I’m typing this while listening to David Sirlin’s new podcast. Around 20:12 he discusses “contested” skills, which I think is a good term and one I may start using. This reaches back to a comments discussion from 2012, where we had a brief exchange about the fundamental nature of PvP. I think “contested” is the distinction we were looking for, and preferences for or against contested actions determine many opinions about gameplay.
For those not listening, “contested” means that actions are brought into direct conflict and you must react to opponents’ actions to be successful. SynCaine’s apt term contrasting competitive PvE from PvP is “PvE with a leaderboard.” Golf and bowling are non-contested sports. Football of either sort is contested. Golf and bowling are competitive, but your game does not vary at all based on who you are competing with. Games with less interactivity are less contested, so many Eurogames try to have relatively few contested elements. A game of Dominion with no attacks is almost perfectly uncontested (although someone else could buy out the cards you want).
Some players, like David Sirlin, really like contested skill competitions. That is the heart of gaming for them. These are PvP enthusiasts. They want skills to be brought into opposition. Some people favor engaging in non-contested activities. The heart of the activity for them is individual excellence, developing a skill and seeing how well they can do, where they would consider reacting to an opponent to be a distraction from the core activity. Later in the podcast, David refers to winning by best exploiting their opponents, not by playing optimally. In a contested game, reacting and exploiting opponents is vitally important. But if “optimize” has a better emotional valence for you than “exploit,” you might be more interested in something like less contested like running or Freecell.