Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why Winning Matters

My friend Matt (who blogs over at Killer Tofu) pointed me to a Kotaku piece by Quentin Smith titled "Video Games' Obsession With Winning is Killing Them". It's an interesting read, with the central thesis that video games like Call of Duty, with their focus on every interaction having a clear winner and a clear loser, create more wounded feelings and sensations of failure than necessary. He points to modern boardgames as a model that video games could learn from on this score, with their focus on non-direct competition and creating experiences more than winners.

Which implies that he and I have been playing board games very differently.

Smith cites Twilight Imperium as a game that prioritizes the creating of experiences over winning. In TI, there is a vast array of available actions to take, and the brutality of combat ensures that diplomacy is generally a first option. This encourages talking around the table and gives players breathing room to try different parts of the game world. You can focus on researching interesting things, build Death Stars, role play and sway votes in the Galactic Council. And while you're doing all that, I'll be busy accruing Victory Points so that, once the game is over, I'll be the winner. And one of TI's flaws is that the accumulation of VPs often stands in contrast to doing fun things, which means you can't have as much fun playing to win as you could simply screwing around.

Maybe this need to win speaks to something flawed in my character. Maybe I've been indoctrinated by video games to believe that winning matters, and I'm robbing myself of joy. But here's my question: If winning is so unimportant to modern board games, why is it there at all? Why does Twilight Imperium even have a Victory Point system if winning is such a secondary concern?

Because 'winning' is the goad that ensures good play. When we all sit down around a table, we enter the so-called 'magic circle', in which we all agree that the outcome of a fundamentally meaningless activity like playing a game matters. Each player strives, to the best of their ability, to follow the rules of the game to ensure the best outcome for themselves. I bet you've played board games before with someone who doesn't care about winning, or who doesn't fully understand the rules that the game operates under. It's horrible, right? The table basically has a hole, sucking all of the fun down it as the magic circle breaks whenever it's that player's turn. They don't care about winning, so they don't make interesting moves; they act randomly, or to suit some personal whim. They're probably having fun, but it's fun at the expense of the table, and it's toxic to good gaming.

This is often the consequence of improperly defined or easily ignored victory systems. A player who feels like they can't win, either because the game mechanics make it too easy for a savvy player to pull ahead, or because it's too easy to lose track of how winning is achieved, will begin to strike out randomly, essentially attempting to pull the game down around them in the interest of their own enjoyment. This problem plagues Twilight Imperium, with its Victory Point system often lost in the haze of all the available options. A player will see another player pull ahead, and, feeling the game's stated goal pull out of their reach, will start acting only to amuse themselves.

Games are more fun when people play to the best of their abilities. People play their best when there are stakes. The agreement that winning 'matters' and is achievable by all players is the best way to create those stakes. Ill-defined or unimportant win conditions in board games aren't a blessing or a boon that video games need to adapt; they're a curse that needs to be avoided.

(I will say: Smith's last point, about the competitive party game Bang, is dead-on. A party game that relies largely on randomness is a great palate cleanser after a long, winning-focused strategy game like Twilight Imperium, and a quick game where winning is more a matter of luck than skill can be a great game to heal wounded feelings. That being said, for games where skill IS paramount, winning must and should be the player's goal).

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