Voting for the ENnie Awards closes today. One Geek To Another has been nominated for Best Blog, but–as in any competition–there can be only one ultimate winner. While I’d appreciate your vote, it seemed an appropriate time to tackle a difficult topic: being a good loser.

The adage says, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. Winning by cheating, or while making the game miserable for the rest of the players may still be winning, but in the long run, it’s often a hollow victory.

I also believe that, again in the long run, how you win or lose is as important as how you play the game.

We’ve all played games with folks who are poor losers. Sometimes it’s a maturity-level thing–children get very wrapped up in their recreational activities and sometimes don’t have the emotional tools to deal appropriately with losing a game. Thankfully, as they age, most folks learn good sportsmanship both during and after a game, even when the results are important to them, making temper tantrums, table-overturning and emotional outbursts rarer as the age and maturity-level of the players increases.

Other times, however, the poor sportsmanship is more subtle (but no more fun to deal with). As players get older, post-loss tears and tantrums are sometimes replaced by things like rules-lawyering (tearing apart the rules to try to find any loophole or potentially ambiguous guideline that could possibly be interpreted in such a way as to tip the game’s results in their favor) or passive-aggressive hostility (“If I’d have had the other controller, I’d have wiped the floor with you. You always give me the crappy one cuz you know it doesn’t react as fast as yours.”)

It can be difficult to be a good loser. Competitive games are played, at least in part, because winning is fun. But, for every winner in a competitive game, there usually has to be at least one loser, and noone wins all the time, so learning how to be as positive as possible when the chips don’t fall in your favor is an important skill if you want folks to continue enjoying playing with you.

Some things to remember when someone else wins that may help you keep a good attitude:

  • Win or lose, playing a game should be fun. No matter how good of a player you are, sometimes you’re going to lose. If you only enjoy playing a game if you win, you may want to think about why you’re playing that game and look for another that you will enjoy playing whether you win or not.
  • Remember – stuff happens. Life isn’t perfect, people aren’t perfect, and mistakes happen. Sometimes the dice are going to roll off the table. Sometimes people will miscalculate their score. Sometimes someone’s turn may get accidentally skipped. In most cases, these are innocent mistakes and mishaps, and not a result of someone trying to cheat or “screw you over”. Treat them as such, correct the damage if possible, and keep the game friendly, even when the mistake was harmful to your chances of winning. Next time, the error may be in your favor, and you want others to be just as gracious about it.
  • Consider your audience. If you feel like you’re being a poor loser because someone else is a poor winner (see below) then maybe the gaming environment you’re playing with isn’t a positive one. Some gamers are more cut-throat than others, and it’s hard to be a good loser in a group full of bad winners. Play with people you enjoy being around, and who you enjoy interacting with in the way the game you’re playing encourages you to interact. Some folks are fun to play casual games with, but get sharky when it comes to video games or rpgs. Others may be great to LARP with, but become rules-lawyers when it comes to board or card games.

My last piece of advice about being a good loser may be a little controversial: Fake it til you make it. This is one of the few situations where I’m going to advocate that complete honesty really isn’t the best option.

Especially when the stakes are high, it can be hard to be a good loser. It’s hard to see the other guy proceed on to the next round of the tournament while we pack up our cards, or to see the other team walk away with the trophy and title when we’ve worked so hard all season for our shot in the spotlight. But even if you’re feeling petty and pissed off, smile and congratulate the other person. You don’t have to give a five minute speech praising their play or proclaiming them as the next Arnold Palmer of mini-golf, but offering a handshake and “Good Game” before you retreat to your own corner is positive for a couple of reasons.

First, you’ll recover from your loss faster. Especially after an emotionally charged game, you are likely to be feeling your loss much more intensely than you will after having a little cool down time. And intense emotions feed on their intensity. If you rant and rage about your loss, the super-sharp emotions will stay with you longer and it will take you longer to come down from the negativity. Pretending to be more magnanimous than you’re actually feeling will help you get to that place of better perspective faster.

Second, it is much easier to not do damage than to have to repair it. Once spoken, words can’t be taken back; once actions are committed, they’re never truly forgotten. Assuming that your goal is not to be perceived as a poor loser, it’s much easier to shake hands and murmur quick congratulations and then walk away than it is to blow up, throw things and rant and then try to come back later and apologize. Even if your fellow players say it’s not a big deal–every interaction colors how people see you. Learning to go through the motion of good sportsmanship–even when you’re not really feeling it–will leave a positive impression, and give you the time to deal with having lost in a more private setting. Then, when you come back to the table and (hopefully) have gotten a better perspective on the situation, you don’t have to try to undo the damage your initial negative emotions might have encouraged you to do.

And, finally, even in situations where you don’t feel good sportsmanship is appropriate, the facade of being a good loser usually works to your advantage. You may be feeling anger or frustration because of perceived wrong-doing (ie: you believe your opponent cheated or such), but even then it’s usually much easier to deal with the situation appropriately from a place of perceived good sportsmanship than not. If it’s a competition where referees or judges are involved, they’re much more likely to give more weight to a complaint from someone with a reputation for good sportsmanship than someone who’s being seen only as a bad loser. And if not, sorting out the situation yourself will be much easier if you’ve given yourself time and space to calmly assess the wrong-doing than if you tackle it immediately while your emotions are high.

As a bonus, going through the motions of good sportsmanship even when you’re not feeling it does become a habit. And, eventually, you may find that by creating the habit of seeming to handling adversity in a positive manner, you actually do learn to handle it better. I won’t lie and tell you that it will make losing fun; it’s always more fun to win, that’s part of why we play competitive games. But being a good loser is more fun (for you and those around you) than being a bad one.
In closing, I’d like to say congratulations and good luck to all my fellow ENnies nominees – you’re all very deserving of the win, and while I won’t be in Indianapolis in person to shake hands with you all and wish you all luck before the Awards ceremony, I’ll be there in spirit. Good Luck!

Have questions about how to handle a geeky situation? Need advice on social etiquette relating to games, movies, fan groups, conventions or other geek-ful settings? Write us at and your question may get answered in one of our future One Geek to Another columns!