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Playing to Win, Part 2: Mailbag

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Playing to Win, Part 2: Mailbag

Rebuttals and Clarifications
My original Playing to Win article generated an incredible amount of e-mail, mostly of the form:

Dear Sirlin,

I thoroughly enjoyed your Play to Win article. It has changed the way I think about games. [Or, I always believed the same things about games but you put them into words for me.] What you described about Street Fighter is exactly the same for [game X] that I play.

You could be up there. I don't think there's any internet connections up there, though.

This brings us to point 3 from way back ("there are more things to life than winning"). A lot of people get rubbed the wrong way by this stuff because they think I want to apply "playing to win" to everyone. I don't. It's not that I think everyone should or would want to be on that peak. There are other peaks in life, probably better ones. But those who are stuck in the chasm really should know their positions and how to reach a happier place.

Thanks for all the responses.


This man just read Playing to Win.

"Game X" took the form of Counter-strike, Virtua Fighter, Magic: the Gathering, Legend of the 5 Rings, Starcraft, Smash Brothers, Scrabble, Tiddlywinks, and many others. It's sort of like when a supreme being speaks and each listener believes the words were spoken directly to him in his native language. Ok, it's not exactly like that, but I had you going there. Seriously though, communities surrounding all sorts of competitive games do face the exact same issues.

Now that the overtly self-congratulatory portion of the article is over, let's move on to those who had disagreements and questions about "Playing to Win."

The Objections

There were some who objected to the entire notion of playing to win. Here are representative samples of their views:

"But I really have a tactic that wins every time! Tower rushing in Warcraft 3 [or camping in Unreal Tournament, or whatever else]. It's not that I'm a scrub, but the game is more fun when I don't use that tactic and when I play against others who also don't use it."
Bad news for you. You are a scrub. You can't e-mail me and claim not to be a scrub, yet exemplify the only pre-requisite! (Well you can, but please don't.) What's worse is that the tactics stated are always tactics I know for a fact not to be "too good." Does tower rushing win every Warcraft 3 tournament? No. Are all the best Unreal Tournament players hardcore campers (players who sit in one spot on the map)? No. Then what are you complaining about? Learn the counter to the strategy. If there is no counter (there is a 99.9% that there is, but you don't know about it), then enter some tournaments, win them all and prove it. If you manage to do that, then fine, you've exposed the game as a degenerate one that you should probably no longer play. Otherwise, expand your horizons and learn more about the game. I suppose you could continue to play your homemade version of the game against other scrubs, but I think you'd be missing out.

"What about using the map hack in Starcraft, or a packet interceptor, or a macro to cast your spells faster, or a server that enforces no camping in a first person shooter, or just a swift kick to the shins of your opponent?"

First let's address the smarty-pants questions, then get to the heart of the issue. One of the great things about playing to win is that it's a path of self-improvement that can be measured. Becoming a better cook is also path of self-improvement, but it's more subjective and much more difficult to measure. In playing to win, we have the cold, hard results of winning and losing to guide us. I think it's only useful to consider winning and losing in the context of formal competition, such as tournaments. Kicking your opponents in the shins is outside the scope of the game, and is not legal in any reasonable tournament.

Likewise, any 3rd party program obtained from an illegal warez site and installed as a hack into your game is also not going to be legal in any reasonable tournament. These things, though technically useful to those trying to win, are outside the path of continuous self-improvement that I'm talking about. You should use any *tournament legal* means to win. If you participate in some strange tournament where all players are allowed to use a map hack, then go for it. You're playing a rather weird, non-standard version of the game, though, which defeats the whole purpose of shedding extra rules so as to play the same game as everyone else. Any reasonable person would consider "no cheating from outside the game" to be part of the default rule-set of any game.

Things outside the scope of the game are usually banned.
Leave your narcotic analgesics at home, kids.

The case of a server that monitors camping (sitting in one place too long) in a first person shooter, is a little more interesting. It meets the very important criteria for a ban of strict enforceability (players need no friendly agreement; the server knows exactly who breaks the rule and hands out a penalty). I think it fails on two other counts, though.

1) The tactic of camping is almost certainly not a game-breaking tactic, so it has no place being banned in the first place.

2) If it were a game-breaking tactic, it's just too hard to fairly monitor. If camping is defined as staying within one zone for 3 minutes, and if it really is the best tactic, then sitting that zone for 2 minutes 59 seconds becomes the best tactic.
A ban must be enforceable, warranted, and concrete (or discrete). The last requirement is really just part of the first, I suppose. Imagine that repeating a certain sequence of 5 moves over and over is the best tactic in a game. Further suppose that doing so is "taboo" and that players want to ban it. There is no concrete definition of exactly what must be banned. Can players do 3 repetitions of the 5 moves? What about 2 reps? What about 1? What about repeating the first 4 moves and omitting the 5th? Is that ok? The game becomes a test of who is willing to play as close as possible to the "taboo tactic" without breaking the (arbitrary) letter of the law defining the tactic.

Some games have it easier than others when it comes to banning. In the card game Magic: the Gathering, it's easy to create an enforceable, discrete ban. "Card X is now illegal. If you have card X in your deck, you are disqualified." The tough part there is whether the ban is actually warranted.

Street Fighter Again!

Speaking of banning, forgive my tangent into the world of Street Fighter. In the 10 year history of the 30 different versions of the game, there has only been one banning issue which had any serious debate: the issue of "roll canceling" in Capcom vs. SNK 2 (CvS2). So-called "roll canceling"is a bug-exploit that allows a player to cancel a ground roll within the first 5/60ths of a second into any special or super move, retaining the invulnerability of roll during the special or super. Let's try that again. Roll canceling is a bug requiring difficult timing that allows a player to have many invulnerable moves that the game designers never intended.

Some people claimed that players would never master roll canceling. That was just foolish, so I'll pretend I never heard that. Players will master anything that will help them win. Some players claimed that if you can beat person A, but not person B, and both A and B learn to roll cancel, that you will still beat A but not B. Others believed that even if the game ended up being all about roll canceling vs. roll canceling, that there would still be a game. Others, including myself, believed that roll canceling would ruin the game, making it degenerately unplayable. The actual results are amusing.

On August 9-11, 2002, we held the largest fighting game tournament ever in the United States. 20 players from Japan attended and CvS2 was one of the 3 primary tournament games. Most American players did not learn to roll cancel (including myself, I did not take the game seriously). Most Japanese players did. The 7th and 8th place finishers were from the US; the top 6 finishers were all Japanese. The player who won the tournament, Tokido of Japan, played Blanka and Honda(!?), using nothing but roll cancelled invulnerable versions of their self-projectile moves. This tactic absolutely destroyed the #1 US player (who even used roll canceling himself!), and the other Japanese finalist, who was clearly the better player. The "better player" just never got a chance to actually do anything during entire the set of games since the roll cancelled Blanka ball seemed unbeatable.

Should roll canceling be banned? I'm pretty sure it meets the standard of "warranted" since I'm satisfied that under serious tournament conditions, the game completely fell apart into a joke. Unfortunately, the ban would be practically unenforceable, since roll cancelled moves are exceedingly hard to actually detect or prove. I should note that many top players of the game believe that the tactic creates a different, but non-degenerate game, so it should not be banned. Ha!

Whew, we made it through more Street Fighter mumbo-jumbo. Back to the complaints!

"But playing hard against beginners (or my girlfriend) is mean. I play down to their level so it will be close."
This one is tough. Many people presented elaborate situations which were basically equivalent to them being stuck on a desert island with only one video game and one opponent who is doomed never to improve and claimed that it is more fun not to play to win since it would always be a blowout. In such a case, I suppose I concede the point.

Apparently, several of my readers are in this situation.

But what about a case where you have ready access to a variety of opponents? I'll present the case of legendary Street Fighter player Thomas Osaki (darn, back to that game again). I did not actually play with Thomas during his heyday, but I have since met him and I hope he forgives any misrepresentation of his conduct during his glory years.

Thomas Osaki dominated the game of Street Fighter in Northern California. His reputation for "playing to win" was quite extreme. They say he never really engaged in "casual play," but rather always played his hardest, as if every game had something on the line or was a serious tournament. They say he played this way regardless of his opponent, even if his opponent was a 9 year-old girl with no skill at the game. He would "stutter step, throw" her like all the rest (a particularly "cheap" tactic). Did he have no compassion at all? Was he just a jerk? I like to think of Thomas (or his legend, in case it happens not to be true) not as mean player, but as an inspiring player. He set a bar of excellence. In his path of self-improvement, he was not willing to compromise, to embrace mediocrity, or to give less than his all at any time. His peers had the extraordinary opportunity to experience brilliant play whenever he was near, not just at rare moments in a tournament.

And what of the 9 year-old girl? Perhaps she had no business playing in the first place. From Thomas's view, getting her off the machine allowed him to face the opponents he "should" be facing anyway.

*pause for hate-mail*

Because I'm psychic, I can tell that you violently object to the above, and that you have three specific grievances:

1) "I can't play that way, because if I did, and even if I believed it was the best path to self-improvement, I DON'T have a steady stream of opponents in the game I play. I have a limited audience and playing that way, or playing to win at all, alienates them so I am forced to tone it down."
2) "If everyone played that way, no one would ever be able to learn the game."
3) "There are better things in life than winning. You are just a rude bully."

On the fist point--yeah. You got me. If playing your hardest prevents your opponents from playing you, and you have access to only a very few opponents, I guess you're stuck. Sorry. Too bad you don't play Warcraft 3 or some internet game with endless opponents. You will be unable to improve past a certain point, so make the best of it, find more opponents, or play a different game.

On the second point, I guess you got me again. You, the expert player, are powerful in the narrow domain of whichever game you play. How will you use that power? Perhaps you will judge who is worthy to be taught the secret knowledge and who is to be dispatched quickly. Perhaps you will take one of the two extremes, and either defeat all or nurture all. No matter what you do, I am strongly in favor of you passing on your wisdom and passion to other players. It's no "fun" being good at an esoteric game with no players, so it is even to your advantage to train and mentor new players. But beware--all training and no "real playing" can weaken you. Thomas "trained" his peers by exemplifying excellence, setting an inspiring standard. But what is the "moral" thing to do? Does morality matter in this context?

This whole area is far beyond the scope of my ability to advise. It all comes down to what your goal really is. To improve yourself? To improve others? To win? To have "fun"?

We need to take about 100 steps back and remember what the whole point of "playing to win" was in the first place. It's certainly not about beating 9 year-old girls at Street Fighter.

The Whole Point

Imagine a majestic mountain nirvana of gaming. At its peak are fulfillment, "fun", and even transcendence. Most people could care less about this mountain peak, because they have other life issues that are more important to them, and other peaks to pursue. There are few, though, who are not at this peak, but who would be very happy there. These are the people I'm talking to. Some of them don't need any help; they're on the journey. Most, though, only believe they are on that journey but actually are not. They got stuck in a chasm at the mountain's base, a land of scrubdom. Here they are imprisoned in their own mental constructs of made up game rules. If they could only cross this chasm, they would discover either a very boring plateau (for a degenerate game) or the heavenly enchanted mountain peak (for a "deep" game). In the former case, crossing the chasm would teach them to find a different mountain with more fulfilling rewards. In the latter case, well, they'd just be happier. All "playing to win" was supposed to be is the process of shedding the mental constructs that trap players in the chasm who would be happier at the mountain peak.

You could be up there. I don't think there's any internet connections up there, though.

This brings us to point 3 from way back ("there are more things to life than winning"). A lot of people get rubbed the wrong way by this stuff because they think I want to apply "playing to win" to everyone. I don't. It's not that I think everyone should or would want to be on that peak. There are other peaks in life, probably better ones. But those who are stuck in the chasm really should know their positions and how to reach a happier place.

Thanks for all the responses.

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