FYI: This post isn't about board games, per se. But it's about competitive play, and my experiences in this part of my life definitely impact my relationship with board games as a hobby.
I had a really busy Saturday at Fall Forum, an event for the Georgia Junior Classical League. It was awesome. Over 700 nerdy Latin students converged to take competitive academic tests, show off their art projects, do cool workshops (one of my students was particularly enamored with PVC pipe gladiator weapons!), and play Certamen.
Certamen is basically Latin quiz bowl. Its name means "contest" or "battle" in Latin. Students play in teams and try to be the first to buzz in on questions about history, mythology, and the Latin language. The game is fast-paced, and it's exhilarating when you win.
I would know—I was a hardcore Certamen player when I was in high school. I didn't start Latin until I was a junior, but I was a national champion in my novice year and got bumped to an advanced team for my second year. There was a time in my life when I lived, breathed, and dreamed Certamen... and I'm not 100% sure it was good for me.
The year I was on the national team, three of the other four students I played with were from one high school—the same one as our coach. Only four students can actually play on a Certamen team, and I won the mythology specialist spot. The coach already had a student who was "supposed" to be her myth person. As was her right, that other kid challenged me for the spot repeatedly, and lost each time. But it didn't end there. At State, when we won (largely thanks to my efforts, I might add), the coach was overheard telling her favored student not to worry, because soon it would be her in that seat, and not me. I still got to enjoy the thrill of competition when we played other teams, but practices were... uncomfortable.
The next year, I skipped the intermediate level to avoid playing with those same kids, and went straight to advanced. This was mostly good, except that I needed more team support to win (I had been able to basically do it alone as a novice) and we never quite got it together. The sting of defeat was terrible for me, because that was not how I had come to view myself as a Certamen player. I remember being so upset at the time... Looking back on it, it's so silly. But when you're a teenager, that stuff can be your whole way of showing the world who you are and what you're good for.
I haven't thought much about these experiences in years, but it all came rushing back yesterday, because I took my very first Certamen team to compete. We had practiced a bit beforehand, but I try to keep things light in my Latin club. I prioritize fun and enjoyment over intensity. I had no idea how they would do, and I hadn't really let myself give it much thought.
Then, while I was judging the sight reading competition, my phone EXPLODED with text messages: "DR. D WE ARE IN THE CERTAMEN FINALS!!!!" "WE DID IT WE ARE GOING TO THE FINAL ROUND!"
My first response was to tear up a little bit. I have the best students in the world and I could not be prouder of them. And you know I begged my way out of judging duty to get to that round so I could watch.
Seeing my kids play was awesome. They were supportive of each other as a team, and they answered some tough questions that most adults wouldn't even know the answers to. I have never felt so nervous for anyone, or so proud.
Although they didn't win, my kids did come in second, and only to a school with a powerhouse Certamen program. Those other students are very highly trained when it comes to knowing when to buzz, what types of questions might be asked, etc. etc. I could tell from the way the kids carried themselves that being dominant in Certamen is a huge part of their identity... just like it was part of mine at their age.
After the round, I told my students how happy I was with how they played. But then I saw that familiar fire in their eyes—they want to play harder. They want to play to win.
Games are only fun while they remain games. When they become about real-life disputes, or proof of superiority, or a way to prove a point, then the fun dies out.
Right now, my students are having fun. If the intensity of competition is fun for them, then I'm all for it. If it helps them have closer friendships with each other and they make great high school memories together, then I'm all for it. But I never want competition to poison things for them the way it did for me. I never want to see that light in their eyes go out.