‘Win’ is a loaded term. It seems of the past, about bullying and other gloating behaviour. To say that games are all about winning seems to detract from their potential as an art and their role as a medium for grown-ups. This is unfortunate, because I think no game design really functions well without incorporating winning.
What is a Win?
The prospect of winning is why players learn to overcome or master a game. A successful game needs to understand and use the concept of winning rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.
To win does not, however, mean that someone else has to lose. To win a game of Monopoly, a player has to make every other player bankrupt, and to win at football one team has to defeat another. However to win single player Halo means overcoming the challenges set by the game itself in order to complete it. To play co-operatively means you and some friends get to do that together.
There are co-operative wins, single player wins, little wins, epic wins and others that are all positive and empowering reasons to play games. Winning is simply the accomplishing of something significant in a game.
There are essentially two categories of win.
The first is victory. Victories are won by overcoming formal challenges. They break play up into segments, and when a player fails to attain a victory, the result is defeat. If you fail to beat the boss, you start the level again. If you concede a goal, you have to score two to win. Defeat has consequences.
Conditions of victory are explicit and derived from the game rather than the player. The rules of fencing dictate how victory is determined, as do the rules of Counter Strike. Single player or co-operative games set challenges for victory in terms of level or mission completion, which result in the player replaying the mission if they are defeated. Multiplayer competitive games set up rules that bring players into conflict with each other, and the resulting score defines who is the victor.
The second kind of win is achievement. Achievements are more personal than victories, more creative and less formal. An achievement is laying out your restaurant according to your liking in Restaurant City, or pulling off a tricky turn in a racing game. They are usually smaller than victories and so they occur during play rather than segmenting it.
Conditions of achievement usually come from the player rather than the game, and they do not result in defeat if they are not attained. Some games monitor for achievements and congratulate the player on attaining them. Other achievements are purely personal. Achievements are thus more subtle, but fulfilling, than victories.
Some games are almost wholly based on victories, and some are based on achievement. Minecraft is 100% achievement-driven, for example, while Guitar Hero is largely based on victory. Most games are somewhere in the middle.
Games are compelling because they feel fair.
A game is a world in which the player is empowered. The levers of play within that world are simpler than reality, and so the path to accomplishment is clearer than reality. The player therefore feels she has a fair chance of winning in a game in a way that she does not get in life.
Jane McGonigal’s book (Reality is Broken) says that the reason gamers prefer game worlds to the real world is that game worlds are more exciting and engaging. Reality, she concludes, is dull compared to the excitement and chosen work of games. I agree, and would add that fairness is the differentiating factor that games have which real life does not.
Real life is hard to understand, arbitrary and often unfair. A person in real life is rarely empowered, frequently feeling as though their life is purposeless and essentially at the mercy of the fates. But a game is fair. You can play it, you can get better at it, and if you do then you will accomplish. You will plant that virtual garden, save a princess or score a triple word score because of your own ability and nothing else. You will win.
While the study of rewards suggests that perception of fairness sometimes matters more than actual fairness, the principle of rewarding play is that the win must feel fair. Games that seem entirely based on luck are not that interesting (unless they involve money stakes as in gambling), while charity in games makes players feel incompetent. For a reward to feel like a win, it must feel as though the player worked for it.
It’s Not About the Taking Part
In the opening section of her book, McGonigal declares that games are not about winning. Citing examples such as Scrabble (where she says the goal is to spell interesting words) and Tetris (which she calls unwinnable) she comes down on the side of game playing actually being about the taking part.
In my opinion she’s wrong.
Scrabble is not actually played to spell interesting words, it’s played for points and position. The compressed murder mystery game Werewolf assigns characters and roles to players as a part of a village, but the goal is not the playing of those roles. It’s about finding the werewolves before they kill the villagers. I.e. to win.
Tetris is not unwinnable. Players figure out how to place blocks strategically and set up careful arrangements to create canyons so that they can slot in the long tetromino and clear four rows at once. Why? Because the mere achievement of doing that is difficult (a little win), because it earns bonus points (a bigger win) and contributes toward the goal of beating the previous best high score (a big win).
Extension of actions in a game provide new ways for the player to win, and loops and dynamics pace out those moments and make them worthwhile. Playing Werewolf repeatedly allows players to develop better social strategies to win, and Scrabble teaches you to watch the positioning of key squares on the board as much as realising you have awesome letters.
Winning focuses a player’s mind on the task at hand and encourages her to try and play better. The prospect of winning encourages optimality. That is to say, players work to try to find the optimal actions that will lead them to a win.
The Spirit of the Game
However most players like to play within the spirit of the game. Negative wins occur when a player is playing according to what the rules allow, but somehow the tactic that they use feels unfair.
Most of my friends refuse to play Scrabble with me because I have the reputation for being a negative player. I often block off sections of the board with small words if I can’t see a way toward a bonus square myself. Strategically what I’m doing is trying to win, and this means I deny other players the chance to make interesting words. However to some people that feels as though it’s not really in the spirit of the game. While my play style is technically correct, the problem is that it robs other players of their small wins.
In StarCraft, the same often happens when experienced players use early rush tactics to defeat more junior players. Junior players like to have some fun building a base before engaging in the proper business of war, but a rush interrupts that and destroys all their efforts almost as soon as the game gets started. Friends who play StarCraft sometimes have house rules where they agree not to rush, or minimum time limits before attacking, because it feels more in the spirit of the game.
Online competitive games are both the poison and the cure for this kind of behaviour. Players are faceless to one another, and so there is no social repercussion for playing purely to win. Such games tend to form sub-cultures that have no interest in the spirit of the game, resulting in very competitive elites.
I played Transport Tycoon many years ago and found it an engaging and complex challenge. I was hooked on getting my train lines built between towns, figuring out the best cargo to transport, and worrying about whether I was falling behind the AI players.
Then one day I discovered an exploit.
I could not remove any stations or train lines that had been laid by the AI players, but I realised I could remove their roads. Furthermore, while any player could lay a rail junction across a pre-existing section of road, they could not build a road across a pre-existing section of rail. I realised that if I broke all of the roads between the towns on the map and just laid large strips of useless rail between them, the AI players would no longer be able to set up road or rail links.
At first I was very pleased with myself. I broke all the roads, littered the landscape with redundant sections of track, and watched the AI struggle. My earnings started to soar while theirs went fallow, and I had effectively won the game. Then I realised I couldn’t play the game any more because I knew that I could win it at any time of my choosing. My exploit had effectively robbed me of any reason to play the game because the wins within now felt hollow.
An investment of time, creativity and skill to bring forth a win is the primary reason why players have picked up the gun. When they don’t need to try any more the game becomes boring and the wins feel hollow. Hollow wins always breed the same result:
Players walk away.
Winning is positive. It is creative, optimal, encourages insight and productive play. Without the prospect of achievement or victory, a game is not really a game at all. It does not mean that games need to be competitive and brash. But it does mean that the game needs to have purpose and challenge, whether of skill, smarts or patience, so that the end result is the attainment of things that matter.
When we win we achieve and become better players (and people) for it. We enjoy accomplishment in a fair world when our real world frequently denies us this sensation. That’s why all games are played to win.
But mostly in good spirit.