By Suzanne Lyons
Cooperative games offer a new way to play. Traditional, competitive games are zero-sum games: One player can win only if another loses. Cooperative games are structured differently. In cooperative games, players don’t compete against each other. Instead they have a common goal so players either win or lose together. The fun comes from the camaraderie and challenge of the game—not from being the only player (or team) left standing when everyone else is eliminated. No one is eliminated in a cooperative game. What is eliminated is the incentive to beat others in order to distinguish one’s self.
Competition is so woven into our culture that we don’t often reflect on it. It’s defined as a social arrangement in which two or more individuals strive toward a goal that can’t be attained by everyone. We are all exposed to lots of it. From sports and politics to classroom contests to reality TV shows, competitive activities frame much of our day. Yet when you stop to think about it, competition is a harsh proposition. The winner’s gain must always come at the expense of someone else. Given this us-versus-them framework, it’s easy to see why competition has potential downsides including envy, anxiety, selfishness, anger, divisiveness, and even aggression. 1
The alternative to competition is cooperation, where individuals work together to achieve a mutually desirable goal. In cooperative arrangements, everybody wins. Given the win-win nature of cooperation, it’s not surprising that peace, productivity, equity, friendliness, and a range of other positive social-emotional outcomes typically follow from it. 2
In a world where there is so much competition, surely what we need now are more chances to cooperate. Cooperative games are a positive trend that addresses this.
Cooperative games exist for all ages and settings. They span all genres, from party games to active games, online games, board games, ice breakers, therapy games and more. They differ in significant ways, but they all share certain benefits. Here are just a few.
Cooperative games teach cooperation. Cooperation involves communicating, sharing, helping, compromising, encouraging, listening, and participating in group problem-solving. These cooperative skills can only be perfected through lots of practice, which is what we get with cooperative play.
Learning to cooperate involves more than developing cooperative skills however. It also involves cultivating the desire to cooperate. That can be tough when so many background messages tell us that “winning is everything.” But cooperative games break through those messages with the power of direct personal experience. Players discover for themselves that cooperation feels good. If you are unsure of that, try this thought experiment: Close your eyes and recall a time when you were in a harmonious group, where everyone was having a good time and getting along. Chances are that this pleasant situation was a cooperative one. Competition may get the adrenaline pumping, but cooperation reduces stress, eases social tensions, and brings people together.
Cooperative games motivate cooperation in another way. They show that working together is a practical necessity. Especially in today’s complex world, we are interdependent. We need to cooperate to get things done. The cooperative board game Pandemic by Matt Leacock models this with a simulated disaster. A plague is spreading around the world. Players adopt the roles of stake-holders who must share resources, skills, and information to save Humanity. Without effective collaboration, all will be lost.
Cooperative games nurture kindness. Cooperative games are structured so that players must help one another, share, and give. It’s inevitable that players will perform pro-social, kindly actions in these sorts of games.
Like cooperation, kindness feels good. The pleasant feelings we have when we are kind enable us to fall in love with love and aim to engage in it more and more. Studies by Terry Orlick and others indeed show that playing cooperative games increases pro-social skills both during and after game play. 3
The children’s game Beanbag Freeze is a good example of an active cooperative game that teaches kindness through helping. You can play this game with groups of six children or more. To begin, give each of the children a beanbag and ask them to balance it on their heads. With beanbags in place, children walk around the play area. They can walk in any silly or fun way they please. If a child loses their beanbag, the child is frozen until another child picks it up and puts it back. If the helper also loses their own beanbag, that child too is frozen until another friend comes to thaw them both by replacing their beanbags. The game is over when everyone has thawed or everyone is frozen or everyone is tired.
Cooperative games are inclusive. In cooperative games, no one is eliminated. You don’t have to be the smartest, best looking, most aggressive, most popular, most athletic, most vocal, or luckiest player to be an important part of the group. It’s in the interest of all that every player feels included and does their best. This can improve group cohesion in gatherings of people from diverse backgrounds or where there are differences in social status. For example, the inclusiveness of cooperative games helps bring students together in classrooms where less popular or disabled students are subject to social exclusion.
Cooperative Musical Chairs is an example. This game is played just like traditional Musical Chairs except that players are not eliminated as chairs are taken away. The group as a whole wins if they can manage to all sit on the last chair or on someone’s lap who is sitting on that chair. It’s a cuddly challenge that breaks the personal space bubble and fosters friendly intimacy!
Cooperative games reduce aggression. That is, cooperative games not only help players be more positive, they help players be less negative. The notable study Cooperative Games: A Way to Modify Aggressive and Cooperative Behaviors in Young Children proves this point 4. The study compared incidences of aggression during and after play sessions featuring cooperative and competitive games. Observers tallied aggressive actions including such nastiness as hitting, kicking, biting, name calling, threatening physical assault, and more. Likewise, researchers tallied cooperative behaviors such as sharing, assisting, and engaging in acts of affection such as holding hands, kissing, and linking arms. The overall results clearly showed that competitive games increased aggression while cooperative games reduced it. The researchers concluded that cooperative games in preschool could help prevent the development of adult antisocial behavior. From the study:
To the degree that the roots of aggression lie in the failure to learn and practice positive social behaviors in early childhood, preschool environments that promote the widespread use of cooperative games (coupled with limitations on competitive games) may reduce tendencies to respond aggressively and may affect future social behavior. 5
The active games, Bean Bag Freeze and Cooperative Musical Chairs, described above are both among the games tested and shown to reduce aggression. The cooperative board game Max by Family Pastimes was also tested. In Max, players try to save little creatures—a bird, a chipmunk, and a mouse—from a big Tomcat named Max who chases them around the board. Players can use various tokens including catnip, cheese, and milk, to lure Max away from the little creatures. Players decide together when to spend the precious tokens. Rather than trying to destroy Max, as would happen in a game that models domination and stimulates aggressive feelings, players aim for peaceful, win-win solutions.
Cooperative games are fun. Studies have shown that when children are given a choice, they often prefer to play cooperatively 6. Competitive activities may be fun for the winner, but less so for everyone else. They can be downright deflating, divisive, and depressing, and trigger spats and tantrums, which surely are not fun.
If you notice that game time is becoming stress-filled or that emotional meltdowns are commonplace, competition is quite likely the problem. Try some cooperative games to restore peaceful, friendly play that is fun for everyone.
1 Alfie Kohn, No Contest; The Case Against Competition (Boston; Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992), 132-157.
2 Arnold P. Goldstein, The Psychology of Group Aggression (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002), 123-157
3 Terry D. Orlick, Positive Socialization via Cooperative Games, Developmental Psychology, 17:4 (1981)
4 April K. Bay-Hinitz, Robert F. Peterson, H. Robert Quiltich, et. al., Cooperative Games: A Way to Modify Aggressive and Cooperative Behaviors in Young Children, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (1994)
5 Bay-Hinitz, et al., 445
6 Kohn, 91-95
©2018 Suzanne Lyons