Why Nerds Like Games

This was my third year at GenCon, an annual convention where thousands play board games, role playing games, miniatures games, etc. Most attendees are, well, nerds. Mostly male too. Now perhaps nerds are more likely than others to attend a convention on a hobby they like. But nerds probably also just like games more than other folks. Why is that?

A game is a kind of story, and most games have some story element. Abstract games, not in some recognizable way like something real, are less popular. In general, stories let us signal our abilities to read social situations, and also the heroes we admire, villains we dislike, etc. Since nerds are, in essence, folks with low natural social skills (relative to their other skills), you might think nerds would favor movies & TV over games, as movies don’t require one to be as social. And among games you might think they’d prefer games with less social interaction. But you’d be wrong on both counts. Why?

One explanation is that nerds want to show off their non-social skills, and so require social games so that there are others who can observe their impressive performance. But nerds seem to prefer more social interaction in their games than having a mere audience requires.

Another explanation is that while nerds like to socialize, they are terrified of making social mistakes. This explains why they tend to avoid eye-contact – it is too easy to make the wrong eye contacts. Games let nerds interact socially, yet avoid mistakes via well-defined rules, and a social norm that all legal moves are “fair game.” Role-playing has less well-defined rules, but the norm there is that social mistakes are to be blamed on characters, not players.

An third explanation is hinted at by the fact that we use the word “game” to refer both to “fun/frivolous” and to “seriously selfishly strategic.” While social norms usually forbid overt strategic selfishness in social behavior, such strategic selfishness is allowed in games. So when we advise someone to be strategically selfish in an important real situation, we tell them to “game it.” This overt strategy feature of games lets people use games to signal to others a capacity for being strategically selfish in real social situations. The game subtext is “don’t mess with me because I’m paying attention and know how to retaliate.” This helps explains why nerds especially like social games.

Any other explanations to consider?

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