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My response to a popular online article which claims the best way to enjoy competitive games is to "play to win", and deal with games as they are rather than trying to impose additional rules. I get into why I think there are exceptions to both principles

Mark Newheiser, Blogger

April 14, 2009

11 Min Read

Commentary is the sincerest form of flattery, and today I'll be wielding the dual-edged blade of praise and critique in response to a popular essay on the topic of competitive gaming by Sirlin, titled Playing to Win. I recently published a piece on competitive gaming myself called Playing Fair, which was an analysis of the factors which affect the perceived fairness and balance of a game.


My basic point would be that players play games for a variety of reasons, and games significantly differ in how they reward player behavior—possibly tilting the balance in favor of winners, losers, or the players who spent the most time leveling up. Players search for dominant strategies and gameplay elements according to the rules provided to them, even as game designers and communities sometimes to try alter the configuration of the game to tilt its balance.


While my piece is about factors inherent to game design and how to manage them, Sirlin's is about a philosophy of playing games and how he believes people ought to play in response to the game that they're given. Sirlin makes a distinction between two classes of players:

  • Players who play to win and exploit the game mechanics to the maximal possible extent in order to win

  • Scrubs who play the game with their own limited set of internal rules or "code of honor" which handicaps their play, and in his opinion simply serves as a mental block to effective playing

If the explicit rules of the game are broken or lead to boring or undesirable outcomes when maximally exploited, he considers that to be the fault of the game, not the players. And if the exploitation of the rules by the first class of players causes the "scrubs" to not have any fun as a result, he calls it the scrub's fault for not playing the game right—not playing in order to win.


The path to mental liberation in gaming is to throw off any inhibiting code of honor which holds back your play and use all the tactics that you consider to be cheap or unfair for yourself.


In an odd bit of inconsistency however, he does claim that there are some particularly broken glitches which he considers completely illegitimate to use in a "serious" game, which raises the question of where to draw the line between a scrub's complaint over features of the game they'd prefer to exclude and his own preferences.

I take two significant exceptions to Sirlin's arguments. In short, I believe that there are legitimate reasons for players to play the way he characterizes "scrubs" as playing, and even competitive gamers would not be satisfied with his limited view of how to deal with the given ruleset of a game.

First, I claim there are legitimate reasons other than mental weakness for players to have a "code of honor" in playing games, and it's perfectly fine to play games for a reason other than winning at all costs. As an extreme case, consider the example of single-player games which may contain a broken move, tactic, or build. Final Fantasy VI contains a glitch where you can cast Vanish then Doom on a monster to perform an instant kill, which even works on bosses thanks to a bug in the game's programming.


The optimal strategy would be to abuse this as much as possible in order to win and breeze through the game, which leads to the question of why you're playing the game in the first place. Sirlin considers playing to win to be the height of the gaming experience. I disagree. I think playing to be challenged is what makes games enjoyable, which may or may not be reducible to optimizing victory conditions.


But the point is not to win—unless your ego requires constant affirmation from trivial sources. The point is that players should be challenged to perform at their best, even if that means avoiding the easiest path to victory, and even if that means handicapping a game in such a way that everyone has a viable way to play and do well.

A large part of the reason casual players instinctively play with a "code of honor" is that people often naturally act according to the golden rule. A casual player may try to avoid behaviors that would harm their own enjoyment of the game, such as spamming the same cheap move over and over on someone, keeping an opponent locked in a combo for ten seconds, or ruining someone's game in an RTS by an early attack that leaves them wiped out for the rest of the game.


They don't enjoy those aspects of the game, so they'd prefer to avoid them and hope others would do the same, as arbitrary and naive as that is in some situations. Whether you can get away with that depends upon your level of competition, just like some real-life sports at a certain level are played with mercy rules where once one side is ahead by far enough they don't continue to rub it in and run up the score. 

A lot of these behaviors are designed to keep you on good terms with the people you play with. If you play games with your friends your objective may be to play in a way that ensures everyone can enjoy themselves in a sustainable way. It may be poor form to throw a match, but you may decide to limit your playing style so that everyone has more of an even chance rather than letting the players with the most time to spend trounce the newbies and drive them away.


And like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, if going all out against a newbie doesn't present a sufficient challenge you might decide to "play left handed". That could mean trying a character or build you have less experience with, or just choosing on the basis of your personal code of honor to not use tactics that would give you an extreme edge. That may not teach the other players to optimize their strategy, but that may not be the point.


The argument that players should suppress all social instinct and consideration for other players may make sense in the context of a sufficiently devoted group of players, a gaming tournament, or even an online game with an unlimited number of anonymous opponents that you can be an asshole with no repercussions to. But in real life there are often other considerations to factor in, and if you enjoy beating up newbies more than finding a way to challenge yourself the problem may be on your end.

My second main objection to Playing to Win is that even among hardcore competitive gamers, I consider it to be perfectly legitimate to "patch" your game among the player base and tweak the rules to explore a different set of possibilities. That applies if you're using a rule to exclude a broken element of the game, or simply to try out a different set of rules and see where they lead.


The question to consider when evaluating a tactic or gameplay strategy is not just "will this help me win?" but "does this make the game more interesting and fun?" If the answer to that second question is no, and the tactic is clearly a dominating one, players may just decide that they'd like to try the game without playing that way.


Designers patch their games all the time to try to avoid undesirable consequences of gameplay. Some games never get patched, but even for the ones that do applying a different ruleset ultimately just leads to a different way to explore the game. It's not the same game the designer shipped in the box, but there's nothing wrong with that if it makes the experience more interesting.

Sirlin obviously understands competitive gaming and game balance very well, and it's certainly true that without significant trial and error players often make poor choices in complaining about a strategy, tactic, or move being unbalanced before searching for viable alternatives and counters.


His basic complaint is that he doesn't want to introduce socially arbitrated rules into his games, where people just agree not to play a certain way on an arbitrary honor code. It's a legitimate point, and you may not expect most people to be able to agree on a viable set of gameplay alternatives to what the designers originally created or show any expertise at re-balancing a game themselves.


That said, while exploring a game's innate possibilities to test its balance is a legitimate way to advance the community, so is trying out a different set of rules and evaluating the result. And furthermore some games such as the storytelling game Once Upon A Time, referenced in my article, are impossible to play without relying on an unenforceable spirit of cooperation from the players. It's a broken game that depends upon the players' goodwill to make it any fun, which turns out to be more common than you might think.

The main reason I felt compelled to respond to Sirlin's writing and probably a large part of why his work is so popular is because he employs the surprisingly effective rhetorical tactic of name-calling anyone who wants to impose external rules on a game, and anyone who acts in any way other than exploiting a game's rules to the maximal extent in order to win.


He rightly criticizes the griping of people who haven't explored a game's full scope and are unwilling to do so. But he doesn't admit that there are legitimate reasons to make those complaints. For some games the consequences of everyone playing out rigorously optimized tactics are simply not that enjoyable, and may be particularly soul-crushing for the newbies who just want to jump in to have fun.


Sirlin is the Machiavelli of competitive gaming, urging his disciples to game the system to win at all costs, and if that leads to a miserable experience for other players, that's the system's fault, not theirs. Casual players should adapt to competitive gamers rather than vice-versa, and the only responsibility competitive gamers bear in regard to gameplay is picking the games they want to play and believe to be balanced; they can stay free of trying to fix the system themselves or daring to re-balance a game.

Sirlin compares competitive gaming to a mountain range with peaks and valleys representing various winning or losing strategies, and complains that some players aren't exploring the whole landscape by narrowing themselves in to a particular region because they choose to play with an internally imposed set of rules.


I prefer to characterize things differently: players have the power to reshape that landscape for themselves and legitimately re-define how the game is played, tweaking the rules to create a different set of peaks and valleys as a result. They may decide that exploring the territory and appreciating its texture is more enjoyable than finding the highest peak and camping out there, and they may decide that the challenge of scaling the mountains is more important than being on top.

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