Playing to Win

I’m thinking of writing a series on rules and ethics (in games and elsewhere), but first it seems necessary to establish a simple point: some tactics work really well even if you do not like them. Many of us know what “should win” in our idealized concept of the game, and we think it is a design flaw that other things are better, but tactically, in direct PvP or comparative performance, some things just work better. There is no moral character to it.

This is frequently hate against things that win despite being simple or boring because things that are difficult or awesome should win instead of being inefficient or impractical. You’re right, games would be more fun with more “awesome but practical” over “boring but practical,” as “boring” is not an desirable trait for most forms of entertainment, but that does not make choosing the simple, efficient, effective option bad strategy or morality. It is also an aesthetic argument rather than a balance issue; at the mechanical level, the tactics and strategy can be interesting and complex even if you personally think it’s BS that paper beats rock.

To take a friend’s favorite article, you need to play to win to enjoy the depth of the game. “Cheap” is a perfectly viable tactic if it works; if it didn’t work, it would just be “stupid.” There is probably a cheap defense against a cheap trick, and we all laugh uproariously when cheese fails. Experts beat cheap strategies using counters, fundamentals, and better tactics; you can see experts engaging in overlapping simultaneous rounds of what would be simple cheapness in a low-tier game. Intermediate players hate cheapness because it allows an unskilled player to have a chance at a win; if they knew all the counters and counter-counters, they’d be experts. Most of the losing players on “When Cheese Fails” are just bad players trying for an easy win with a cheap tactic. They are one-trick ponies that do not know how to follow up the attack or how to recover if the gambit does not win instantly. They are also frequently mouthy players who seem to think they are great for knowing one trick and that “X is OP” when it does not work. They are strangely able to recognize that the counter to their strategy is cheap without seeing that their strategy itself is. We should then most often see experts who counter cheapness for easy wins; journeymen who sometimes do so but often cannot tell whether a loss is due to expert manipulation or beginner’s luck (tip: the experts are less often mouthy about it); and newbies who (will explain loudly that they) are alternately Internet Sun Tzus or the martyrs of completely unfair design based on whether the opponent knows how to stop one particular trick.

In our MMO world, the flavor of the month is usually that way because something made it one of the most effective builds. As much as we all love being internet hipsters who look down on people for being mainstream or just “looking it up,” once someone has done the theorycraft, the math is out there. If you are trying to win, use the math. Of course, to end on a quote from yesterday‘s article, your goal may be to play rather than to win:

For most games, there’s a guide that explains exactly how to complete your objective perfectly, but to read it would be cheating. Your goal is not to master the game, but to experience the process of mastering the game as laid out by the game’s designers, without outside interference.

But if you’re playing to play, don’t act surprised or offended when you lose to people who are playing to win.

: Zubon

Cheap with no counter is just crap design, yeah.

7 thoughts on “Playing to Win

  1. bhagpuss

    “But if you’re playing to play, don’t act surprised or offended when you lose to people who are playing to win”

    I don’t. :P

    In fact, I often have more fun and feel more satisfied and happier after a “loss” than a “win”. Currently this is particularly true in WvW, where the more successful our team is, the fewer opportunities for entertainment there are. A heroic failure can often be massively more entertaining and even inspiring than an easy victory. Of course, a heroic victory against the odds is better yet, but you can hardly expect one of those to come along every session.

    Outside of MMOs, the only professional sport I’ve ever been really interested in and could claim to follow is Cricket. I can honestly say I feel mildly disappointed when the England cricket team does exceptionally well. I like them to lose more than they win so that the wins have more flavor. Their performance over several decades has trained me this way and when they have brief spells of over-achievement as they have recently I find it quite disconcerting.

  2. Curuniel

    I’m with bhagpuss when it comes to my own play – I always consider myself casual chiefly because I don’t play to win. It’s also why I avoid PvP, because not playing to win there often makes the experience somewhat unpleasant.

    I’m sure there always have been and always will be people who complain about how exactly other people beat them, but I think some of the dynamics you (Zubon) talk about are quite distinctive to MMOs, or at least to things using the internet. When a game can be updated so regularly, players feel able to challenge the designers’ decisions and try to get the rules changed to suit the way they play – or the way they think they should be able to win.

    Trying to express things I’m trying to work into my thesis, so it’s not that clear yet, heh.

  3. Jeromai

    Exactly.

    One of the follow-up cautions I’d add is that playing to win can often become self-defeating in the long run. There can only be a few people at the top at any one point, and one’s entire life may end up dedicated/obsessed/sacrificed to attain and then maintain that position.

    When the inevitable loss happens, and it will, the passage of time will erode away physical and mental reflexes so that a younger up and comer will eventually match and surpass you (remember, they’re playing to win too and learning/accruing all the same knowledge/tactics/strategies,) I think how a person reacts to that is most telling.

    Different folks choose different reaction strategies. Some will keep fighting back, even if it’s trying to hold back the tides. Some may switch to another peak in a different game. Some may end up teaching and coaching. Some may stop playing to win and just play to play.

  4. kiantremayne

    I have no problem with people playing to win within the bounds of the game – but let’s be clear, there are people out there who cheat or exploit game flaws and try to pass that off as playing to win, and I have no intention of giving them a pass on the grounds that doing anything to win is “serious business”

    There’s also quite often an attitude of bad sportsmanship that goes with the whole playing to win ethos, and it doesn’t need to be so. You can do your damnedest to win and still be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. Maybe my view is skewed by having an English public school (for Americans, read private school) education but I find PvP a lot more enjoyable without /spit, corpse-humping and Internet tantrums.

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  6. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I’d say the best thing to do is to figure out who wants to “play to win”, who wants to “play”, and who wants to “make other people cry” and try to give them an appropriate experience based on your game. Maybe you want to separate them out. Maybe you want to kick the griefers to the curb. Whatever. Trying to mix them into one big stew and not expecting angry eruptions is kinda silly.

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