two important added features: 1) There are three sizes of players, and smaller ones can get "gobbled" by larger ones and 2) You can move a piece you've already played to a different square on your turn. This turns a simple, easy-to-rig game like tic-tac-toe into a complex game of multiple strategies.    

It gets points not only for being a game that teaches my daughter important life skills, but also for being a game geared for kids as young as five that can keep an adult entertained. The individual games go by quickly, so you're not committed to hours of play every time you open the box (I'm looking at you, Candy Land). Most impressively for me is the way that it teaches strategy and competition that lay the groundwork for more complex games in the future. It also teaches you to be a good loser and a humble winner, and it's fast-paced enough that the sting of losing can be quickly surpassed by the thrill of a win. 
I'm going to keep playing cooperative games with my kid because cooperation is a necessary and crucial skill that I want her to build, but I don't want her to build cooperation without also building the ability to think critically against an opponent. Even with the rise of sharing culture and more cooperation, I know that anything great is built through conflict and struggle; people have to come up against opposition if they are to evolve, and teaching our kids how to face that opposition is as much our job as teaching them to work together. 

My daughter, gobbling me up.
Images: Tambako the Jaguar

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