The value of cooperative games

As published in the Fall 2018 issue of the PRG

By Suzanne Lyons

Cooperative games offer a new way to play. Traditional, competitive games are zero-sum games: One player can win only if another loses. Cooperative games are structured differently. Players don’t compete against each other. Instead, they have a common goal so players either win or lose together. The fun comes from the camaraderie and challenge of the game—not from being the only player (or team) left standing when everyone else is eliminated. No one is eliminated in a cooperative game. What is eliminated is the incentive to beat others in order to distinguish one’s self.

Competition is so woven into our culture that we don’t often reflect on it. From sports and politics to classroom contests to reality TV shows, competitive activities frame much of our day. Yet when you stop to think about it, competition is a harsh proposition. The winner’s gain must always come at the expense of someone else. Given this us-versus-them framework, it’s easy to see why competition has potential downsides including envy, anxiety, selfishness, anger, divisiveness, and even aggression.1

Given the win-win nature of cooperation, it’s not surprising that peace, productivity, equity, friendliness, and a range of other positive social-emotional outcomes typically follow from it.2

Cooperative games exist for all ages and settings. They span all genres, from party games to active games, online games, board games, ice breakers, therapy games and more. They differ in significant ways, but they all share certain benefits. Here are just a few.

Cooperative games teach cooperation. Cooperation involves communicating, sharing, helping, compromising, encouraging, listening, and participating in group problem-solving. These cooperative skills can only be perfected through lots of practice, which is what we get with cooperative play.

Learning to cooperate involves more than developing cooperative skills however. Players discover for themselves that cooperation feels good. Competition may get the adrenalin pumping, but cooperation reduces stress, eases social tensions, and brings people together.

Cooperative games show that working together is a practical necessity. Especially in today’s complex world, we are interdependent.

Cooperative games nurture kindness. Cooperative games are structured so that players must help one another, share, and give. It’s inevitable that players will perform pro-social, kindly actions in these sorts of games.

Cooperative games are inclusive.

In cooperative games, no one is eliminated. You don’t have to be the smartest, best looking, most aggressive, most popular, most athletic, most vocal, or luckiest player to be an important part of the group. It’s in the interest of all that every player feels included and does their best. 

Cooperative games reduce aggression. That is, cooperative games not only help players be more positive, they help players be less negative. The notable study “Cooperative Games: A Way to Modify Aggressive and Cooperative Behaviors in Young Children,” proves this point.3 The overall results clearly showed that competitive games increased aggression while cooperative games reduced it. The researchers concluded that cooperative games in preschool could help prevent the development of adult antisocial behavior.

Cooperative games are fun.

Studies have shown that when children are given a choice, they often prefer to play cooperatively.4 Competitive activities may be fun for the winner, but less so for everyone else. They can be downright deflating, divisive, and depressing, and trigger spats and tantrums, which surely are not fun.

Interested in learning more about cooperative games?

• For more on the benefits of cooperative games, directions to free games, and to purchase books and cooperative board games, visit

• Dr. Stevanne Auerbach (also known as Dr. Toy;,) reviews and presents awards for selected best toys and games. She discovered the value of cooperative games created by Family Pastimes, Peaceable Kingdom, and the latest game, The Baby Beluga Game, by Child and Nature at


1. Kohn, A. (1992). Against Each Other. In author (Ed.) No contest; The case against competition (132-157). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

2. Goldstein, A.P. (2002).The psychology of group aggression (123-157). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

3. Bay-Hinitz, A.K., Peterson, R.F., & Quiltich, H R. (1994) Cooperative games: A way to modify aggressive and cooperative behaviors in young children, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 435-446. doi:10.1901/jaba.1994.27-435

4. Kohn, A. (1992). Is competition more enjoyable? In author (Ed.) No contest; The case against competition (91-95). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

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