Playing to win and the necessity of social etiquette
I really enjoy Sirlin.net. The author of the site is both a heavy tournament player, mostly in the realm of fighting games, and a game designer. He tends to provide great insight about not simply the content of games but also the rules involved in the games. Since the results of your actions in most video games are not spelled out for you in the instructions like they are in their board game counterparts, it’s nice to know that someone out there has mostly taken on that function.
Sirlin’s claim to fame is a series of articles called “Playing to Win”. I literally found this ten years ago when it was originally published online, and it still exists to this day. Many scoff at the article, but for others it has spurred debate. Usually it comes down to is it fun to play to win? I tend to say No, but it’s something that’s really in the eye of the winner.
Sirlin’s latest entry is a short, for him, response to Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker. Basically, Gladwell talks about real life situations and even a war battle-management simulator back in the 80’s and concludes that there’s a certain lunacy behind not playing to win. As long as one works within the rules, winning should not be a problem. However, insiders in some games have created a tacit social etiquette that generally disapproves of play to win tactics for one reason or another. Playing to win in basketball seems to be more physically demanding and quite grueling, while in the battle simulation the winning play (essentially an early version of the zerg rush) lacked any sort of historical merit or accuracy to how things function in real life. People don’t like it because it presents an uncomfortable paradigm shift away from their familiar rules and agreed upon strategies. Even George Washington was uncomfortable with the guerrilla warfare adopted by the militia and changed it for those under his command. Truth be told, he was a loser as it concerned fighting redcoats.
There shouldn’t be anything wrong with playing to win in game tournaments and real life. If the job candidate showed up in person to deliver his resume and got hired while all of the others were half-assed it with online applications, he did nothing wrong. If a basketball team always performed a full court press and won, what’s the harm in accepting that their tactics were better? The only problem with playing to win is when someone takes advantage of an unintended exploit that shifts the advantage to nearly 100%. Those are rare, so we don’t care.
Sirlin uses this article to prop up his own “Playing to Win” series. After all, that’s all these people are doing – playing to win within the rules. The only problem I have with Sirlin is that he says playing to win should take place at all times during video games, even when not playing competitively. If the game is not being played for high honors and is merely a friendly contest among close friends dicking around for an evening, I don’t see the point in wanting to come out on top all the time. I have been known to purposely play less effectively and even throw the occasional game to decrease the unnecessary tension and increase the level of fun for all those involved. It seems to me that there is a certain social etiquette outside of the competitions that needs to be recognized. Those who fail to recognize it and generalize the application of play to win strategies to even informal gatherings without recognition of the tacit let’s just have fun agreement probably have ego issues that they are currently trying to work through or some similar disorder that makes them a pain. Playing to win should probably only be considered valid in certain situations.
But the computer AI in some video games? Totally deserves whatever tactic you choose to defeat it. After all, it’s been known to work beyond the rules. Hit it with everything you got.