Hello everyone. I'm back after another long hiatus, brought on by that pesky "Real Life" stuff. This time, I'm coming at you with another multi-part article. In it, I want to discuss two concepts which should be near and dear to any gamer's heart:
In the past several weeks I've become hopelessly obsessed with these two concepts. I've thought about them so much, and contemplated how they fit (and how they don't fit) into my concepts of "Good Game Design", that I'm practically humming with nerdly thought-energy. I'm also itching to get as much feedback and as many opinions on the issue as I can. So please chime in with your thoughts, your experiences, and any anecdotes and stories which you can muster.
NOTE: If there are any game-designer's out there, you folks better have this stuff flat-out memorized. (There will be a quiz later...)
So, it's time to dissipate some of this pent-up thought and energy. In this first article, I want to discuss the notion of "Zero Sum" outcomes; how much I truly loathe the concept, and how much that concept continues to (mis-)shape the world of gaming, of business, of well.... everything. To begin with, while it's likely that all of my readers are at least familiar with the concept of "Zero Sum", let me restate how *I* interpret it--just so we're all on the same page.
A Zero-Sum is a mathematical representation of a situation in which one participant's gain, is exactly balanced by a matched loss of any other participant(s). It is normallly applied to game theory and economic theory, and typical 'solutions' make use of "The Mini-Max Theorem".
That brief description comes off a little sterile and clinical; a little distant and impersonal. It doesn't convey anything close to the full impact that "Zero Sum" often has on 'the participants' it so blithely mentions. There is nothing distant or casual about a, "If I win, then you must lose" situation.
The biggest problem though, instead of just "merely" stopping with Zero-Sum, the competitive thinking all too often degrades; into narcissistic, combative, self-aggrandizing, sanctimonious, and downright EVIL behaviors. I'm talking about behaviors which actually result in less than Zero-Sum outcomes! Outcomes where the so-called 'winner' could actually have done far better in the medium- or long-term, had they simply not taken it on as a personal mindless crusade to "stomp the competition" into a fine grey powder.
This type of thinking is brutish, short-term, selfish, and ultimately stupid. It leads to an ethic, a repugnant rule of behavior, which can be summed up in a horrible perversion of 'The Golden Rule' that is probably all-too-familiar:
"Do unto others, before they get the chance to do it unto you."
This demonstrably incorrect notion of Zero-Sum is an intrinsic, and sadly, very entrenched part of our world and culture. For example, 2 seconds on Google will yield a pile of pages explaining "The Zero-Sum Fallacy" as it applies to economics, business, just about everything. Yet despite this awareness, despite YEARS of this awareness, there exist many well-known and popular quotes which can be directly traced to, "Zero-Sum Mis-Think."
"Business is war."
--various attributions, usually by MBA's
"Anybody who sells a product against me I would like to wipe out."
-- Jack Tramiel of Commodore
"The best definition of 'FUN' is maximum freedom of action with minimal restrictions. The best
example of that is 'WAR'. The next-best example is, 'BUSINESS'."
-- Nolan Bushnell
"If it doesn't matter who wins or who loses, then how come they keep score?"
-- Vince Lombardi
"What is best in life?
To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women."
--Conan, Conan the Barbarian
That last quote from Conan typifies the ultimate "downhill slide" which often comes with Zero-Sum thinking. What's more, that twisted and wrong-headed belief is so pervasive, somehow so instinctive, that as a kid I didn't even have to do any math to get a firm grasp of the immediacy and practical ramifications of it.
"How so?" you ask. Well, in junior-high school, I often felt that Conan-quote was actually the 'Official Motto' of gym-class dodgeball.
1981. An old high-school gym. Wood floors, folded bleachers. The faint smells of wax and bleach, with about 50-odd years of locker-room stink thrown on top for seasoning.
(A narrator's voice echoes into the air...)
I hated dodgeball. I was a scrawny kid then; more of a nose-on-a-stick than anything, with coke-bottle glasses. But unlike the fat kids, or the other undersized 'scrubs', I had one advantage--killer reflexes. I was fast enough to dodge almost anything. This was wonderful, and horrible, all at the same time.
On the positive side, this meant that I:
- Lasted far longer into the dodgeball match, avoiding the searing pain of a direct hit.
- Got more opposing players eliminated, by drawing them out for their throw at me. This exposed them to retaliatory cross-fire from my team.
- Helped my team recover more of the balls that crashed thunderously off the bleachers behind me.
But like everything in life, there were downsides. BIG ones. Being fast and good at dodging also ensured that I:
- Lasted far longer into the match. So as each match went on, I had less cover, less "protection of the herd".
- Got more opposing players MAD at me. This was, clearly, unwise. The opposing team was ALWAYS composed of Seniors; hulking behemoths roughly twice my size, surging with testosterone, all of whom apparently had been shaving since roughly the age of 6.
- Survived until my team dropped to 2 remaining players. This was when things got BAD.
I need to explain that last one, for those lucky few who might not know the 'sport' of dodgeball.
When playing, the 2 teams can only approach to within a certain distance of the other side. There were 2 lines painted on the gym floor for this. Each line is about 15 feet from the folding bleachers which constituted the "wall at your back" for each team. Thus, I could only make a throw from 15-feet or more. Same goes for the other side. Step over "The Line", and you were "Out!"--pulled to the sidelines to do 50 pushups, and then wait on the sidelines until the end of the match.
But something funny happens in dodgeball when you get down to the last 2 players. "The Line", that magical, inviolate, oh-so-precious safety buffer, just goes away. The coach would yell, "No Boundaries!" At that point, it became a free-for-all. In a matter of seconds the
crazed mob... opposing team would descend upon the unlucky surviving duo; a terrifying rush of primal screams and windmilling arms. It was like being thrust into the middle of a swirling school of piranha; big, vicious, round, red rubber piranha, each one trying to tear your face off.
Sometimes, the trauma didn't end there for me though, 'cause I was dumb. Dumber than a brick. Dumber than any human has a right to be.
I kept dodging. Running, twisting, throwing myself through wilder jumps and contortions to avoid being hit. Sometimes I even caught oncoming dodgeballs and hurled them back in angry defiance. More often than not, I'd find myself completely alone, the sole remaining player on my team.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking, and you'd be right about that--it never ended well. I was chased mercilessly round the entire gym by the pack of hairy, sweaty, screaming, ravening, barely-sentient apes; apes who stank of bubble-gum, old sneakers, and too much Brut aftershave.
And inevitably, the end would come. It wasn't enough to merely tag me as "Out". The apes always felt it absolutely necessary to smash the dodgeballs at highest possible velocity into my face or groin. Maybe they wanted to find out if it really was possible to tattoo the word "VOIT" onto a person's face with a rubber ball. Maybe they thought concussions and near-castration were funny. Who knows?
Even now, decades later, I can still recall laying on the floor, the gym coach yelling at me through my foggy haze of pain; "Shake it off!" "Next match!"
Had I been able to breathe, I might have replied, "Shake it OFF?? Dude, I'm just hoping that I'll be able to walk again. And could somebody please help me pull my glasses out of my eyesockets?..."
And people wonder why I HATE the concept of Zero-Sum as a viable gaming strategy? Gee, what a mystery...
As you might guess, these kinds of experiences shaped me as a person; shaped my thinking, my preferences of play and game enjoyment. However, even before my 'tour of duty' on the battlefields of dodgeball, I had clear preferences for the type of games and sports that I liked to play:
There were the sports and games I never really enjoyed, even though I played them with other kids to stave off boredom:
The sports and games that I did enjoy were more numerous:
Looking at that list, what can one conclude? Which factors did I like and dislike? Aside from the obvious, "not getting a rubber ball smashed into my face" part, there are a couple key points which stand out when I look at those lists.
Nothing is an absolute of course. Of the many board-games I played as a kid, I truly _loved_ Monopoly, Yahtzee, Chinese Checkers, Connect-4, Chess, and later on 'Go'. These are all, by nature of their design, Zero-Sum games; 1-winner. And to be sure, there are 'blocking strategies' which are well-rewarded in those games. However those "defense" moves are NOT primary or predominant in the gameplay; unlike, say football, where 90%+ of the team and strategy are devoted to "defense/interfering". Blocking in the board-games I played is, at best, maybe 50% of your effort. The other 50% is constructive, positive, creative in nature. In the most rewarding instances, the cleverest moves are actually both--the move which blocks an opponent while advancing your own position is incredibly satisfying.
That emotional satisfaction is really the only reason to play games. Which is why Zero-Sum games don't appeal to me so much. Even in the "best" case, a 'loser' in a Zero-Sum game can only hope to force a draw or a tie. (Take the classic Tic-Tac-Toe as an example of this.) And many times, by virture of the rules of a specific game, you can find yourself in a guaranteed no-win situation, a losing battle with an inevitable outcome; your own personal 'Kobiyashi Maru'.
The ham-actor side of me wants to mime flipping open a Star Trek communicator and imitate Shatner, "I don't... believe... in the.. no-win... scenario. Mister!" The truth is, I really don't believe in the no-win scenario, but not because William Shatner said so, and not because I suffer dodgeball-induced PTSD attacks.
The real reason I don't believe in Zero-Sum, has to do with a mathematician named John Nash. For any of you who've seen the movie, A Beautiful Mind, I'm talking about that John Nash.
What Nash proved is, (in a summary quote I'm swiping from the movie), "The best result comes when you do what's best for yourself, while simultaneously, doing what's best for everyone else."
This is HUGE in terms of implications. His equilibrium governs all parts of life, everywhere, for all time. It HAS to--it's written into the very fabric of the Universe itself, the way 2 + 2 = 4.
This awareness of "positive", or "non zero-sum" thinking and game-theory, is certainly the largest part of why I favor open-ended, constructive, and non-combative games, especially as I get older. I belive that it's why I am, and always have been, drawn to RPG's so strongly; despite the combative or seemingly violent nature of a dungeon-crawling RPG campaign, the real focus is on improving yourself. (Well, your character's self.) I'm working towards a positive, whether I'm in a team or not.
Of course, there is a downside. Too many modern games seem to have been developed with the notion of, "Nobody can get hurt. Nobody should be allowed to be frustrated or they'll quit. We have to hold the players hand ALL the time." This is most evidenced in a great number of recent Japanese games--the whole game is "on rails", and hints and "Do This" directions pop up at every possible point where the player has a chance to do... well, anything. So when I say, "I don't like Zero Sum", what I absolutely do NOT mean is, "I don't ever want to fail or lose or have a setback."
Give me mystery. Give me choices, as many as you can manage. Give me obvious ways to get in so far over my head that the failure becomes a hilarious (if somewhat masochistic) exercise. Give me multiple ways to resolve a situation. Don't nerf an entire game for the supposed 'perfection of balanced gameplay'. Leave the rough edges. It's in those rough edges that imagination and narrative can be exploited--my rogue may be ridiculously underpowered, but I can have an infinitely more exciting and enjoyable experience tackling the dragon horde--and ultimately fleeing across the countryside while they scorch my backside--than I would just mindlessly mashing the 'Fireball of Extreme Acidic Exploding Mega-Ness' hotkey 5 times as a mage.
Sure, I still love to play 'Go' and Chess, but honestly not nearly as much as I used to. (I've completely given up on Connect-4, as it's just a moderately 'larger' version of Tic-Tac-Toe, and the average "best" outcome against a matched opponent is a 'mere' tie. The problem-space, or "game space" is just too small for me now.)
When I do play those games, it's definitely not for the sake of winning. I know that sounds weird, but it's absolutely true. Because the problem space, the "gameplay space" of 'Go' and Chess are so immensely huge, I can enjoy getting lost in them. I enjoy them like a good crossword puzzle, a Rubik's cube, or the way some people love Sudoku. It's about the enjoyment which comes from developing my mind, focusing my thinking, solving a problem--capturing that "Aha!" moment of revelation. It is, ultimately, about the journey. (Which is, I think, something the long-forgotten Japanese inventors of 'Go' would appreciate... a Zen-like experience of concentration and enjoyment.)
This kind of "puzzle enjoyment" also plays into why I love RPG's and CRPG's much more than a crossword puzzle, or Sudoku, or a Rubik's Cube. Figuring out the "optimal stats" or "optimal weapon/armor" configurations, is really a mental development exercise in probability and risk-estimation--an exploration of statistics.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the second major topic of this multi-part article: Randomness.
But since I've rambled on so much, and since that is the topic for Part #2, I'm going to stop for now. I'm not sure entirely what to make of all this yet, but I was hoping to stimulate a discussion amongst everyone. So let me close and throw some questions out there for everyone to ponder and argue about:
That should be enough for now. I know this article is longer than most, but hey, "That's just how I roll..." Please, please, please, take a moment and comment below. I'm really curious to find out what other folks think.
As always, I want to offer up a ginormous "Thank You!" to everyone for reading. See everyone next time.