Thoughts on gaming.

December 22, 2003

I have been playing a little bit of Shadowbane on a 10-day free trial. For those who have not heard of it, Shadowbane is a massively multiplayer game devoted to getting together with other players, building a city, then going to war with other players and their cities. The game has extensive pvp (player versus player), boring pve (player versus environment), and moderately interesting world-building aspects.

My characters are still in their early development stages - not yet big enough to start playing pvp. But, I have been reading about the game and thinking about what makes it compelling for some. In turn, this has gotten me thinking again about what makes computer games, or games in general, compelling to their players. This thought was inspired, in part, by last weekends NYT article about computer gaming, but it is also some thoughts that I have been mulling over for a while.

My current thought is that games have four crucial aspects: mechanics, competition, cooperation, and narrative. Different games have different mixes of the four, and the most compelling games have high scores on at least two of the four aspects.

Mechanics refers to the process of optimizing results within the rules of the game while using the resources available to you. Some games are entirely about maximizing results: blackjack, solitare, Pac Man, solo chess problems, etc. The fun of playing a purely mechanics game is the fun of solving the puzzle. Mechanics can appeal by providing logic puzzles, or geometric puzzles, or even asking you to "solve" a spreadsheet.

Competition is the heart of gaming. A game provides a structured situation with known rules in which you can compete with other people. Competition is fun; it can be compelling. Any game that is not purely solo or purely rpg has some aspects of competition in it. Chess would be a classic example of a competitive game. Competition can be head to head or multiplayer - Quake deathmatch or poker and quake lanparty for example.

Cooperation is the less noticed but more crucial aspect of gaming. Some games are almost entirely about the cooperative aspect - you win by getting a group of people to work together for a common goal. Other games mix competition and cooperation. There is a saying that every poker game has a patsy, and if you don't know who it is then it must be you. Cooperation is most obvious in games like Diplomacy or Everquest. In Diplomacy, 7 players compete to win. You succeed by making a series of short term alliances "lets you and me go crush him" and then betraying your ally after you have achieved your joint goal and before your ally betrays you. In Everquest, a massively multiplayer computer game, the mechanics are not all that hard despite a steep learning curve; the challenge comes from getting six, or twelve, or fifty people to work together on a common goal within the game mechanics.

Narrative is a newer aspect to gaming. I am not aware of narrative-based games - where players play a game by taking part in a story - before the 1970s, unless you consider charades, or drama as a game. "Hey kids, lets put on a show." I suspect that a storytelling contest would also qualify as a narrative game. In more traditional gaming terms, we find narrative gaming in pen and paper role playing - a group of people take on the personas of wizards and elves and such and attempt to achieve an in-game goal - and in computer gaming. Once Upon a Time is the only game I am aware of that uses competitive storytelling as a game mechanic. The advantage that computer games have is that they can provide a branched narrative that changes based on the player's actions. This is more easily done in a solo game, but some persistent worlds are letting players make lasting changes, others are changing their world every month or so to provide a background narrative for the players' actions.

Very few games are purely within one form; most games mix two or more. To use a couple more examples:
Chess - high level of mechanics, high level of competition; no social no narrative (outside of Alice in Wonderland.)
Poker - very high level of competition, some mechanics, some cooperation; no narrative.
Everquest - moderate mechanics, high cooperation, a little narrative, no ingame mechanism for competition.
Shadowbane - low mechanics, high cooperation, high competition, some in-game narrative.

Less successful games tend not to have an enoughness of enough of the elements.
Earth and Beyond, for example, had an imposed narrative placed on the game through monthly patches, fairly simple mechanics, and moderate cooperation. I found it entertaining for a while, but never compelling.

Gaming is challenging music and movies as the next form of popular entertainment. We will be seeing more and more about it over the next few years. As we do so we might want to think about how these aspects affect our understanding of our entertainment.

Let me close by using these analytical tools to look at spectator sports and at gambling - both of which are also forms of gaming.

Consider a football game. We will use a pro football game, both on the field and as a social experience.

110 players and a couple of dozen coaches are competing on a field. Of those players, the starters will be on the field for some 70 plays, others will be in less often. The social aspect of the game comes in coordinating the actions of 11 people on the field, the entire team off the field. There are a lot of very smart very talented people working in pro football who are kick-ass coordinators or position coaches and mediocre head coaches. Why? Because the head coach's primary duty is social. If he can create a climate for cooperation and effort, and if he can get the right people into the right jobs, then the team should do well. The competitive aspect of the game comes in many forms: coach v coach, quarterback v safety, flanker v cornerback, and so on. Lets look at the classic matchup: defensive end v offensive tackle. Some 70 times per game the two men will slam into one another, try to push the other out of the way, and make a play. On most of these plays, they will draw. However, on play after play, they are both using the mechanics of the game - what stance to take, how to execute a rip move, where to put your hands on the defender's torso - and using the competitive aspects. Defensive players will set up an outside move by faking inside, or will come up with a sequence of moves designed to get the offensive player off balance. Line play is endlessly fascinating in its variations.

Now lets shift to the audience perspective.
Here we are watching competition, we are watching cooperation. What the audience gets out of the game is sociability and narrative. We watch the game, we feel some level of emotional attachment to a team, we cheer. This is all social and, in some cases, the cheering of an audience can affect the outcome of the game - audience members get to feel that they have participated. We also tell ourselves stories about the game: "the team came back, they did not quit" or "they got ahead and stayed ahead" or "so and so redeemed himself through his play" or what have you. The sports section of your newspaper and the endless tv shows are all creating and spreading these narratives. Sports is not just the ultimate reality program, it is also a surprisingly strong source of narrative.

The other reason people watch sports is very like the reason people play poker or go to casinos: gambling.

When someone talks about the "gaming" industry, it takes a moment to figure out if they are referring to computer games, board games, or legalized gambling. The first and last in that list are where the big money is. Lets look at gambling through the four-pronged analysis.

Games change when there is money involved. People play differently for cash than they do for pride. This is one reason why, although I play gaming tournaments that do give prizes, I do not choose to play in situations where the cash prize is more important than the prestige of having won. Chris Martin and David Hood got a few dollars when they became world Diplomacy champions a few years back. But, having gamed against both of them, I know that their real reward comes from the prestige of being the force that everyone else around the table has to respond to. Respect from their peers outweighs any prize, heck the costs of competing are greater than the prize money. In contrast, I will play poker for chips or for penny ante but I just drop out when the cash players come. I do not care for the change in tone.

But, what is at stake when we gamble for cash that is not at stake when we play games for fun? Money, material rewards, changes the nature of the competition in several ways. The two that I want to talk about are "something for nothing" and "deep play." There are other ways that money changes gaming conduct in competitive games like poker, including personal dominance, but two is enough.

Something for nothing, or the hope of getting something for nothing, is compelling. It is the impulse that keeps all the con games in the world going. Consider a lottery. One the one hand, a lottery is a tax on people who can not do math. Lotteries offer terrible odds of winning, even in an illegal numbers game with its higher payouts. What they do offer, however, is the hope of winning. As a friend pointed out to me once, when you buy a lottery ticket you have just bought a license to daydream about what you will do when you win. For a couple of dollars you get up to a week of pleasant thoughts. That is a pretty good deal, and you should buy your lottery tickets early to get more value for your money. If you buy a lot of lottery tickets, you still have a minuscule chance to win, you have the same dreams of what to do with the money, but that same emotional pleasure costs you more. If you buy one lottery ticket, you are buying a pleasure. If you buy multiple tickets, or buy obsessively, then there is something else going on.

There is a thrill that comes with winning, or more specifically with that moment where the uncertainty resolves itself and you discover if you have won or lost. Flip a coin - it will come up heads or tails. So what. Flip it a hundred times, write down the results, and you will see fifty-odd of one side and fourty-odd of the other. The odds are against getting exactly 50 out of 100 flips. Now tell yourself that if the coin comes up heads, I will give you $100 cash. Now flip it again - was there a flutter of excitement? You won? Good. Double or nothing. Flip it again. Was the flutter bigger? Now again, $400 at stake this time. (Yes, I will make you keep flipping until we are back to even. Sorry.)

That little thought experiment should have induced some level of gut flutter. It should also have pointed out that the whole gambling process generally involves a relatively boring game where the interest comes not from the game mechanics but from the stakes. Face it, flipping a coin is boring. The only interesting decision in that particular game is deciding when to cash in and when to keep flipping the coin. If you buy into the game, get into its headspace, a simple coin flipping game like that could be compelling for hours. If you do not, then you will walk away quickly enough.

The flutter can be simple excitement, or it can evolve into what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls deep play. This is gambling, wild out of control gambling, in which a person will place all their assets on a single throw, or a single cockfight. People do that, especially in some cultures and subcultures, and do it repeatedly. Geertz asked why, and decided that it was because they came to identify themselves with the fighting bird, or with the rolling die, and by gambling so heavily that they were risking themselves, they gained a sort of affirmation.

You don't have to gamble outrageously to experience that sort of identification with the game, but gambling does help. Consider the sports gaming addicts who are caught up in the outcome of every game, seeing their bets as an extension of themselves and rooting for their players to pull it out, to beat the spread, to make that one basket. Gambling on sports adds a level of interest to the spectator phenomenon. Gambling in casinos adds a level of interest to things that, like pulling a slot machine lever, are worth only a couple of minutes of interest on their own. Every pull, every roulette ball, is its own micro-hit of self-identified deep play.

To turn full circle, deep play or identification with the gaming device, is what a computer game offers, what pencil and paper roleplaying offers, and what gambling or sports observation offers. If we want to create a compelling game it should offer a mix of mechanics, competition, cooperation, narrative, and deep play or identification. If we want to select a game for ourselves, we need to decide how we value each of these aspects of the gaming experience, and how much of our lives and free time we want the game to claim.

I will not be picking up a Shadowbane subscription because, although it offers great competition and cooperation, I find the mechanics clunky, and the narratives boring. I am not sure how easily I could identify with my characters: I find myself wanting to fire up the game to see how Kaladriel my dimwitted giant holy warrior will respond to new challenges. Besides, I don't have time for a new game. I just have time to write too many words about gaming.

EDIT - the folks at Sunsword remind me that Everquest is chock full of competition. It shows itself in racing for player access to the rare spawns and rare drops. Severilious the dragon appears in game once a week, give or take a day. It takes 30 people to kill the dragon. The dragon sometimes has a wonderful treasure that all warriors want. People would have characters camping out in the jungle where the dragon appears waiting for him to arrive, and once he is spotted they would race to be the first to get their group of 30 into place to kill the dragon. It got very competitive.

The above is a rough draft - I fear that I don't polish my blog posts. Heck, I barely stitched the two parts of that essay together.

Posted by Red Ted at December 22, 2003 01:09 AM | TrackBack

Keep up the great work on your blog. Best wishes WaltDe

Posted by: WaltDe at August 31, 2006 08:25 PM
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