Thursday, March 12, 2009

Let that be your last playing field

Goodness knows I should know better than to make absolute statements, but I'm relatively sure that one is unlikely to make friends by, for example, tripping folk as they pass by you in the hallway. It's a bit of a cliché, but I'm equally certain that helping people, say, the ones who just got tripped by some douchebag, is a better bet if you want to endear yourself to them. So far, so obvious. Try helping someone in a game, though, and you'll presently find yourself knee deep in resentment. Those of you who have ever played a game will probably not find this hard to believe. Games are competitive in nature, and there's something about accomplishing a task all by yourself. On the flipside, gamers tolerate and encourage selfish action, and antagonism up and until the point of griefing. In short, games instill in us a certain objectivist ethic. Even if a game allows for non-adversarial interactions between players, they are never altruistic actions. You help other players in Munchkin for treasure and/or levels, you help other survivors in Left 4 Dead because a) if you don't they will be angry, and b) more people with more health means a greater chance of success. You help (trade with, generally) other players in Settlers of Catan because they tend to be helping you in return (I can also imagine unintentionally helping other players, but it would be a side effect of doing something beneficial for yourself).

To a certain extent, the taboo makes sense, even if I'm having fun by playing kingmaker in a game of Settlers of Catan that I'm losing, that's effectively griefing; I am denying the “rightful” winner his or her satisfaction because I resent their success. Personally, I think it might be interesting if the leading players had to make losing players the best offer to buy goodwill, thus making all players at the very least important to the endgame. It's not unprecedented for a weaker power to throw its chips in with whoever looks like a winner, or play mercenary. Either way it's not altruism, but what I'm trying to illustrate here is that games tend not to offer a trailing player much consolation. You're told to 'be a good sport' about losing, and I respect that, and in primarily skill-based games there's no great reason to reward those who haven't spent time learning the ropes. But in games whose outcome depends a great deal on luck (I'm looking at you, Munchkin), it really does stop being fun playing to win when you aren't going to.

Now, in the case that inspired this post, my housemates and I were playing a game of Humans! With our next-door neighbours, and I was not having a lot of luck. It really doesn't help that the game is balanced such that the odds are initially quite against your success, but I also had the worst character of any player at the table. To be fair, the worse characters need fewer points to win, but Etarran's had the same victory condition as mine with identical stats, except one of them was a single point higher. No, I'm really not sure where the devs were going with this. Another player at the table was spending his do-over chits on trying to break down a door, so I decided that I would play the instant-unlock card I had in my hand, basically because it would make something happen. His character would succeed, and perhaps his enjoyment of the game would increase. First, he himself refused to accept that I had played the card, and the whole table followed in agreement. It isn't right, I was told, to help one other player preferentially. It isn't proper, they said, to play cards for anyone's benefit but your own. Now, disregarding the letter/spirit of the law debate, the card did not say that it could only apply to me. Other cards did say “you do x”, but this one just said that I could place a “no barricade” token on the board. It did not say “you automatically succeed at breaching a door”, or whatever. I was not attempting to patronize this other player, I had very little agenda in mind. The game had frustrated me with its mechanic of requiring the player to succeed at three or four successive challenges, most with a success rate of 50% or below, and I guess a part of me felt like I would beat the game itself by making it just a little easier for one player to succeed. 

Sure, if I had been hindering everyone else's progress up until that point, it would be more than a little unfair to change tack so abruptly. But the game had not empowered me to do so, the cards I had weren't all that great. We were new to the game, we were playing slowly, and I didn't feel all that engaged because it would be my turn, I'd succeed in my attempt to convert humans into zombies, only to have another player arm the human and roll successfully to have them wound me and flee instead. So I wanted to have an effect on the game, and I wanted other players to have an effect on the game as well, rather than just sit pointlessly as our zombies got stuck in buildings and failed to consume yet another puny human. It didn't even feel particularly at odds with the concept of the game; after all, the point of the game was to zombify humanity, and I think part of the fun comes not from being the one to amass enough points doing so, but to cackle wildly at the puny humans' demise. Why not help it along?

This is rapidly turning into a long-form defense of my actions, but I was honestly a little annoyed by just how negative a reaction I got. At very worst it was a sign that the game had sort of lost my interest and that I might be interested in doing something new (true), but I don't believe it was so antagonistic towards the other players as to warrant a stern talking-to about how games are supposed to be about beating your friends at something. I accept that someone would not want my help, and that's legitimate, but I'm not sure I'm ok with how we define someone who is trying to have their own fun with the hand he or she was dealt some kind of “sore loser”. Maybe, just maybe, we're trying to make the game fun for us, too.


PS. Possible expansion on this topic later.


GoldMatenes said...

There is an interesting culture of antagonism today, isn't there?

Reality shows are just crystallized bitchiness.

Dr. Ivan Hood said...

lololol, I love the world we live in that when people become irate, they go to their blogs.
I read an article the other day about a customer at a snooty coffee shop in DC who was refused iced espresso. Long (long long long) story short, he and the owner went to their blogs, flamed the other person, found each others blogs and flamed there as well. I laughed.

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