More than a game

Everybody loves gaming, but sometimes we forget our roots: boards and pieces laid out on a table top.

Games are a fun way to pass the time, but they’re also arenas to unlock competitive instincts, form memories and build community. They’re practice for the real world and also shape it.

In these essays, six Ubyssey writers reflect on the ways that games — and the experiences and memories that come with playing them — have shaped who they are today.

Poker to psychology

by Zara Khan

I’m four years old, legs dangling off a dining room chair and my mother’s ridiculous sunglasses hiding more surface area than just my eyes. It’s a Friday night — the newly instated poker night in my household.

My father sits across the table wearing a stoic expression, while my older brothers are on either side of me. Whether it was just being involved in a somewhat “grown-up game” or the brightly-coloured illustrations on the playing cards that appealed to me, it was safe to say I felt exhilarated.

By six, I could clean out my entire extended family, including a new in-law who was probably confused to see me even playing in the first place.

We kept up poker night for years to follow, and I began to play more tactfully as my beginner’s luck ran out. I studied my opponents’ faces, trying to determine whether they were betting on a losing hand or losing on what could be a sure-shot win.

A curved mouth, nervous rambling, refusal to make any eye contact. As non-professional poker players, their tells were easy to guess. And I, a nervous giggler, was honestly no better. It became less about winning and more about reading the room, trying to anticipate someone’s next move.

Now I study psychology for pretty much the same reason I continued to sit at that dining table, even long after I had run out of chips.

I love reading people — listening to how someone’s voice drops when they’re embarrassed, picking out the exact moment a conversation will grow awkward or being able to decode someone’s mood from the second I walk through the door.

The brain is complicated, messy and unique. The mystery of psychology is how much of the mind remains unexplored. We know how neurons work, but what makes people tick? Why do people do hurtful things? Why don’t people bet on a hand they have a chance at winning?

And perhaps the most important thing poker taught me was that, like our brain, you can’t change your cards — only what you do with them.

Finding my father in the rounds of a board game

by Aisha Chaudhry

It is through the shuffling of cards, distribution of chips and moving of pawns that I connect most with my father.

We’ve lived apart for most of my life, so I see him sporadically throughout the year. During one of these visits a few years ago, he arrived with the game Pandemic nestled in his suitcase. The game follows a team of scientists, medics and researchers as they attempt to find cures for diseases breaking out globally and, as its name suggests, prevent a pandemic from happening.

We played it at least 22 times during that visit and lost every game. It wasn’t until the next time he returned that we mastered it. Now, the question is not whether we’ll beat the game, but how quickly.

It still takes all of our focus. There are no phones, no small talk and no one dares disturb us as we sit tucked into the corner of the dining table for hours.

I often race home from school, hoping to catch him before he drifts off to sleep. When we play the game, it is one of the only times he isn’t being pulled between his doting mother or eager brothers or excited friends. But I can’t blame them for wanting his time — am I not just like them?

While the only thing we talk about during the game is strategy and our next move, it feels like the closest I will ever be to him. Because his attention is mine — and only mine. I get to be selfish and ask to play another round and talk to him for more than our usual five-minute phone calls every month that never scratch the surface of anything important.

But like the game, his visits also come to an end. The board game returns to the top of the closet to collect dust, untouched until he returns.

It runs in the family

by Olivia Vos

Ticket to Ride is where the story starts: A board full of train tracks to different cities, packs of multicoloured plastic trains and cards with routes to complete. Seems simple enough.

The first time I played TTR (as the pros call it) I was in a fourth-grade board game class. Although I was taught the rules incorrectly, I loved it. The strategy, the competition and most importantly, the adrenaline rush when you finish your routes in the nick of time. I couldn’t get enough of the game.

Naturally, I brought it up to my parents when I got home. My mother rolled her eyes as I stepped closer and closer to being a “nerd,” as she would put it, but my dad couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. One of his kids was finally old enough, and competent enough, to play a game on his level. Sequence for Kids step aside — TTR was here to stay.

After you play enough of the same game, it becomes time to learn a new one. After TTR came Settlers of Catan, Pandemic and The House on Haunted Hill. The games kept getting more complicated, but I mastered every one.

A few years later, my younger sister decided to play with us. She was only 12 at the time, but she caught on just as quickly as I had when I was her age. Although I knew more than her, she was a threat to the board game hierarchy in our household, and possibly to my time with my dad as well.

I had stopped playing games by the time I left for university. The feeling of competition wasn’t something I enjoyed anymore. When my dad and I played, it was just for fun, but something about my sister joining made me want to win, to beat her and prove that I knew more. I was older and smarter, but somehow I would still lose, so I gave up altogether.

She took the title I earned in the fourth grade and still wears it today. Although I mourn my position being passed down, I love watching her grow into herself and also reflect parts of me.

I still play games every once in a while, but the title of best player now belongs to her.

Playing to win

by Daniella Bawa

When I was younger, family game nights were a staple in my house. We would all sit down together after dinner and pick a game to play before my brother and I had to go to bed. My personal favourite for game nights was Monopoly Jr. — the dice always rolled in my favour, the little red houses that dotted the board were almost all mine and I won every game.

As I got older and we started playing regular Monopoly, I found I wasn’t able to succeed the way I had when I was younger. I rarely landed on Boardwalk or Park Place, and I could never figure out when to put up a house or a hotel. I never won and lost all patience for Monopoly, so now I avoid it at all costs.

To me, my newfound hatred of Monopoly is symbolic of my larger transition to mediocrity, specifically in the realm of academics.

Around the same time, I became an average Monopoly player, I also became an average student. I was no longer the person others would come to if they didn't understand the material. I went from someone who was reading way above their grade level to being lucky if I could muster up the motivation to start my readings at all.

Instead of extraordinary, I’m just a burnt-out university student, which is probably the most average thing someone can be at this age.

I realized I have a habit of turning things I like into monopolies. Things that are supposed to be enjoyable are ruined by my need to force expectations of success upon myself.

Seeing as I can't give up on my academics like I did Monopoly, I’m trying to find a way to balance achievement and finding fun in the process. The best way I have found to do this so far is to study with friends or listen to music to associate studying with things I enjoy. Ensuring that I live a balanced life outside of school also helps me find more things to define myself by than just my schoolwork.

One day, I hope to get to a place where I care a bit less about always performing at my best — and maybe I’ll even play Monopoly again.

It's not just a game — it's storytelling

by Tommy Chung

Board games are my everything. Nothing beats cracking one open during a family gathering or having a game night with friends.

One stands above the rest. Some might not consider it a board game — which is a matter of semantics — but to me, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is everything a board game experience should be.

D&D is a tabletop roleplaying game that uses character sheets and a D20 system (in which a 20-sided die is used for many of the checks in the game). It encourages creativity and friendship, and the possibilities are endless — literally anything can happen if you roll the right numbers.

The Dungeonmaster (DM), in simplest terms, runs the game. Every enemy the players fight, every townsperson they barter with, every trap sprung in a dungeon and every environment they find themselves in — all of that is up to the DM’s discretion.

As the DM of my D&D group, I find it incredibly liberating to exercise my creative juices and build an enjoyable experience for my friends. The creative collaboration between the world the DM creates and how the players choose to interact with it is what makes D&D so special.

It’s not just a game — it's collaborative storytelling. As we play, the ideas I have written down rarely pan out in the ways I predicted them to, but that's the beauty of the game. There have been times where I’ve planned multiple contingencies and all of them failed, with the antics of my friends ultimately driving the game forward.

D&D encapsulates everything a game should be. To me, a perfect night with friends is a night spent sitting at the table together, letting our imaginations run wild.

The Game of Life

by Hasti Amirsalari

The Game of Life never struck me as particularly complex — until I became an adult.

Of all the board games I had as a child, Life was the simplest: it’s entirely based on luck, with little to no strategy needed. But as I’ve gotten older, many aspects of the game have become inextricably tied to the world around me.

From its beginning, the game is riddled with every milestone you must conform to, starting with college (assuming you want one of the higher-paying jobs). The implication here is, of course, that your life really starts when you become an adult.

This is true in some ways. A lot becomes clear about the world once we hit the ripe old age of 18. New responsibilities are suddenly added to what was previously a much simpler life. Childhood doesn’t really count as having truly lived, because for the most part, we weren’t the ones making major life choices.

But in another sense, this is completely wrong. There is so much about our childhood that determines how we live as adults: the types of people around us growing up, the values with which we were instilled and whether or not we showed greater emotionality. These are all factors that set us up for the “start” of our lives as adults.

The game offers little range in careers, which makes some sense, given that you can only fit so much of the world in a small box. But it's interesting to look at what options it presents children with — you don’t have to go to university, but you’re less likely to win the game if you don’t.

In a way, it represents a conventional North American mindset, where one of the main reasons for doing anything is to get rich. “Winning” means to have the most money — to get lots of money, you need to have time, energy and resources, but to have these things, you need to have a whole lot of luck.

Luck plays a substantial role in our real lives: we didn’t choose our experiences growing up, and we don’t always have a say in what we’re granted in the adult world. The game shows us that life isn’t fair — not everyone can win, and that is simply a fact with which we all must make our peace.