The psychology of games

16 12 2010
People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

Christmas is perhaps the one guaranteed time of year that families up and down the country get together and play games. I don’t know about you, but it is one of our family traditions to play inter-generational games for hours on end on Boxing Day afternoon.

Most of us love to play games – especially if we win! I like nothing better than an afternoon at the Scrabble board – but even if I lose, I have usually had a good time along the way. So what is the fascination with games? Why do we play them? How are games categorized? And what makes some games so successful and others not?

Why do we play games? Game playing is a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement bounded by precise limits of time and space as well as what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “a world building activity”. Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the functions of playing games. He speculated that game playing provided a temporary leave of absence from reality that reduced individual conflict and brought about a change from the passive to the active. More modern thinking is that people play games to concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which they can use skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting their own problems and separate identity.

Games provide the opportunity to prove one’s superiority, the desire to challenge and overcome an obstacle and a medium by which to test one’s skill, endurance and ingenuity. Games, unlike some activities (including life itself!) tell us whether we have won or lost. Sociologists have argued that in the context of a competitive and materialistic culture that has become increasingly regimented and standardized with little room for individual creativity and personal achievement, games offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance.

How are games categorized?  Perhaps the best categorisation of game types was formulated by the French anthropologist Roger Caillois who listed four classifications. These were: agon (games involving competition), alea (games involving chance), mimicry (games involving simulation) and ilinx (games involving vertigo – such as children spinning round and round). In the context of games like chess, poker, Scrabble and Monopoly, alea and agon are crucial in that they offer a combination of skill, chance and luck.

Most people desire opportunities to test their strength and skill against an adversary, and those games that offer a component of skill or talent combined with luck and chance provide the most favourable conditions. This is particularly prevalent in males who are deemed “masculine” if during the socialization process they show (socially) important traits such as courage, independence and bravery. Another interesting observation is that in games involving winners and losers the real prize is often status as opposed to positive material gain. Thus, by taking risks, reputations are built and winners gain social rewards.

What makes a successful game? Nearly all successful games (e.g. chess, Scrabble, backgammon, card games, various video games, etc) share fundamental similarities. These factors determine whether games become firmly established or simply fade away and include the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, people to play against (including competitions and tournaments), and, in contemporary culture, corporate sponsorship and advertising. Let’s look at these briefly in turn.

All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for an activity’s continued popularity and future existence. Secondly, for games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die. The sheer number of monthly game magazines on the market again demonstrates how healthy the game industry is! Thirdly there needs to be people to play with or against. At the serious end this will include competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play and likeminded people to play with there will be little development within the field over long periods of time. This is very much linked to the capacity for skill development as the best players in any activity will want competitive arenas in which they can demonstrate their dexterity, prowess, physical and mental reaction time, problem solving ability and overall game play. Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship and advertising of some kind.

So when you are playing Monopoly with Auntie Cheryl and cousin Frank on Boxing Day afternoon, just remember that there is more to games than the sheer enjoyment of playing.

Professor Mark Griffiths is the Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University


Political skills for a perfect Christmas

15 12 2010
Be sure to sit family members who don't like one another at opposite ends of the dinner table this Christmas

Be sure to sit family members who don't like one another at opposite ends of the dinner table this Christmas

They say being a politician is one of the hardest jobs in the world, but personally I’d argue that hosting the perfect family Christmas is much more difficult. In order to cope without losing your sanity, the following political skills are vital:

Resource management

This is not just about making sure everybody receives an equal number of roast potatoes at dinner. Gift giving is a complex process of working out how much you can afford to spend and then trying to find the perfect gift for less. At the same time though you have to make sure that whatever you give is of roughly equal value to what you expect to receive in return. Spend too little and you look mean, spend too much and you could potentially embarrass the other person. One thing all parents should remember is to have a good supply of batteries handy, otherwise the expensive new electronic toy you’re bought for your offspring will be useless until the day after Boxing Day when you can find a shop that sells them.


If Christmas is about anything it’s about not offending people. Therefore you need to make sure that members of your family who don’t like each other are seated at opposite ends of the dining table. Equally, it’s important to be able to listen with good grace to the advice of the 101 people who will try to tell you where you’re going wrong while you’re cooking the dinner (but won’t actually offer to help you prepare it).

The power of persuasion

A vital quality, especially when you’re woken up at 6am by over-excited children demanding to open their presents. The eloquence needed to convince them to go back to bed for a few hours’ much needed sleep might strain even Obama. It’s often just as difficult to persuade the same children to stop playing their video games so that an elderly relative can watch the Queen’s speech.


The ability to say, “Yes Grandmother, of course I like this sweater”, when she hands you something horrible, green and orange that is clearly four sizes too big and made out of the itchiest wool known to mankind.


This is being able to wear the said sweater outside on the customary post Christmas lunch walk, despite the mockery of other members of your family.

Dr Matthew Ashton, lecturer in politics in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences

The Christmas carol

14 12 2010

A 1582 manuscript of the Latin carol Personent hodie.

The history of Christmas carols is not very detailed, however, we do have some basic information that has been passed on through the ages regarding their origin.

It is still disputed by many historians and music specialists as to when or where they originated from, but there seems to be substantial evidence that the first set of carols date back to 4th century Rome, as hymns with a Latin text.  During this time and over the next six or seven centuries these hymns were looked upon as Pagan songs and were sung generally at Winter Solstice celebrations.

For many years carols were only ever written in Latin and because a lot of people simply couldn’t understand them, they didn’t become very popular.  It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the Christmas carol started to develop and become more popular within societies and Christianity.

St. Francis Assisi played a major part in the development of the carol with the introduction of his Nativity plays in Italy.  Songs within these plays were sung to narrate the story and were often performed in a language other than Latin so that people could understand and even join in. This style of music soon became increasingly popular and rapidly spread throughout Europe.

It is thought that the word ‘carol’ – as we know it now – originates from the French word ‘caroler’. This is interpreted as dancing in a circle, or joyful dancing accompanied by music.  In France within the 12th century if you were ‘to carole’, you would be known to be singing and dancing, proclaiming the coming of Spring.

Within the 15h century the carol started to become internationally accepted as a song related to Christmas, and new carols around this time were being based upon the story of Mary and Jesus. Throughout England, carols were often only sung by wassailers who went from home to home performing in the streets, and were sung not only at Christmas, but at Harvest time as well. There were still no performances that we know of within the Church and it was quite some time until they were specifically associated with Christmas and the birth of Jesus.

After the Reformation, however, carols became increasingly popular, especially within the Protestant churches located with Northern Europe.

Then, in 1647, Oliver Cromwell banned the singing of Christmas carols along with the celebration of Christmas.  Although quite a few people carried on singing them in secret, the Christmas carol pretty much died out until the Victorian era, at which time they became extremely popular again in England and other parts of northern Europe.  The majority of carols written around this time, such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, are the traditional carols that you still hear choirs and congregations singing in churches and concerts today.

The video below shows a performance of Ding Dong Merrily on High, by Nottingham Trent University’s Chamber Choir.

Matthew Hopkins, Director of Music at Nottingham Trent University

To speak with Matthew directly, please call Nottingham Trent University’s Press Office on 0115 848 8785 or email

Christmas is cancelled

14 12 2010
Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

One lesser known result of the civil wars in mid-17th century Britain and Ireland was the abolition of Christmas.

At the end of the First Civil War in England (1642-1646) the victorious English and Welsh parliament was dominated by Presbyterian MPs supported by their Scottish allies in the war against King Charles I.

This powerful alliance has allowed for the disestablishment of the Church of England and the creation of a national Presbyterian church (similar to the Scottish Kirk). A Directory of Worship set out the liturgy and order of service to be followed across the country. Although the new church was established in 1645, during the war, it took until the end of the fighting for the impact to be felt across the country. Anglican church festivals, which were felt to be too similar to Roman Catholic ceremonies, were abolished: one of these festivals was, of course, Christmas.

As early as 1645 there was a popular anti-Christmas movement and some shop keepers in the capital opened their shops during the holiday, but the full effect of the prohibition was really only felt in December 1647. Parliament ordered that there should be no holiday and shops should stay open on 25 December. No one was to decorate their houses with evergreens or celebrate in any way. The whole ceremony of Christmas, which still to a great extent was a twelve-day long festival, was anathema to the new religious regime, which invoked God’s blessing through Sunday-observance and regular fasts, rather than great blow-outs of over-eating.

Popular support for the ban ebbed away as the regime itself lost favour and in several towns there were major riots over Christmas 1647. The mayor of Norwich ignored both petitions for and against the Christmas holiday, but he did nothing to prevent unofficial festivities. Canterbury people too placed holly bushes at their doors in direct contravention of parliament’s orders. Puritan ministers were pelted with mud as they went through the town and aldermen driven from their homes. In London, shops closed for the day, evergreens were hung in the doorways of the town and the mayor’s attempt to disrupt the celebrations were resisted violently. In Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, youths armed with spiked clubs patrolled the streets to keep the shops closed.

The celebration of Christmas in 1647 quickly became political and the defeated but unbowed royalists seized on the unrest and turned some of the celebrations and riots into demonstrations of support for the imprisoned King Charles I. By the spring of 1648 this unrest had turned into renewed fighting and the second civil war.

After the second civil war, Presbyterians in parliament were largely marginalised and the republican regime, established after the execution of King Charles I (30 January 1649), was less hardline on the celebration of Christmas. During the Commonwealth (1649-1653) and Cromwell’s rule (1653-1658) Christmas was neither officially sanctioned nor suppressed: all the shops remained closed on Christmas Day until the 21st Century and holy and the ivy were hung from the rafters until replaced by Christmas Trees and tinsel in the 19th.

By Professor Martyn Bennett
Professor of Early Modern History and one of the UK’s leading Oliver Cromwell experts

To speak to Professor Bennett, call the University Press Office directly on 0115 848 8751 or email

Christmas stress – it’s all relative

13 12 2010
Just the one then? Drinking alcohol in moderation could help reduce stresses and strains this Christmas can

Drinking too much during family gatherings can sometimes lead to saying things that we later regret

As much as we all want Christmas to revolve around perfect presents, tasty food and drink, no work, and leisure time to be spent with close family and friends, it can be a psychologically tense and stressful time even among the most happy and well-adjusted families. Not only is there the crowded shopping, the writing of copious Christmas cards, the wrapping of presents, and the travelling, but there is often the extra burden of obligatory extended family staying and/or visiting. Patience can be pushed to the outer limit throughout the festive period. Trying to satisfy multiple family members all of who have different needs is difficult at best. Additionally, family reunions have the potential to bring about a range of deep-rooted emotions including jealousy, resentment, competitiveness, and (sibling) rivalry. Expectations may not be met. Instead of joy and happiness we may feel stressed, hurt and/or exhausted. So how do you cope with the family-related stresses and strains during the festive period? Here are my top ten tips.

(1) Keep expectations of time spent with family hopeful but realistic – You may not be able to change your family’s dynamics, but at least be aware of how your family can affect your psychological mood state. Some relatives may use the Christmas family reunion to play out family dynamics or re-enact old sibling rivalries. Knowing the problems you might expect from particular family members makes them easier to deal with should they arise. If possible, find ways to shorten or eliminate the family experiences that put you in a bad, anxious or depressed mood.

(2) Make your family time count – Instead of watching television or DVDs for hours on end, do something together as a family. Go for a walk after the Christmas dinner, play a karaoke video game, play a board game or a parlour game like charades. Basically, do anything where you have to interact with each other. Even making the Christmas dinner could be a communal activity where each adult and child has a specific job.

(3) Drink alcohol in moderation – Alcohol can be a double-edged sword so be mindful when drinking with family members. Alcohol’s disinhibiting effect can help facilitate friendly family interaction but drinking too much during family gatherings can sometimes lead to saying things that we later regret.

(4) Don’t take everything personally – The ability to step back from a stressful situation caused by a family member is a skill to be cultivated. Remember that any family member is an individual with moods and desires that are separate from their relationship with you. If something really irritates or stresses you, think about what triggered the feeling, then try to let it go and don’t take it personally.

(5) Take time out every day – Stress at Christmas time can sometimes arise just because there is a house full of people with little opportunity for “me” time. Try to find time in the day to do something on your own. Go for a brisk walk, pop to the newsagents, have a long bath, tidy up the kitchen while listening to a soccer match or the Ashes, or put your headphones on and listen to your favourite music. Do anything that gives you that much needed little ‘time out’ for the day.

(6) Be organized – Sounds easy but good organization can often be the key to a hassle-free day. Starting out each day with some kind of “game plan” can help alleviate the typical stress that arises from the Christmas family politics.

(7) Be assertive Again, easier said than done but learning the power of how to be politely assertive and just saying ‘no’ when faced with family obligations over Christmas can pay big stress-free dividends. Learn how to set boundaries with family so you can experience the true joy of the festive season.

(8) Beware the vicious circle – Children, as well as adults, can feel stressed during Christmas. Children often pick up on signs of your anxiety and they themselves can become stressed. This can lead to you feeling even more stressed. In short, a vicious circle where stress and anxiety feeds off each other. Try to hide the stress you feel, especially from children, as this may decrease the length of time you feel anxious.

(9) Be grateful for what you have in life No matter how stressful your family may be over the festive period, it is always good to be grateful for the things you have in your life. As one psychologist noted in his blog: “If you are reading this online, then you are alive, have access to the internet, and have at least some free time to surf the net”.

(10) Remember that relationships are the most important thing we have – All of us need to remember that the Christmas feelings of joy and happiness come not from the gifts, decorations, food and drink, but from our relationships with other people. Christmas is about relationships – not only the relationship you have your family and friends, but also the relationship you have with yourself. If we make our close relationships the top priority, then the rest of the Christmas should fall naturally into place.

Professor Mark Griffiths is based in the Psychology Division of Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences

How can we have a sustainable Christmas?

10 12 2010
Is it that Christmas sweater you've had your eye on? Around £700 million was spent on unwanted Christmas presents last year

What horror lies within? Around £700 million was spent on unwanted Christmas presents last year

As the Christmas season approaches its peak, shoppers will be hoping to make the right choices for gifts, but many will have niggling worries that they have forgotten their niece’s favourite colour or misjudged their brother-in-law’s need for new power tools.

In the event of an error, thanks will doubtless be graciously offered.

The fate of the present, however, is less certain. A charity shop? Short-term storage in the hope that a passing friend or neighbour might take an interest? A couple of uses and then into the bin?

Various factors conspire to ensure that Christmas is the time of year when wasteful consumption reaches a peak. We are buying in the dark (can we even recall the name of that second cousin, let alone choose him a useful present?) and under pressure of time – why are there so few Saturdays in Advent? And with limited budgets. No wonder we make mistakes.

Around £700 million was spent on unwanted Christmas presents last year – equivalent to nearly £30 per household.

Maybe this doesn’t matter. After all, Christmas is a time for celebration, for forgetting the prospect of higher VAT, student loans and the like. But maybe it does.

A report published last month indicated that Britons are consuming at three times the rate that is sustainable. It was hardly a revelation.

In the past, such warnings have been largely disregarded but this has become less easy. Consumers today are too knowledgeable of the environmental impact of our consumption to feel comfortable with excess and waste.

Our throwaway culture may be more exposed than usual over Christmas, but it is a reality throughout the year. Consumers continually demand the latest styles, technology, and convenience rather than longevity. So-called “fast fashion” now accounts for some 20 per cent of the clothing market.

But is it fair to blame producers? They can only supply what consumers demand.

We cannot expect retailers to stock well-crafted, durable products, inevitably relatively expensive, if shoppers are unwilling or unable to purchase them.

On the other hand, retailers bear a responsibility for marketing campaigns that seek to make us dissatisfied with items that still function. Around a third of discarded electronic goods still work or need only a minor repair.

How, then, might change come about? Is a throwaway society inevitable?

People will only start demanding longer-lasting products if they can see that this is in their interest.

They need access to far better information on how long products have been designed to last.

Is it not time to raise people’s expectations of reliability and durability rather than expect them to purchase extended warranties?

Governments have a role to play. As repairing and maintenance is labour-intensive and expensive, while imported new goods are often relatively cheap, people increasingly favour the latter. But governments can influence market signals through the tax system. Ultimately we will all pay the price for over-consumption. Maybe a less commercialised Christmas would be a start?

Tim Cooper, Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption at Nottingham Trent University

Suicides at Christmas: Is there a relationship?

9 12 2010
there is little evidence that the Christmas holidays are a time of increased risk of suicide

There is little evidence that the Christmas holidays are a time of increased risk of suicide

One of the many “scientific facts” that tend to be rolled out during this time of year is the oft-repeated claim that suicides are more common during the Christmas season. The “evidence” for such claims supposedly relies on increased stress as a result of feeling lonely, the stress of family dysfunction, and/or the increased depression felt during the cold and dark winter months. However, there is a lot of research that totally refutes this claim (depending upon where the start and end of the Christmas holidays are).

For instance, one of the world’s premier researchers in this area, the American psychologist Dr David Lester, as far back as 1979 published research in the American Journal of Epidemiology that adult suicide rates were lower on the six major national US holidays than the rest of the year. However, his research did show that there were significantly more suicides on January 1 than either the week before (December 25) and a week later (Jan 8). Other research studies have shown that among American boys, the peak rate of suicides is at the end of the academic year which may be related to a loss in social support and friendship networks.

An article in the 2008 Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll assessed the evidence surrounding “seasonal medical myths” and came to the conclusion that there is a consistent body of worldwide research showing that suicide does not peak in the cold winter months but peaks during the summer, autumn or spring months. For instance, they reported a Finnish research study showing that suicides were more likely in autumn than in winter whereas a study monitoring Hungarian suicide rates over a three-decade period reported that peak rates occurred during the summer months and were lowest during the winter months. This was also contrasted with a study carried out in India showing that the peak rates of suicide were in the springtime (April to May).

Another study cited by Vreeman and Carroll in the BMJ, and carried out in Japan, examined adult suicides between 1979 and 1994.  The researchers found that the rate of suicide was lowest in the days before a holiday and highest in the days after the holiday. Similar results have also been found in other countries such as Ireland. In fact, an Irish study that examined adult suicides between 1990 and 1998 found that men were significantly less likely to commit suicide during the holiday season (although there was no difference for Irish women who were equally likely to commit suicide before, during or after the holiday period).

In short, there is little epidemiological evidence to support the notion that the Christmas holidays are a time of increased risk of suicide.

Similar sorts of patterns have also been found in relation to psychiatric admissions. For instance, research from the US showed that the number of psychiatric visits by adults decreases as Christmas approaches but then starts to increase steadily afterwards (suggesting that people are more psychiatrically stable as Christmas nears).

All of this research goes to show that myths can persist despite empirical and scientific evidence to the contrary. No-one knows why such myths are endlessly repeated and recycled year in, year out, but I suspect that something to do with what we psychologists call the ‘representativeness bias’. Basically, if we know or hear of an instance of something very salient (such as someone we know of committing suicide during the festive period), we tend to think that its occurrence is much more common than it really is (especially as we don’t bring to mind all the people we know who didn’t commit suicide over the same period).

Professor Mark Griffiths is based in the Psychology Division of Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences