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.
I definitely feel similarly about games where the emphasis is on beating your (human) opponent. I play some Magic the Gathering off and on with my brother, and it's always a little lousy to me at the end when one person wins and the other loses. I don't feel enough elation at winning to counteract my shame at losing or in winning and thus disappointing my brother. The best I can hope for is that the win/lose ration is about even, so we basically take turns getting that "Aha! I beat you! Nah nah, suck it!" kinda thing.
What I think is that people who are really drawn to competitive games and who fixate on winning are really insecure. "Dominating" a particular game or opponent is a way for them to boost their ego and feel better about themselves. On the other hand, people who are mature and confident don't feel that same pleasure. For us, we'd rather just have a good time with people we feel comfortable being equals with. Indeed, looking back, the people I know who "get off" on winning games so much and who want to rub it in your face are actually pretty wretched.
As far as that relates to boardgames...I haven't played any of them in a long time. Last time I played something besides videogames and Magic was a card game with my grandpa. I think it was called "Hand and Foot." It was pretty fun; just complicated enough to keep you distracted but not so much that you couldn't chat. Plus, you have partners in that game, so you don't feel so bad if you lose.
Very thought-provoking article, Shawn. The dodgeball anecdote was hilarious. The image that came to mind was of you dodging balls bullet-time/Matrix-style!
As for competitive gaming, it all depends on what is at stake, and how seriously you take it. I don't take bowling seriously; it's just another form of partying with friends to me. Gaming, in general, is something I don't take that seriously. Monopoly was only mildly serious when I was eight years old, and is certainly not serious now.
Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy games (obviously), but I'm not sure "zero sum" (or less than zero sum) applies when the game is played in a casual pastime basis. Unless you're gambling, most games, including videogames, don't result in utter decimation of your ego or physical health. You don't have to worry about "Voit" imprinted on your face. :-) And if my opponent jumps up and down upon winning, yelling "In your face, sucker!" I'd probably just laugh, or at worst feel mild annoyance.
In fact, I think this is a clue as to why videogames are popular. Most videogames result in the domination of your opponent as the endgame. (The notable exception is the old-school "high score" videogames, which were more of an endurance test than anything.) Because the stakes are fictional, you don't suffer the humilation or physical destruction that you would if it were a real-life scenario. Plus, you can often just reload a saved game state and restart at the point before failure. It's not really "zero sum." You generally don't really lose, you just restart and try again. It's a way to game without the "sum" of utter destruction.
I think, whether we admit it or not, competitiveness is in our nature. It may not manifest itself in a game or sport or something physical, but it's partially this nature that pushes us to achieve things. We all want be be "good" at something, and I think an underlying competitive nature is partially responsible for us to work at being good at something. To feel like you're at the bottom end of a "competition" can result in insecurity. But otherwise, why do anything? For example, why try to groom yourself, work out, and look better? Better than whom? And maybe it's not about "dominating," but it might be competing just to achieve parity and acceptability.
Ok, that took to long, I'll try to answer your nine questions tomorrow.
Thanks for replying Rob. I've sat here and thought about your response a bit.
You zeroed in on an interesting and really important game topic: 'save and restart' or 'save-scumming'.
One problem I have is the effect of 'save and restart' on the original game-design. Although I've used that feature many, many times, I keep wondering how it alters the game designer's approach to the game: balance, content, playing strategy, AI development, environment layout (level design), and so forth. I'm not a huge fan of "Perma-Death" games anymore, but relying on that "save-scumming" feature rather bothers me. I think that it influences how the game-designer does (or really, DOESN'T) put enough effort into the layout of the game mechanics.
Matt talked about this at length, in his interview with Jay Barnson (Rampant Coyote), and seemed to really like the "Drama Stars" approach to the issue of handling 'undesirable situations/outcomes'. I'm wondering what other potentially new approaches and solutions might deliver.
I dont think i have ever looked at games quit like that. I loved Dodgeball far more then any of the other games played in Highschool. Now dont think i was the "Jock" side, I wasnt, nor was i "target" side.. we had those too.. the people who didnt want to play, or where just plain picked on.. Unlike your free for all.. it ended up being one guy again 6 or 8 all throwing at the same time.. it could be quite entertaining to watch all the Jocks (as i say 6 +) all lining up to throw at same time and the reciving end person twisting/jumping and making them miss.. I consider myslef lucky as In high school i was waht i consider a Gray area kid.. I was never a jock, but hung with them on ocasion. Never a nerd, but again, knew several, never a stoner (but did get stoned).. there was no group I didnt interact with at some time. But i say that with reservations, i got along with all, but never fit with any. Normally I mihgt have had a problem with that, but I started working at a pretty young age (family business) so i dint have time to run around after school so didnt really notice it.. saturday after 6PM and sunday where my "play" days.. and my dad was a car nut.. so more often then not I was messing with a car or my computers.
But.. back to gameing, if its a game (or sport), it shouldnt matter who wins or loses as long as you tried. I honestly think one of the failing of our current world is teaching Kids winning is everything, oh, schools wont say that, but we all know its true. Giving impresionable kids more reasons to feel bad about themselves just seems wrong to me. It sounds like im against sports (in highs school) I'm not.. i think we need more activity (physical) in schools and keeping it game/sport related keeps the kids enjoying it. There just has to be way less put on winning/lossing. But even i know thats a pipe dream. I just never had a problem grasping i was better at somes tuff and worse at others. And even the stuff I was good at, somebody else was better. I knew i would lose (chess) almost every time as I was far to aggressive of a player and only the people who had played the least might fall to my tactics. it was never a game I would excel at. But play a game of Stratego, or RISK i would beat most of my friends no matter what.. When i lost, i always felt i was getting better, learning.. so that wasnt bad. I also learned very early to play to my opponents skills, he played poorly I played poorly, better to make it a game either can win, then destroy um so they dont want to play.. there is even stuff to be learned from that. I think as i worked so much gameing and sports where easy to see as FUN.. even when lossing. In fact to be honest the best games I have played have been ones where I lose.. the games I feel i play well, when I lose .. I know i can get better, and when i win easily it feels wrong, like i cheated.. I dont like that .
I can play almost any game, about the only thing i have zero interest in is Gambling, its a game, but when you know its set so the house wins, its simply stated as fact.. why play? Sure you can beat the house with skill, but almost all gambling has random in it, so no matter if oyu win or lose, it wasnt all you... of course one can say all games have random (and it would be true, dice, cards) but they are not stacked against you from the start., both sides have equal chance.
I guess in the end i felt games where a "fun" way to improve yourslef.. and you do that even in loseing. Of course we all dont find all games fun.. baseball? I understand why its a sport, I understand the complexity, but I have no interest.. much like basketball or golf.. hats off to the skilled players, but watching it.. Dull as paint to me. Playing any of them for a short bit is FUN.. but nothing i would enjoy alot of. Of course I like nascar and many sports people say the same.. "just going in a circle, how hard is that?"
I live in a world of perception.. its not how other see it, its how I see it. The only way something can be ruined for me is other people. Any game can be fun if played with the right person, but that "win" attutuide is killing the fun, and we learn most of that in school.. We have lived with some "ideas" worldwide that just are wrong IMHO. Win/lose only matters in war or fight for your life. Swear words- this one really bothers me.. a sound (that cant damge your ears).. how can that be anything? "its offensive" how? the only way sombody calling you a name can be offensive is if you acknowlege it.. Sombody gets mad at you and calls you a name.. I LOVE saying "good one", "no doubt", "for sure" followed by "got another one?" or "Your absolutly right!" said sarcasticly.. Verbal abuse? now dont get me wrong .. its very real ( verbal abuse) that now waht im saying.. words have power if oyu let them have power.. I just know there will never be a point in my life where some person who has issues calls me ANYTHING that it will bother me.I'm kinda glad for cusswords and bad remarks.. keeps peoiple from doing phsyical things .
wow.. shawn you pick deep topics.. and i go way off target replying to them.. intersting stuff for sure.
I really appreciate the feedback and thoughts. (Don't give me too much credit though; I don't set out to pick 'thought provoking topics', it just sort of... well, happens.) And I agree with your thinking about "winning vs. losing"--trying is what matters, trying is what gets things done. The only real failures are: (a) not trying, (b) giving up.
It's like the anecdotal saying about Thomas Edison: "I didn't fail--I figured out 2,000 ways NOT to make a light bulb." (Not that I think Edison should necessarily be held up as an ethical or moral example... History has shown him to be a serious tool... stealing inventions, stealing films, etc.)
Here are my answers to the nine questions at the end of your article.
1. Favorite board games.... I haven't played these since high school, but probably Risk, Monopoly... and there was one called "Dark Tower" I enjoyed with my friends, although I can't for the life of me remember how it played. I don't know if "Star Fleet Battles" counts, but if so, that's #1 on the list. Sports (watching): Football, Boxing, pretty much any one-on-one sport (tennis, MMA, wrestling, ..... I'm starting to sound like one of your "zero sum jocks" now...) Sports (playing): Jiu-Jitsu, raquetball, bowling.
2. Probably that they are "zero sum," the very thing you are opposing in your article.
3. I can't even think of a game that doesn't have a clear "winner," although multiple-competitor sports (like racing) might not have a clear "loser," except the very last competitor (maybe). Anyhow, I suppose I can enjoy it, although I don't really follow sports like that (Nascar and such). If I can think of an example of such a game (or you give me one), it's likely that I would at least mildly enjoy it.
4. I guess I like interesting premises in board games ("Life," "Monopoly," "Clue," etc.) and also easy rules to follow. What I hate in board games is too many rules and too much scorekeeping by the player, slowing the game down. I suppose that's true of videogames for me; I like a fast progressive pace and don't like getting bogged down in too much minutiae. I also like to feel like there's some skill involved and not win or lose by random chance (a lot of gambling games are like this).
5. Sure, although I've never played a "Facebook/Zynga" game. But after reading your article, I'm open to experiencing a "non-zero-sum" game.... maybe focusing on "non-zero-sum" is a worthy pursuit!
6. I don't think so.... I think casual games are easy-to-play games with simple rules and controls. A lot of old-school arcade games (like Pac Man) are considered "casual" games today.
7. I don't think it compares, because usually you know the people you are playing in a real-life board game, while a "Facebook" game involves an unseen opponent, perhaps someone you don't know personally. The laughing, the camaraderie, the personal touch, the "hey, try some of this onion dip!" is all missing in and online game... it's actually more focused on the game itself than the real-life version! I think board games are often more a form of partying or social function, and "online" games are more like actual games, even if they're both the same game technically.
8. I never play classical board games, unless you count the "Shanghai/mahjong" variants as board games. But I will play card games. I don't like gambling, but I'll play some friendly poker with someone. And I was quite addicted to the videogame "Faerie Solitaire" a while back. And I'm trying to learn the videogame version of "Magic: The Gathering" via Steam, but not really understanding it (yet).
9. Yes. I was more of an action gamer in my youth, although there were definite exceptions. Then my tastes became "deeper," and I started getting into empire-building games (Civilization) and CRPG's. Now my tastes are much less action-heavy, preferring casual games and deeper CRPG's. I like to relax with a game now, and am not so concerned with beating it.
One game mechanic we grew up with (well almost all of us) that never bothered me in the past , but does nowdays. Save-scumming, interesting word. I dont have a problem with unlimited saves, giving the player the option to do it. I do have a problem with a game that pretty much requires it. Right now Diablo III is a good example. I havent died to a boss, but each has a checkpoint in front of it ( save so to speak). I am playing on Normal and have actually only died 2X, both with the caster classes. Both times where my fualt. I was getting to comfortble, starting to clear areas as fast as i could with no thought. With my uncarefull push i ended up with 2 gold rares (one a jailer, so i couldnt run) and the other a waller , a set of the 3 blue rares (also wallers), and one of those clusters of frogs, like 30..
My point, a game doesnt need to save after every encounter, and donest need to be so easy you dont have to.. The game should play so MY mistakes, or poor descisions kill me, not the roll of a dice. Of course thats such a hard road to follow.. correctly. Keep the game challangeing but not to hard.
I have thought about this many times, game difficulty. When i was younger i played all games on HARD up till DOOM, where the hardest setting basicly ment the monsters never quit showing up.. In the last few years I have pretty much stuck to NORMAL setting and sometimes (yes i will admit it) easy if my frustration level builds. Any game that puts the smack on you seconds in doenst understand ramping difficulty. I think a game should make the first few minutes fairly easy to learn.. some dont.
If i get your Non Zero Sum thing.. a game Like Settlers would be that. its a sandbox game (almost) as even in the games with goals and endings its pretty much up to you to do it, the enemy AI doenst seem to push to hard unless you do. I call Settlers II the perfect ZEN game. I can sit and build and watch it for hours. I actually try not to play it as i will sti for 5-10 hours easy playing it. I have never won it.. I seldom get past the first 4-5 maps. I just love how its done, how they build, how roads work, etc.. its one of those games I will be playing when im 90 (if i make it that long).