NYC Gamer              

Cause and Effect

March 18, 2011

We're often told to be careful not to mistake correlation for causation. The maxim that correlation does not imply causation is burned into your brain from day one of any statistics course. Just because the rate of swimming accidents increases as ice cream sales increase does not mean that ice cream causes swimming mishaps. This might be an obvious example of this fallacy to spot, but it is nevertheless true that we can easily fall into the trap of assuming that a causal relationship exists where there is none. What about the reverse error of mistaking causation for correlation? We are much less wary of this far less common possibility. And yet, I recently came across an example in the board game world where a correlation was being measured and provided without any consideration for the causes of that apparent correlation. It struck me that the data showing a close correlation between the game ratings of myself and various friends may have been ďcorruptedĒ by my learning a number of games from and playing those games with the individuals in question.

The website at issue is of course the fantastic BGG Rating Correlation tool. This allows you to see how well or poorly your game ratings correlate with all other BoardGameGeek users that rate a specified number of the same games as you. As Iím sure youíve already gathered, this is not going to be a serious statistical piece and any misstatements Iíve already made or will make regarding statistics should be kindly overlooked. Iím more interested in the impact that your playing partners can have on your game tastes and game playing habits. This is a glimpse into one of the causes of a ratings correlation.

War of the Ring may be the best example in my experience of the phenomenon in question. This epic game that pits good against evil, light against dark, your brain against an incredibly convoluted rule set, is one that would have been a serious contender for my recent April Showers piece if only Iíd first tried it in April. Alas, the limits of restricting oneself to a narrow subject are myriad. Regardless, War of the Ring finds this opportunity to rear its head.

War of the Ring is a prime example of a game where my high rating correlates to that of a friend of mine, but it was that same friend who caused my rating to jump as high as it did. I first tried the game a couple times in 2007, but it was nearly impenetrable. Neither I nor my opponent had any familiarity with the game, so we struggled together to plow our way through the dense thicket of rules. The game was not immersive as it should have been; it was the opposite. It repelled us at every turn, striving to keep us at bay and prevent us from becoming comfortably ensconced in the world of Tolkien.

Fast forward to 2009 when I finally had the opportunity to play the game a couple more times, but this time with someone who was intimately familiar with the game, who in fact counts it as one of his very favorites. This time I have someone to run the game for me, which makes all the difference in the world as Iím sure you well know and as Joe Huber recently discussed in detail, albeit from a different angle. Now I could see how immersive and thematic the game was; now I could appreciate it the way it was clearly meant to be appreciated. This friend was plainly the direct cause of our ratings becoming correlated as he not only taught me the game, but taught me to love the game.

The same can be said for a game at the opposite end of the spectrum, a game with the best introductory paragraph ever - Igloo Pop. The Zoch game about a young ice giant that wants to buy fish sticks but cannot remember how many. He has nine shopping lists in his basket, so he goes from igloo to igloo and shakes each. He thinks heís hearing delicious fish sticks bounce off the igloo walls, but when he takes it home, wild and laughing Eskimo children tumble out of the igloo, excitedly shouting to be shaken again. The ice giant is happy to have made new friends and promptly forgets all about his shopping lists. Truly an inspiring tale of love, loss, and redemption... or something like that.

The game itself is a raucous affair of shaking plastic igloos filled with beads and trying to determine (and/or guess, depending on your aural abilities) how many beads are in each as fast and frantically as possible. Itís not a game I imagine Iíd ever have come across or tried on my own. But in the vein of friends shaping your gaming tastes and playing habits, a friend of mine kindly introduced me to Igloo Pop and fostered my love of the game. Iíd never have known about the game or rated it in such close correlation to him if not for his meddling ways.

Unlike War of the Ring, this is obviously not a game where I needed an experienced teacher to hold my hand through an educational play to appreciate the game, but simply a game that I likely would have missed altogether if not for a gaming buddy trotting it out at a game day a few years back. Now our ratings are more on the same page because of such influence.

The same story could be told for countless other games, generally from one of these two angles. The convoluted games where it took a patient guiding hand to make me see the light -- Through the Ages, Antiquity -- or the off-the-beaten-path game where it took another set of eyes and ears to spot the game among the mass of releases and bring it to my attention -- eBay Electronic Talking Auction Game, Bamboleo, or Machtspiele. Regardless, ranging all the way from the epic narrative arc of War of the Ring to the childish laughter of Igloo Pop, my tastes are clearly guided by outside forces.

Perhaps such tampering with the results of this kind of correlation analysis is inevitable. We are the product of our surroundings in large part and cannot help but be shaped and molded by their influence. I suppose in the end my ratings and opinions on games are not my own, but an amalgam of my experiences and the input of everyone Iíve sat across the table from. Along those lines, it naturally follows that in addition to being subject to such causes, Iím also the source of this effect on others. And thatís a nice thought -- as Iíve introduced countless others to this game or that game over the years, along the way Iíve hopefully had a positive impact on their enjoyment of a game or two.

(See The Opinionated Gamers for this column plus additional comments on it)