Yorke on Games #27 – Twenty-Seven Short Theses About Games


Today’s column is written in the tradition of “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” and, derivatively, the more popularly-known Simpsons episode “22 Short Films About Springfield” (we’ve split the difference at 27). What follows is a collection of thematically related but stylistically diverse reflections on theoretical and practical issues about games: some of which I’ve touched on or hinted at previously, and some of which strike out in new directions. And, as a first for this column, there’s even a poll at the end.


#1: Winning Is Not the Point of a Game
The point of a game is not simply to win. Your opponent contracts only to play you, not to let you win. Perhaps you play because you want to win, but without playing there is no winning, in the robust sense of the word. Thus, the point of a game is simply to provide an opportunity for play. Winning is epiphenomenal to play. In other words: play causes more play, and play causes wins, but wins do not cause play, nor more wins.


#2: A Tournament without Opponents
Imagine a tournament wherein all of your opponents concede to you as soon as you sit down (let’s say that this is because you are known to have the bubonic plague, or another deadly and highly infectious disease). The tournament organizer (in her Hazmat suit) declares that you won the tournament, but you didn’t win by playing. Was that satisfying? Did you do what you intended to do when you set out for the tournament venue? Most people will say ‘no’. Let’s think about why we might have that response.


#3: The Symphony Analogy
As Bernard Suits writes in his article ‘Aristotle on the Function of Man’, “a Beethoven symphony is not simply for the sake of getting to the final chord, for if it were then the orchestra could play the last chord to begin with and save everyone a lot of time.” (p. 31) The point of a symphony, in other words, is the enjoyment of the entire performance, not just the ending. Analogously, the point of a game is not just to win (although winning typically marks the terminus of a game), but to enjoy the process of getting there.


#4: Games are Unscripted
Now obviously, games and performances are different in that performances are scripted: their endings are known well in advance, and that does not detract from their value. In fact, we praise musical performers for how well they stick to the score. Alternately, if the ending of a game is known well in advance, we would say that the game is ‘fixed’ or ‘rigged’, and it would detract greatly from its value. And its players would be blameworthy to the extent they stuck to the ‘script’.

#5: The Value of Spontaneity
What is admirable or otherwise valuable about games must, then, have some relation to the extent in which they are unscripted. The joy of surfing at least partially corresponds, for instance, with the unpredictable nature of the ocean and the variety of responses it demands from surfers in real time. If the beauty of play derives from its spontaneous nature, though, we must also consider a game like chess, where ‘spontaneity’ comes to mean something like ‘planned on the fly’, rather than ‘instinctive’. By extension from this position, it might be argued that life itself, if bound to a pre-planned routine, is less beautiful, and less valuable, than a playful life. Which seems intuitively correct.


#6: Unscripting Life via Games
In Yorke on Games #13, I outlined how the decision-making mechanism of ‘flipism’ could be used to break down entrenched patterns of thought and behavior (‘flip the script’) and make one’s life more spontaneous. Basically, the idea of flipism is that when you’re confronted with a meaningful choice, you should simply assign one decision branch to ‘heads’ and the other to ‘tails’, and then choose between them based on the outcome of a coin flip mini-game. On the surface, though, it may seem that flipism is a disproof of my proposed relationship between spontaneity and beauty; some rather ugly moments can arise from the disjunction between one’s authentic desires and the dictates of a coin flip.


#7: Flipism Is Actually a Form of Scripting
I would counter that flipism is not an expression of true spontaneity, but rather a principled adoption of means for randomizing decision outcomes. These two attitudinal outlooks are as different as freestyle dancing is from a randomly-generated Dadaist performance. Without the prop of a coin, the committed flipist is deprived of their script, and is existentially paralyzed. Additionally, since a coin flip is limited to binary [H/T or Y/N] decisions, it is far too simple a mechanism to adequately navigate the complex courses of action required in an average human life.


#8: Diceism
A related position, ‘diceism’ (a toy philosophy roughly based on The Dice Man by George Cockcroft, under the pseudonym Luke Rhinehart), addresses this concern by advising that dice should be employed as a decision-making tool when making decisions which are more robust in terms of options (or to probabilistically weight binary decisions), the results of which one would rather keep arbitrary. The benefit is a fuller menu of possibilities (from 4 through 30 sides on a single die, or really any number at all with combinations of 10-sided dice), and the added functionality of favoring certain outcomes by assigning them multiple numbers (‘1’ could represent a disfavored outcome on a 6-sided die, while the rest of the numbers could be used to represent a strongly-favored outcome). This could be a promising line of ludic therapy for people who feel trapped by the weight of their own entrenched attitudes, behavioral patterns, or overly-strict life plans—a half-way house between a rigidly structured existence and a life of authentic spontaneity (wherein the existential crutch of dice-rolling could be discarded entirely).


#9: The Dice Bar
In Tokyo’s Shibuya district, I went to a ‘Saikoro Izakaya’ where you pay a flat fee of $5 for a drink, but the specific drink you get is left up to the roll of two 10-sided dice (unlike the photo below, which gestures towards the idea but does not capture the complexity of the ordering event). Some of the drinks are listed as up to $100 on the regular menu, and others are as low as $1, though most hover around the $5 mark. For the majority of outcomes, you end up trying drinks you would never normally order—some disgusting and some sublime; some unknown and some unthinkable—and having fun with your friends in the process. This strikes me as a delightfully gamified commercial variation on diceism.


#10: The Random Feeding Machine Thought Experiment
Most people, however, are wary about altering the fundamental patterns of their life in the manner which a philosophy like diceism demands. They would like to BOTH craft the menu of possible actions AND retain the autonomy of choosing items from it. Life, for the majority of us, would be more arbitrary and less meaningful if we lacked the power to (at least partially) design and choose our own experiential paths. Imagine if what, when, and how much food you ate was determined at random by a computer. You could, for example, be woken up at 3am and forced to eat 20 avocados. We can all agree a priori that enforced compliance with this random feeding machine would produce an absolutely miserable existence.


#11: The Magic Circle
By contrast, the ‘magic circle’ of the game delimits a temporally and spatially restricted space wherein most people feel comfortable letting a little chaos seep in; they can momentarily let go of their ordinary concerns and constraints, and partake in imaginary freedoms. Sometimes, in the context of a game, we will let choices literally be made by the outcome of a dice roll or a coin flip. In other words, we (paradoxically) delimit a specific place and duration of time where we allow unplanned things to occur.


#12: How Is a Joke Like a Game?
Peter McGraw’s ‘Benign Violation Theory’ of humor (pictured in Venn diagram form below) may give us some clue as to why Shibuya’s dice bar game is enjoyable, but the idea of a random feeding machine is horrific. McGraw says that something is funny only if it is both benign and a norm violation. So eating when you like is absolutely normal, and thus not funny. Being forced to eat when you don’t want to is torture, and thus not funny. But being dared by friends to drink the strange random beverage that you yourself paid for (but might not want to consume under any other circumstances) is funny: because it’s a benign violation.


#13: Suits, In Three Pieces
Analogously to the diagram above, Bernard Suits’ concept of ‘game-playing’ occupies the overlapping area between the circles of ‘voluntary’ and ‘unnecessary obstacles’. Simply volunteering for the Red Cross, for instance, is not playing a game. And overcoming unnecessary obstacles that are placed in one’s path, without one’s choice in the matter—like trying to get to work the morning after a vandal flattened the tires of your car—isn’t a game either. But game-playing is the combination of these two elements: the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles. No one’s forcing you to play Mario, for instance, and you don’t need to jump on a Goomba outside the context of the game. What makes game-playing enjoyable is both the fact that we chose that particular set of obstacles, and that they have the potential to be too much for us to handle—defeat must be a live option.


#14: Professional vs. Amateurs
Assuming we accept Suits’ definition of game-playing, we still have to contend with two dominant and conflicting attitudes towards play, both of which have different approaches to taking a loss: the ‘British Amateur Ideal’ [BAI] and the ‘American Professional Ideal’ [API]. According to BAI, game-play is for pleasure and demonstrating a well-rounded character, and thus one should be a good winner and a good loser to one’s opponents. Oppositely, adherents of API hold that the point of game-play is to win and to best one’s opponents, and thus being a bad winner and a bad loser are entirely appropriate. Part of the difference can be understood by looking at a factor that is outside of the game: the stakes. Stakes exist for a professional, but not typically for an amateur, and these greatly influence the way these two kinds of players view the game.


#15: Winning Prizes is Not the Point of a Game
It should be obvious from Thesis #1 above that I heartily disagree with API. And if winning isn’t the point of playing a game, then winning prizes cannot be either. Suits agrees here: in his “Tricky Triad” article (1988), he suggests that professionals cannot be rightly said to ‘play’ games, because games are their vocation. It might be more accurate to say that professionals ‘work’ games. This is an example of the institution surrounding a game perverting that game’s original intent.


#16: Five Magic Circles
As I’m committed to BAI, occasionally I try to organize amateur-friendly tournaments with no substantial prizes, so that players can enjoy the game in its purest form. An example of this was this summer’s ‘Magic Olympics’: for a full schedule of those events, you can read Yorke on Games #25 . The important detail for our discussion today was that of the five events, only two had prizes. Players attended the two prize-supported events (the day-long leagues), but nobody other than myself attended the other three non-prize-supported events (the ‘medals’ for those were mere slips of paper, as pictured below). I was the only one, for example, who submitted a card to the card design contest (my card, ‘Sigil of Chaos’—a riff on the Urza’s Destiny common ‘Sigil of Sleep’—illustrates Thesis #11 above). I was disappointed that people didn’t share my enthusiasm for the game as an amateur enterprise, absent the lure of prizes.


#17: The Institution of Magic
I started thinking about the institution that surrounds the game of Magic, and I realized that as long as you’re playing for packs, it’s impossible to play as an amateur. This is because whenever you play at a shop, you’re playing for prizes, and this means that the focus of the games becomes winning those prizes, which means that most tournament Magic reduces to ‘working’ the game like a professional does, and not playing as an amateur. Because all of the people I’d met at my local shop became acquainted with me while we were playing tournaments in our API mode, it was decidedly unlikely that they would join my BAI-style tournaments, which were more like ‘kitchen table Magic’ than what they were accustomed to (or would claim to want).


#18: Expected Value is Not Equivalent to Actual Value
More insidiously for the culture of the game, many Magic players typically rate tournaments in terms of their expected value [EV]. As my Magic Olympic events were very low in EV, having no prizes at all, they were unpopular with EV-calculating players. But while EV is a fine tool for making intra-game decisions—which are the best bets to make on a roulette table, for example—it is often inappropriate to use EV to make extra-game decisions, like who to marry, how often to visit one’s parents, or whether or not to take up a new hobby. This is because expectation is just that—expectation. It has nothing to do with the actual value [AV] of an object, event, or experience. Sometimes you go to a party that you think will be awful, and it turns out to be amazing; other times, you go to a party that you think will be great, and it turns out to be a waste of time. Those who guide their actions entirely on EV miss out on a lot of AV because they are afraid of investing their time in a risky proposition. But every proposition is risky: just ask your local actuary. That’s just how life works, and some of the most beautiful experiences, events, and objects are discovered completely by accident, giving you no time to waste calculating their EV in advance. Which brings me back to the subject of spontaneity.


#19: Games as ‘Bounded Spontaneity’
While I stand by what I’ve said thus far, I want to slightly qualify my earlier unbounded praise for spontaneity. I’ll begin with an uncontroversial premise: that a fairly good indicator of one’s sanity is the predictability of one’s actions. We don’t trust people whose behavior is completely erratic; nor should we. This is why the Batman villain Two-Face comes across as a moral monster. We expect certain kinds of behavior from the people we know, because we believe that their behavior is somehow bound to a more or less stable base of character, and when that behavior deviates from the pattern we are familiar with we are instinctively suspicious. The same is true for games. We praise spontaneous play, but only insofar as it conforms to a ruleset which binds it within certain previously agreed upon set of parameters—i.e., the rules. Spontaneous cheating is still not morally praiseworthy, simply by virtue of its spontaneity. And the highest in-game praise is reserved for instances wherein spontaneity is channeled toward tactically or strategically advisable avenues of play. This is how gameplay differs, for example, from free jazz or performance art: activities wherein spontaneity may go largely unbounded.


#20: Tournaments as ‘Bounded Games’
Now let me qualify my seeming praise for boundedness. As I’ve said above, the point of a game is to provide opportunities for play. To the extent that the institution surrounding a game limits those opportunities, that institution is corrupt and self-defeating. And so it goes with tournament structures, undeniably one of the chief organs of any game’s institution. Tournaments, as a way of binding together groups of matches, can occasionally (but not inevitably) damage or even destroy the games they were intended to service. Such was the case during the 2012 Olympic Games, which traditionally were a celebration of the amateur ethos in sports. The Chinese women’s badminton pairs team (among other teams who apparently followed their lead) was disqualified from the 2012 games for strategic concessions of exactly the kind that is commonplace in contemporary tournament Magic. They were considered to be partaking in a form of match fixing that was “detrimental to the sport”, which ran contrary to the spirit of the tournament (though perhaps not its rules as explicitly written).

#21: Repairing the Institution
Wizards’ Organized Play department has recently taken steps to change the rules of their tournaments—with specific reference to remedying the player ‘culture’ of Magic—such that intentional draws or concessions are no longer a strategically viable route to the Top 8 of their Pro Tour series. This will ensure that more matches of Magic are actually played instead of cynically manipulated for the sake of winning the tournament. Such change is highly laudable, at least from a BAI perspective, wherein it is understood that the point of a game is to play it.

#22: The Lifecycle of a Game
However, it could be argued that professionalization is simply part of the lifecycle of any game. The game is invented, then it is enjoyed and popularized by amateur enthusiasts, and finally it is perfected by professional players when the game reaches the point of having a stable institution. If a rules loophole or omission exists in a game or in a tournament structure at that point, then the pros should find it and exploit it, and doing so should not be perceived as morally offensive. The inevitability of such professionalization is the underlying theme of many articles written in defense of API.

#23: The Strange Case of Living Games
Where this neat picture breaks down, however, is in the instance of living games. Living games, as I define them here, are games with living rulesets—rules that are not ultimate, and can reasonably be expected to change periodically in the future, perhaps with no end to that process in sight. Magic is a living game in this sense: both the individual pieces and the comprehensive ruleset get regular overhauls. Does it even make sense to speak of an ‘institution’ with regard to such games? My initial thought is that is does, except that we need to be aware that such institutions are moving targets, rather than static entities, and understand that the set of ‘professional’ players of such games might be less stable as a result of these constant changes. We might need to make a distinction between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ game institutions and, accordingly, research the cultures of these two types of game institutions for their salient sociological differences.


#24: Chess is Boring
Some games, like chess, have seemingly stable institutions, though various tournament rules or the criteria for awarding the title of ‘Grandmaster’ might shift slightly over time. However, there is not a lot of popular excitement for chess, in the manner that most professional sports and a few select eSports have captured the public’s attention and the vast majority of corporate sponsorship deals. Simply put, chess is a known quantity: it is ‘dead game’, when placed in contrast with living games, and all the institutional stability in the world can’t help us get excited about it.


#25: Chess Expansion Packs
Now, imagine that I told you that every three months from today until eternity, my company WizardsoftheYorke™ would be releasing new chess pieces with novel sculpts and abilities. There would be chess pieces that could teleport, pieces that move according to their own algorithms, and pieces that could cast spells to reanimate other pieces or protect them from capture. In addition, you could play on larger or smaller boards, with specific rules relating to those board sizes, and read flavorful backstories that justified these expansions and alterations. I propose that if this were actually the case, that quite a few former players, and a good deal of new ones too, might become (re)interested in chess.


#26: Bringing It All Back Home
Living games are a relatively new phenomenon, facilitated by the historically recent explosion of leisure time and increases in disposable income. They can expand to fill any amount of time allotted to them, and are thus a superior choice to dead games for those who have enough opportunities for leisure to appreciate their indefinitely-expanding scope. While the institutions of these living games are in a constant state of flux, this is superior to the traditional lifecycle of dead games, wherein amateur play is often squeezed out of the picture entirely by increasingly restrictive institutional pressures in favor of professional play. Amateur play in its ideal state can be parsed as a form of bounded spontaneity, taking place within the magic circle of a game, and expressing values of beauty, pleasurable immersion, and self-determination. The alternative, playing professionally for the sake of prizes, causes players to miss out on these amateur goods by placing an exclusive focus on winning.


#27: The Poll at the End
I include here as the final thesis the assertion that an interactive column makes for a more immersive reading experience. As promised in my opener, here’s a chance for you to directly engage with the column, by helping to shape its future direction. I hope you’ll take a moment to fill out the following poll, either by clicking here or choosing the options below. Let’s play again soon!