Playing to win, the only way to play

by jimphd

…Or The Spike Trap

When I play a game, I love to explore.  I like to see what’s possible, to try out strategies others think are bad to see for myself, and to generally play in a way I think is fun.  I have a sort of “achievement unlocked” mentality.  I don’t often win, but I usually have fun.

Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic: The Gathering, wrote an article once about different types of players.  In his classification, I would be a Johnny because I like to “win with style”.  So given that, I clearly do not always play with the sole intent of winning, why did I use such a click-baiting title?

Extra-Game Objectives

Although I do not play with the sole intent of winning, I realize that often the “achievements” I’m unlocking, such as trying to win in a particular way or with a particular strategy, are extra-game objectives.  All the actions I take are allowable in the game system, it’s just that they aren’t necessarily the stated goals of the game.  For example, sometimes I like playing a theme strategy, or playing a particular faction.  I’m usually more drawn to the evil ones, and so if I play a new game set in a fantasy world, I’ll pick the necromancer character or the undead if possible.  I saw the movie Army of Darkness as a teenager and thought it was awesome, and my love of commanding an army of damned souls grew from there.  It’s not because I know anything about the game or think they are the best, it’s simply because I like the theme.  Liking the theme isn’t usually part of the game though.  It’s not a requirement in the rules to only play factions you like.  That’s what I mean by an extra-game objective; it’s as if I’m adding that objective, play a faction I find interesting/cool, to the normal rules for picking a side.

Playing to win is the only way to play for definitional reasons.  The rules of the game are about how to win, not how to have fun roleplaying as a necromancer.  Playing to win isn’t the only way to have fun, just the only way to play clearly given in the rules.  I need to state an important caveat that I am only talking about a subset of what people consider “games”.  There is no way to win playing with a yo-yo, but to me, I don’t think just doing tricks with a yo-yo is really a “game”.  The discussion of what is and is not a game is a bigger issue than I can fit in here, and I fully acknowledge that what I’m saying might not apply to toys like yo-yos, roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, “games” where there are no decisions like Candyland, or other things sometimes considered “games”.  What I say “game” I mean games of strategy, where players can make decisions.  This would include classic games like Chess, older board games like Sorry! or Clue, or more modern games like Settlers of Catan, Agricola, or Through the Ages.

Some people have countered my argument by saying that the rules don’t cover how to win or the best strategy to play.  Therefore, playing to win is an extrapolation, and so is playing thematically or for some other reason.  In other words, the argument is that the rules put bounds on players actions who are playing to win as well as the player playing thematically and don’t suggest any particular way to play.  I am sympathetic to this argument, and I can understand people seeing it this way.  I accept this view as equally valid as my own, even if I don’t agree with it.

My response to the argument that the rules don’t necessarily imply that playing to win is the main way to play involves an analogy.  Imagine I say, “I go to my job to earn money.”  That makes sense because it’s generally the accepted purpose of a job; most of us think of a job as a way to earn money primarily.  Now imagine I say, “I don’t care about the money, I go to my job for another reason.”  There are many possible other reasons I could go to my job;  maybe I enjoy the work in and of itself, maybe I made a promise to someone I’d go, maybe I’m preparing for a role in a movie, etc.  You don’t know.  That’s because earning money is an outcome we can both observe.  It’s objective.  If I’m doing things for subjective reasons, things you can’t observe, it’s harder to understand.  In a game, the rules define the objective goal, the analog to “making money”, in the section on how to win.  If I’m not pursuing that goal, then it’s not as clear what I’m doing.  It is true that the rules lay the foundation for playing thematically, but they (usually) don’t imply what makes for good subjective decisions within that system.  On the other hand, the rules do imply what makes for good decisions in relation to winning.

Playing the Same Game

Players get to do what they want in a game.  Playing the undead is fun for me, and so I do it when I can.  My point isn’t that playing for reasons other than winning is bad or a less valid way to play.  It’s only potentially a problem when I’m playing for theme and my opponent is not.  Part of what makes a game work is that both players agree to the same rules.  If I’m not playing to win, and the other player is, then we’re playing different games.  This mismatch can create problems for both players.  My playing-to-win opponent, Spike, might become frustrated his flavorless knights keep soundly defeating my undead, or I might become frustrated that Spike doesn’t don an appropriately thematic costume or talk in an accent.  Most of the time, this kind of mismatch isn’t a big problem because designers create systems that are robust.  A game where all factions have a chance to win helps keep the game competitive for Spike, even if I’m secretly playing so that I can wear my dark robe with the gold-embroidered hood and chant incantations while playing my turn.  In other words, I can pursue my extra-game objective of playing thematically and not ruin the competition.  Ideally, playing thematically is also a good strategy.  If playing the undead well in a strategic sense simulates or captures some of what a player imagines commanding a horde of zombies and skeletons would be like then it works even better.