Playing as intended vs playing to win

I don’t normally follow sport, but I must admit that I’m finding some of the Olympics kind of gripping. There’s a lot invested on the outcome of a contest, and the outcome is genuinely in doubt in a way it never can be in fiction. But anyway:

Some Olympic badminton players were disqualified after deliberately throwing matches in order to manipulate which team they would face in the next round.

There’s a games design lesson here, and it is this: players will play a game in order to maximise rewards, not necessarily how you intend them to play. If you want them to play in a certain way, you should design the game such that that’s the way that will get players best results.

These badminton players weren’t really throwing the game, because at the Olympics the game is the overall tournament with medals dangling at the end. What they were doing was more like a chess player sacrificing a piece in order to gain a positional advantage. (Yes, I’m using a chess metaphor rather than a sporting one because I know next to nothing about sport.) If you start disqualifying them for that, the game becomes one of throwing the match without being caught doing so. If you want them to genuinely play for win in each match, you’ve got to design the system such that it’s always in their best interests to do so.

This is something I’ve seen a couple of times in my own games design. Most often it’s when you’ve got something that’s intended as a player-vs-player minigame, but which gives a reward to the winners. Players will work together to maximise the total wealth gain and spread it out evenly between them, completing games as quickly as possible and taking turns to win and lose. A PvP minigame effectively becomes a co-operative player-vs-environment minigame.

(This only applies to games where a prize is newly created wealth being given to the winner. In a zero-sum game where the only prize is wealth transferred to the winner from the loser, this doesn’t apply; if these zero-sum games get abused it’s as a wealth transfer mechanism for real-world trading, which is a separate issue.)

To use another chess metaphor, it’s as if tournament organisers gave out a prize every time someone won a game, so players took turns to put each other in Fool’s Mate as quickly as possible. Human tournament organisers would notice this, of course, but attempts to police it might just lead to players throwing games in more subtle ways. To properly get rid of the problem they’d need to change the mechanism by which prizes were given out.

Overall, players play a game for enjoyment, but while they’re in the game they’re choosing their actions in order to maximise in-game rewards. That might mean they’ll be playing the game in way the designer didn’t intend, and that often means the players (and spectators, in the case of something like badminton) are enjoying the game less. If you want them to play the game as intended, you have to make sure that that’s also the way for them to maximise their rewards.

 

 

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