Playing to Win
OK, ladies and gents it’s time for another rant hour on the old blog post. Today, I want to address competitiveness and this nebulous concept of “playing to win.” We’ve all heard it before. Someone will leverage the accusation towards another in an attempt to belittle or undermine their adversary’s performance in some sort of competition. In our modern times, the most common occurrence will be during a game – be it video or otherwise.
Now, it’s no secret that I am a competitive individual. When I enter a contest, I desire to win. I enter with the intentions of trying my best and, should my best not be good enough, I seek to improve myself so that I can perform better the next time I face adversity in said game. Which is to say, I like to win. But who doesn’t? It’s enjoyable winning and unpleasant losing. The very purpose of a competition is to allow there to be either outcome. The better the competition the more the outcome is determined by the skill of the participants within than outlying factors. So, I do play to win. As does everyone.
Now, there are some people who claim otherwise. There are individuals that would say “having fun” is more important than winning. To this, I agree. But as I already established, winning is fun. I’m no philosopher but without the proper education in Game Theory, I’m certain that even if there is no tangible reward the average participant in a game strives to win. It makes sense on a basic level. Why would you participate in a game if you weren’t attempting to achieve the victory condition? I don’t set up a chessboard with the intent of creating the Mona Lisa with my pieces while my opponent is trying to capture my king. By engaging in the activity, we are entering into an unspecified contract to abide by the rules towards a singular victorious goal that is established by the activity itself.
This isn’t to say that these goals are immutable. Often times, games have a simplistic win state (“taking the enemy’s king”) that are complicated by the various aspects of the game (“getting past the pawns”) while avoiding the loss state (“losing my king”). There is no way to achieve victory in chess by your first move alone. Even the shortest win condition of two moves requires a very specific response from your opponent that is incredibly unlikely to occur the more experienced they are. Thus, it is often to my benefit to break down the distant and difficult win state into more immediate and advantageous goals that will make the final win state easier to achieve. My immediate goals could be something like “control the centre of the board” by having more pieces threaten the most squares in the middle while removing or preventing my opponent from doing so. I could also have the objective of “take the enemy’s queen,” a piece that is far more versatile and consequently more powerful than any other piece on the board.
In fact, this deconstruction of the win state is necessary for improvement. If I am only considering the final victory condition and move blindly towards it, I will be ill-prepared to deal with my opponent’s secondary and tertiary goals. I will concede those minor victories to him, likely obtaining little in return and increasing the difficulty of achieving a win as more and more small loses pile up. Furthermore, these secondary goals make incredibly complex games easier to understand and easier to analyze.
Dota 2, which I have made posts about before, is an incredibly complex and strategically challenging game. There is a huge overhead of knowledge required of the player between the staggering amount of interactions between the 110 current hero pool and the multitude of items that can be bought. Furthermore, the design of the game creates an ever changing balance of power between the accumulation of gold and experience on these different heroes with everyone one of them benefiting slightly differently. The win state, however, is very simple. The game ends with the destruction of the team’s “Ancient” – a large, impressive looking structure in the middle of their base. However, if I were to just pick a random hero and charge towards that structure I would invariably lose. Partly because the Ancient is invulnerable so long as it is protected by its tiered towers and partly because I would die well before I got anywhere near the base. This would “feed” both gold and experience to my enemies with each successive death giving them an ever growing advantage over my team that would eventually become insurmountable.
Thus, to succeed at Dota, it is imperative that objectives be broken down into far more manageable goals in order to win. A player needs to focus on their “laning” which requires them to outplay their opponent in the lane during the early portion of the game. Instead of focusing on destroying the Ancient, they’re looking at gaining an early advantage in gold and experience against the one to three opponents sharing the same space as them. If they are unable to secure an advantage themselves, they should look to either call in assistance or seek to help a teammate in another lane on the map. Once an advantage has been raised, whether through better farming of “creeps” for gold and experience or through a kill advantage against their opponent, they can then move on to the next objective of destroying the outer tier 1 towers. This provides more gold for the team and gives them greater influence over the map for them to slowly move in on the primary objective of the Ancient.
This breakdown of the game, as mentioned, also assists with learning. When looking back at a victory or loss, it’s natural to wonder how one team became victorious. If you merely look at the win state, it is impossible to see how it was achieved. Only by examining the secondary goals, their successes and failures, can you really analyze the play and learn where the biggest mistakes were made. The turn five loss of the Queen could have been the move that spelled disaster. The four deaths before five minutes to the enemy’s mid player could have jump started a surge in the enemy’s strength that spiraled out of control. By further breaking down secondary goals, you can see areas where you can improve. Perhaps your poor placement of pawns led to you losing control of the space that led to your Queen’s capture. Maybe your last hitting on the creeps allowed your opponent access to their second spell which gave them first blood and enough gold to purchase a bottle to hold runes in. You can examine these small mistakes and know where you can improve so next time you’re in a similar situation you are prepared with the knowledge of how to win them.
I want to make a few brief closing points on win states. There are some games with nebulous win states but clear loss states. Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t truly have a defined end goal. You don’t necessarily “win” D&D. Generally speaking, there will be an adventure with individual and party goals that you and the players are working towards. But because of its reactive nature, Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t really stop if you achieve or fail those goals. Likewise, even its loss state of death could just be a stumbling block depending on whether your Dungeon Master turns the story into some archetypal myth involving you or your party descending into the underworld to wrestle back your soul from the Lord of the Dead. Consequently, D&D is driven purely by its secondary goals be these a few job posting in pubs or a player’s desire to see the fall of a tyrannical lord.
And there is an exception to the statement that all players strive to win. There is a minority whose win state isn’t the established one of the game. These players are classified as “trolls” and their win state is self determined but usually set as creating as much animosity or grievance in their own teammates. They will do everything in their power to undermine their own team’s chances to win, deriving fun from the aggravation and frustration as they force a loss on their teammates. Consequently, these players are typically banned from participating when identified. Also, it is my personal opinion that these players will partake in this behaviour on throw-away accounts while maintaining a main account in order to participate in the established dynamic of the game but I have no evidence to back that up.
We’ll just call it a strong hunch.