Wednesday 25 April 2012

mutual learning - an aesthetic for competitive play

Post brought on by a tweet from Frank Lantz and an interview with Tale of Tales.

David Sirlin's excellent Playing to Win series presents an aesthetic for competitive play. An inadequate summary: It is beautiful to continuously improve yourself by trying your best to win games. Any tactic permitted by the rules is valid; do whatever it takes to win regardless of whether it is seen as "not fun" or "exploitative". Games are best played with the strongest opponents you can find, to maximise what you can learn from them and provide the greatest challenge to overcome.

This is not the only viable aesthetic for competitive play. In particular, it doesn't really capture what I get out of competitive games.

From the Tale of Tales interview:
MichaĆ«l: I mean, some people play competitively of course but those are nasty people – you don’t want to play with them! You want to play with nice people who don’t particularly care whether they win or lose but they –
Aureia: They just want to be with you.

I'm ripping this out of context, and I'm sure it was said in a joking manner, but there's a valid point here. Someone who's "playing to win" can be fairly unpleasant to play against.
Example: Someone's playing a game for the first time. They start making moves that make it clear that they've misunderstood or missed some aspect of the rules (legal moves, but very poor ones). Do you a) remind them of the rule, b) wait until it's too late and let them fail. I've played with people who choose b, and not only is it kind of dickish, it's a poor way to teach - failures are best found and corrected as soon as possible.
Example: You don't know a game very well. A more experienced player offers advice. As you play, it turns out their advice just so happened to advantage them and disadvantage another player. (You know who you are.)
So I sympathise with Tale of Tales here; strictly playing to win no matter what isn't very sociable. But the problem there is bad sportsmanship, not the desire to win in itself. I disagree with the sentiment that you shouldn't care about whether you win or lose. Aiming to win is part of what drives games, makes them work at all. If you don't care about winning, there's no particular reason to choose any move over any other - or even to play it all. The magic doesn't happen. I've played Poker for money and not for money; every time it's been for money it's been a lovely sociable game and every time it hasn't it's just been kind of dull. The game is powered by the desire to win; when you take that away it doesn't work the same.

Lantz's comment brings to mind my experience with multiplayer RTS. My impression is that most people do not play against other people until they feel they've adequately learnt a game by playing the singleplayer mode. They are intimidated by the competition. Many players shun competitive online play completely; preferring to stick with single-player or cooperative modes (e.g. "comp-stomp"; a team of human players against a team of AI players). Or when they do play competitively, they impose extra rules like "no rush" - see Rush, Boom, Turtle: "I'm the bad guy?" by Tom Chick; I've been there.
From the POV of the "playing to win" aesthetic this is wrong: playing against AI trains bad habits which must then be unlearned, it is better to continually try yourself against the best available opponents.

So here's my aesthetic:
Competitive games are best played first with an opponent who's also never played before. Together you experience the joy of shared discovery. This is almost cooperative, despite the game being competitive; you are figuring out rules and strategies at the same time, and you communicate your discoveries with each other. Maybe you talk about them together, or maybe you use them to defeat your opponent - either of these is a form of communication. You see each other fail and perhaps you gently mock each other, but you are unashamed because it's only a game and you are in it together.

Board games naturally work a bit like this, because they're typically played in local groups who have similar amounts of experience with a game, whereas online games are played against the keenest players from around the world. If playing online is off-putting because you don't like being beaten over and over again, this is a good approach to follow; it means you're always playing against someone at the same level as you. Bring back the LAN party!

The best game for this for me has been Race for the Galaxy. I bought it having heard that it was excellent but knowing nothing more than that, and my wife and I proceeded to play it almost every day for several months. It has a lot of different stages of understanding; where I've found something that wins pretty reliably so I keep on doing it until either she figures out something that beats it (and then I have to figure out what beats that) or she starts doing the exact same thing and beating me and I have to work out how to do it better. And then, once you've played a hundred or so times and you think you've absorbed the full range of strategies available, you can add in the next expansion and shake things up completely. The designer has talked about how he playtested a lot and carefully balanced the different strategies so that the things that are harder to figure out turn out to be just a bit stronger so that it's worth figuring them out; there's this carefully planned arc of understanding that you go through as you learn the game.

I think Glitch Tank is a good game for this too. It doesn't have as much of an arc as Race does, but it has a delightful sense of bafflement when you first play that is best shared with another.


  1. This is really interesting. I think when people have never played before, know each other, and have the peace and quiet of their own space.

    I find that running a board games event in a cafe, about 1/3 new players is the ideal maximum. With too many new people, it leads to a quiet and introspective game, which can feel horribly and inappropriately tense in a noisy public setting.

    With roughly 2/3 of a group being experienced players, it can keep things pretty fast moving, and a player can duck out here and there to answer questions from new people. Of course, this depends on the kind of nice players you describe, who are willing to teach the game well rather than keep secrets, quibble and give the new people a kicking.

  2. The death of the LAN Party is very saddening. I have fond memories of this process of "shared discovery" playing Counter Strike, Warcraft 3 and DotA with friends.

    I also remember getting into arcade emulators as a freshman in college. I couldn't play King of Fighters with my roomate because he was too good at it, so we decided to play something new. Samurai Shodown V and the silly but amazing Twinkle Star Sprites were perfect for this, they gave us the best feeling of competition, of strategy leading to counter-strategy leading to counter-counter-strategy, just like you said. Good times!

    I also had the same Race for the Galaxy experience with my girlfriend. The game suits that "aesthetic" perfectly.