This article reprinted by kind permission of Ravage magazine.
A Primitive Cult
I’m always surprised that anthropologists don’t hang around gamers more. We are a superstitious lot, much given to watching for signs and portents, careful ritual and lucky talismans. I think we’d make excellent study subjects for understanding how myths and legends arise among primitive cultures. There must be a few doctorate studies waiting to happen, for example:
Luck and the Gamer – Hard Statistics versus Irrational Belief
Fetish and Totem Items Among Developing Gaming Cultures
The Etiquette and Social Impact of Dice Cups and Towers Among European Gamers
You get the idea. Personally I’ll be looking forward to the paperback editions. Or the movie.
For reasons that are intuitive to anyone who’s ever played, spending more than 5 minutes around dice makes you believe in all manner of unlikely and irrational things. I know it’s not just me because I’ve seen it in people of all ages and types and over many years. Believing in the Gods of the Dice is just part of being a gamer.
Ritual & Belief
Let me give you some examples and see if any of them sound familiar. Most of them are rituals that supposedly bring luck – because luck is what it’s all about.
You’re playing a game that involves a series of dice rolls to resolve a combat. You roll some dice and then offer your opponent the ones that hit because they are close to hand and are the right number to roll next. He politely refuses, knowing that your dice are loyal to you and will not work as well for him.
He picks up his dice from a heap on the side, carefully selecting those he feels will be lucky this time instead of the half dozen that are nearest. Perhaps he goes by intuition alone, or perhaps he chooses ones that were sitting with the 6 face up, or the 1s. Whichever he feels “charges” them best. Perhaps instead he decides that the ones he rolled last turn had been underperforming and reaches for some “fresh” dice that have so far not taken part in the battle and haven’t worn out their luck. Of course, all the dice are from his carefully chosen “special” collection. He simply couldn’t use the ones that came with the game. Oh no. Whichever dice he chooses it won’t simply be the nearest ones.
When he picks up the dice he shakes them in his cupped hands and then he blows on them. Eh? Are his hands cold from the chill of the room? Are his dice too warm like his cup of tea? No, it’s luck again (or is it magic)?
Even when he rolls them onto the table he can be influenced by luck. Sometimes certain areas of the table are unlucky and others roll better. No, seriously, I’ve seen it happen. And why is this any more odd than the rest? If blowing on dice can make them roll higher numbers, then why not different parts of the table?
These are just a few of the more common rituals that go together to make the runs of good and bad luck that plague gamers, and I haven’t even mentioned lucky dice cups, hats, badges, plushy Cthulhu mascots and all the rest of the stuff that is brought out especially at tournaments (where every edge counts).
What on Earth is going on?
Human brains are very good at pattern recognition. In fact, it’s one of the things they do best. This skill is responsible for all sorts of useful survival traits, but is also the reason why we see teddy bears and elephants in clouds and the face of the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. In a gaming sense I suspect that this is contributing to a number of common features you hear about round the table.
A couple of terrible dice rolls on the same part of the board makes that bit unlucky; winning the first three times you wear that raggedy old Essen T-shirt makes it lucky; that unit never wins when the hero is with them despite his extra dice (so he’s unlucky). In this last case it can even change the way you build an army or play a game. I’ve seen board gamers do the same thing, choosing suboptimal options (when judged purely on statistical value) because they find them unlucky: “I never do well with the Trader.”
This is no different from the often-mentioned idea of the mere presence or absence of certain people (usually Bond girls) being lucky for gamblers round card tables. It’s also related to the superstitious nature of combatants throughout history. They are risking their lives whilst the gamer only risks losing the game, but the principle is the same and all seek an advantage. The need to feel that you have such an advantage is far more powerful than the need for it to make any real sense.
Few people sit down and record every dice roll they make over a long period of time. I have.
On the face of it that might make me King of the Geeks, but there was a perfectly good reason (at least some of the time): battle reports. When I started doing battle reports we used to write down every dice roll. The idea is a sound one: you don’t know what’s going to be important until the end so you record everything, just in case. The turning point of the game could be early on, but you won’t always see it at the time. It also meant that we could go back and ensure that the rules had been played correctly and so on. In any case, we made notes of everything. The reality is that dice are random and in random sets you will get apparent patterns, but they never stay. That’s what random means: there is no real pattern.
Well, that’s not entirely true. In an individual game there sometimes are apparent local patterns that last for a certain time, and this is where I think the whole basis for a perfectly reasonable belief in the Dice Gods lies. From having actually studied the numbers I can say that even when a player’s dice rolls for a whole game were almost perfectly average overall, it is not uncommon to see a certain subset of those rolls show a significant and consistent deviation. In other words, when you break it down, a single type of random event can easily show local patterns. For example, I’ve been playing a lot of God of Battles recently. My orc stone thrower has been underperforming terribly. It should, on average, get 4 hits per shot. In four games, with multiple shots per game, it had not managed to ever roll more than 4. It has rolled 2, 3 and 4 hits, but never more. Its actual average was way below where it should have been. Now I know that this is random and so I kept it in the army despite a strong urge to decommission it as an unlucky piece. Perhaps it read my mind. Sure enough, in the last time I played it redressed some of the balance with its first (and only ever) roll of over average: 8 hits. It’s an unlikely way to redress the overall average of the piece, but it works, and over a longer time I’m sure it will be even more balanced. But until that point? Well I’m a believer…
By the way…
Can you play a whole game without any special dice, lucky hats or blowing on the dice? Do you feel comfortable doing so?
What are your lucky rituals? Can you think back to when they started and remember what triggered them? Are they still true now?