Monday, May 20, 2013

Competition in Games

Max proposes a way of classifying competition in games, and discusses why even the most seemingly noncompetitive games can still offer players the thrill of competition.

When people hear the phrase "competitive game," many examples jump to mind. They think of sports like soccer, tabletop games like monopoly and poker, or digital games like Call of Duty and Starcraft.  We less frequently think of games like Journey and Dungeons & Dragons. Nearly every game offers competitive players some element of inter-player competition, but when we use the term "competitive game," we referring to games with direct, explicit competition; I'm going to explore games that feature the often overlooked sides of competition: implicit and indirect elements.

The Axes
Competition in games exists on two axes.  The first axis is the indirect direct axis.  The second axis is the implicit  explicit axis.  While it isn't always easy to strictly place games onto one side or the other of either of these spectra, I'm going to primarily discuss examples that lean very heavily towards the ends of these two axes.

Indirect versus Direct Competition
This axis is defined by the amount of control one player has over other players' success.  This spectrum is about how the competition is enacted.  Again, when the phrase "competitive game" is uttered, people almost always think of games with direct competition.  This is because these games are very clearly one player (or team) against another.  Ball-based sports thrive on this form of competition, because the goal of the game is almost always to prevent the opposing team from scoring points while trying to score points yourself.  Soccer, for example, relies heavily on direct competition, because one of the most important parts of the game is preventing your opponents from scoring goals.  The mere fact that both teams have some control over how well the other teams do makes the competition in many sports direct.  If it has two (or more) sides playing at the same time, it's probably a game with direct competition.

Many board and card games fall cleanly into this category as well: Monopoly, Apples to Apples, Ascension, Magic: the Gathering, Chess.  In Monopoly, you take money from your opponents when they land on your spaces, thus influencing their success.  In Apples to Apples, one player decides who gets the points for each given round.  In Ascension, players attempt to snatch up cards before their opponents can, and make their opponents discard cards.  In Chess, players make their opponents less powerful by capturing their pieces.  It's clear why direct competition feels like "real" competition to us, but that doesn't mean that competitiveness doesn't exist in games that rely elements of indirect competition.

Track and footraces are excellent examples of indirect competition.  The calling card of this form of competition is extreme focus on optimizing one's own performance with little opportunity or desire during gameplay to affect opponents' performance.  Most races fall into this category, as do single-player classic arcade games with high score lists, like pinball.  In these games, many players are driven by the desire to beat opponents' high scores, but they may be playing at very different points in time, and thus have no opportunity (or even desire) to undermine them through direct means.  It's clear that games featuring indirect competition can still be extremely competitive, as can be seen, for example, in the Olympics.

Implicit versus Explicit Competition
This axis is defined by how the competition is portrayed, if at all.  This axis is less tangible and more ambiguous than the one above.  Explicitly competitive games are ones in which it is nearly impossible to ignore the competitive element.  All of the games I described in the previous section were explicitly competitive, because when playing players know they are competing.  While one can choose to not take part in the competition in explicitly competitive games, one cannot help but understand that it exists.  For example, while I can play Pac-Man for my own edification and not compete against anyone, I cannot help but notice the high scores at the end—the designers intended it to be competitive for at least some players.

Implicit competition exists when either designers didn't intend for competition to occur (and competitive players competed anyway), or when designers made it difficult to compare players' performances.  This thesis is a little more controversial and debated than the previous types of competition, but I find that implicit competition happens in many seemingly noncompetitive cooperative games, whether they're board games or digital games.  Coop board games like Arkham Horror exemplify implicit competition.  While the game doesn't provide easy ways of comparing players' performances, many competitive players still vie for the satisfaction of having "carried" the team to victory.  This is also often true of tabletop roleplaying games, depending on the gaming group.  In the digital realm, many coop games have implicit competition, but multiplayer puzzle games are prime examples.  One of the motivations in completing these puzzles is likely a desire to be smarter (and thus contribute more) than the other player.  This is particularly apparent in the cooperative mode of Portal 2, where GLaDOS (the narrator) constantly and arbitrarily compares the performances of the two players.  Thus, the implicit explicit axis is about how competition is portrayed to the players.

Competition in Single-Player Games: Implicit, Indirect Competition
First, a story: every evening from middle school all the way through high school, my friends and I would go home to game.  Games swept through our computers and consoles like fads, and we were usually playing the same single player games at the same time.  During the day we would hang out at school and discuss our strategies and achievements, relishing outperforming our fellows.  At the start of this post I said "Nearly every game offers competitive players some element of competition," and single player digital games are no exception.  My thesis is that part of the draw of single player games (for some players in some situations more than others) is the implicit and indirect competition offered by mastering them.  The obvious and straightforward case is the one I mentioned above, where the players of single player games construct their own framework for explicit competition.  It can also occur even less explicitly, where the player often simply thinks about how fast or effectively she is completing goals compared to theoretical other players.

The implicit and indirect competition phenomenon undoubtedly contributes to the faddish nature of single player game releases, where they are bought up shortly after release and old games are somewhat rarely revisited.  I hypothesize that in a world where players knew nobody else was playing the single player game they were, that game would become much less engaging.

When I discuss this theory with others they usually follow and agree with me up until the portion on single player games.  What do you think?  Is implicit, indirect competition against the faceless masses a motivation for you to play single player games? 


Ramenhotep said...

I also had the good fortune to speak with Mike Mearls, the head of R&D for Dungeons and Dragons this past week. He mentioned that one thing their team is trying to do is to create a shared language for D&D players across their tables. For example, standardizing armor classes so that a specific range is always high, and another range is always low. Among other effects, this shared language would allow all D&D players to more easily compare their characters and lead to more indirect competition between players from different D&D sessions.

Unknown said...

Where do you think unstructured play (paideia) fits into this analysis?

Ramenhotep said...

This analysis really only works for games on the ludic side of the spectrum. Also fix your apostrophe.

Unknown said...

Another wonderful article Max. Thank you so much.

Ok, this may seem a bit controversial, but its been bugging me for a while, and i would love to get an honest opinion of someone in the industry with the kind of academic knowledge you display.

In regards to hardcore explicit direct competitive MMOs where 2 or more factions compete, a trash talk culture will emerge based around "soft" hate-words relevant to the factions. over extended periods of play do you think this behavior can de-condition the users to casual bigotry? and if so, is this the designers responsibility or the users to remedy this?

Ramenhotep said...

Hi Bodhidharma Wannabe,

That's a great question! Unfortunately I don't have any academic studies for you to look at, so I can only offer my personal experience (which I'm sure you have a lot of as well).

During a Digital Game Studies course in college, my group was interested in some of the same questions, so we set out to conduct an experiment in World of Warcraft. We created characters on the same server on both Horde and Alliance side, and we invited players to message our character on their faction with an opposing-faction player name and message. We then manually sent that message from the other faction character to the sender's recipient. Basically, we mediated communication between horde and alliance characters.

While we did see a bunch of insults flung, most of the time this appeared to be from players who wanted to test our service and couldn't come up with anything better to say. They would tell us to insult an [opposing faction] character, but didn't care which one. The most interesting use of the service was for opposing faction players to be able to adventure with each other and help each other with quests. Most commonly, however, users used our service to challenge each other to duels.

Both in this experiment and in my own experience I don't think most players get very into faction rivalry beyond the mechanical (testing their skills against opposing faction members), and I've not seen faction hate turn into real bigotry. Of course, if it was happening it would be the designers' responsibility to combat bigotry in their game (although seeing as most faction systems are intended to have this effect I have a hard time believing that they would).

Finally, you might want to check out some of Professor Lisa Nakamura's research and writing on hate speech in online game cultures, although she talks about much more than just faction-based hate.

Lucy Jenner said...
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