Competition? What for?

When I asked Ron Edwards to tell me what he thought about Cranium Rats, he had also said the following, reposted from private discussion with his permission: 

“The real question at the abstract, CA level, is what am I demonstrating by winning. It is not interesting to me to “compete in order to tell my story,” and I’m not sure if that’s what you’re working towards, or whether it’s a trap that you’re skirting.”

 And when I replied talking about competition for its own sake, he replied once more.

“I think that competition always has to showcase something – endurance, skill, what I call “strategy and guts” in my essay, in some form. There really is no such thing as a truly random competition – at the very least, you have to show that you’ve got the guts to stick it out until the end.

So I think you’re dodging my question. I’m not questioning the validity of competition or that it’s not fun. I’m asking what do you show by winning, and indeed by playing Cranium Rats. I’m also not saying there’s nothing there. I’m sure there is, and am asking because I’m not taking the time to figure it out.”

And you know what, I honestly do not know how to answer Ron’s competition. I am not sure if I know what the competition is about presenting, and I’m sure that if I do know then I do not know how to put it into words adequately.

Suppose that you’re playing a sports game, it is clear what you are better at by playing. But then again, if people did not enjoy competition for its own sake, why would they play games where they lose? Take Settlers of Cattan, supposing there are four players playing, three will lose. Why do they play? For the chance of winning, and if they keep on losing, why do they keep playing, or will they quit?

I’m going to use Capes as an example, simply because there’s still not much else out there for me to talk about. As far as I can tell, or as I call it, you win in two different ways: The first, you gain control over the narrative in order to tell the story. The second is to gain the type of resources you need and get rid of the ones you don’t, which feeds into gaining your first objective.
What “winning” Capes proves is actually spelled in the text, it’s knowing what makes your other players tick and putting weight on these levers. Finding stories/elements they want to control and bidding them for it.
It’s about proving you know how to manipulate others, though there’s no defined “Winning Condition” so I may be talking in the air.

So, I believe that based on us playing competitive games, the competition in and of itself gives you some fun. But help me figure it out, use your own games, use my game, talk in abstract. What do you prove by the competition in CSI Games, what happens if you don’t have something proven or one can’t tell it (Possibly the game isn’t fun and falls on its face?), how do you tell what the competition is about?

This is our Project Discussion for the next 3 weeks, to end on the 25th of December. Take one of the games on the CSI Game List and try to answer those questions.

Here is another issue, if two people think the competition is over something different, do both win, do both lose, or things fall apart? For example, one that competes for the mechanical win and one that competes for control of Narration in Cranium Rats? By Wednesday I’ll have a post dedicated to the matter linked here, to aid in this discussion.

Edit: There’s a link posted a line or two back, edited in as promised.

18 comments on “Competition? What for?

  1. JJ Prince says:

    Hi Guy. Here’s my thoughts.

    I think competition is vital as it represents life. Here’s an extract from my RPG theory.

    Gaming: Pwned

    Humanity, indeed all life, is driven to compete – it’s an evolutionary necessity.

    Games set up arbitrary rules which create an arena for competition. When playing games, individuals submit to these rules and pit their skills against one another in order to see who triumphs.

    Hence much of the fun from gaming comes from besting one’s opponents. Yet, once the game and rules are understood, lots of fun can be gained from an appreciation of the tactics and techniques displayed by the participants. It is especially appealing to the male psyche to analyze and discuss the minutiae of games.

    If two players think the competition is over something different, then the game has poorly defined victory conditions. When everyone knows how to win, it becomes easier to identify and appreciate the strategy, skill and guts that Ron mentions.


  2. Guy Shalev says:

    But what if you don’t pit skills, or that proving one’s skills is not the point of competition? How would the game fare then? I’m talking about games where it’s all about the appreciation of the guts and skill, even if what skill is left in the air.

    Though in a way you could look at that as if the players are left to identify what the competition is about, and that can also lead to problems.

    Now, let us look for a moment at our two games, what would you say competition is about in Cranium Rats?
    What would you say competition is about in Dragon Vs. Gun, and is it indeed competition between the players?

    In your game text you mention people will play multiple characters. Supposing I play three characters from three different factions, and so do the other 3 players, What will the victory of someone prove? Is it the players’ or the factions’, and can you even have a true competition when you “win” no matter which side wins?

  3. Guy Shalev says:

    Ben Lehman just said this on the Game Relevations thread over at Story-Games:

    “This is today: You don’t motivate people via game resources of “win” conditions. You motivate people by providing them with what they enjoy.”

    This is eerily appropriate for this discussion.

  4. Filip says:

    Guy, it’s about winning (duh). It must be clear for the participants what “winning” means, cause “winning” might just as well look like losing on some level that is not the arena of competition, especially in the story games. Still, if the participants don’t have a clear idea of what they are fighting for, the whole thing will crumble on the social contract level. For example:

    You try to put the ball in the basket. I try to run around the field faster than you, and I don’t give a damn about the ball.

    None of us gets proper opposition. The competition is futile.

    It is certainly possible to have fun chasing your own tail. But it still needs to be a clearly defined goal of play, otherwise you have a bunch of lunatics at the table, striving for some stuff in blind and getting in their way instead of supporting themselves (and in this case, paradoxically, support comes from providing the right opposition in the right time).

  5. Filip says:

    (Er, I’m talking in general that is. I’m not really sure what’s the competition about in CR, it’s up to you to decide and communicate clearly in the rules; the only win condition I see now is getting 10 Aspect dots. And unfortunatelly I don’t remember Dragon vs. Gun well enough now to say anything.)

  6. Guy Shalev says:

    Very true. This is why the Social Contract is paramount to competitive games, even more than other types of games, and games that juggle Competition and Story(and may confuse them, even moreso).

    Now, let us get specific. Of course only I can “Decide”, but everyone can read and get their own understanding. Read one or more of the games on the list of CSI Games and try to tell me what you prove by winning them.

    Not just Filip, everyone.

  7. Games are a huge part of my life. Not just RPGs, but all games.

    I play video games all the time. Many times, I play video games to watch the story unfold, and I’ll cheat my way past obstacles if I can in order to get the story.

    Other times, I will sit and bash away at buttons and keys for hours on end, trying to get through one specific area or past one specific part of the game, because I’m trying to beat the obstacles and prove myself (even just to myself). Heck, I usually play on the most difficult setting available simply to challenge myself!

    What this boils down to is that competition is about who is better at overcoming the obstacles: who gets further, who gets more points, who does it faster, etc.

    I also play card games like Magic:tG and Vampire:tES. Same thing there: who can beat who, and how many, whose deck-building skills are best, who has the best poker face, who has the best strategies, etc.

    So, is competition based around resources? That is, gathering or manipulating resources (whether your own or that of others)? That seems likely. But at the same time, competition can happen without a well-defined resource.

    When I played “Death’s Door” at Forge Midwest this past year, I ended up slipping into competition mode during the back-and-forth narration. Now, this broke the game a bit, or did for me at least, but the game isn’t about getting your way or achieving your specific desired outcome. But competition was present without an overt resource.

    What was going on? The competition was about being clever enough, about putting that narration die back across the table (and the story be damned).

    Regarding the reason people keep playing games despite losing…a bit of psychology provides the answer: intermittent rewards are a strong influence on behavior, moreso than constant rewards. The reward-without-guarantee-of-reward is just addictive.

  8. Guy Shalev says:

    How did it go in Death’s Door, where you were behaving competitively, knowingly, while others either did it unknowingly or weren’t actively competitive to begin with?

  9. No, I didn’t know I was behaving competitively until after I finished the game and considered what had taken place at the table. I started asking myself: “Why’d I do that?” and then realized, “Oh, I was trying to win. Huh.”

    As mentioned, it broke the game. I felt my story wasn’t as good as some of the others because I pushed the limits in order to win, when the game was set up to handle competition in narration. Narration is only supposed to provide colorful situational conflicts, not complete blocks, with a graceful acceptance of circumstance when necessary.

  10. Filip says:

    Well, this kind of reminds me of my Illumination playtests. I’ve been writing the game with some mixed goals, and no specific CA in mind. What we had on those sessions was “outwit the GM/players” stuff, a slightly Capes-like dynamics, and it was fun. A CSI Game it’s certainly not, but now, after realising the competitive potential, I’m pushing the rules in a more gamist direction. If it will also work for nar play, the better, but I no longer care.

  11. Guy Shalev says:

    Raven, don’t you mean Competition is meant to provide situations which help you push your story forward? I don’t see why being competitive gave you “Whole blocks” instead of “layered story”(my understanding), but I take it there’s something in the rules of the game I am not aware of.

    Filip, once more, what does it prove in Illumination, that’s the question of this post. Is competition for its own sake enough, or you need to prove some skill by winning in order for it to be meaningful?

  12. Filip says:

    This isn’t a simple question. Judging from my experience, the competitive element in Illumination is fun in itself due to the tension produced, and regardless of winning or losing this is a reward. But winning itself is meaningful only as much as it affects broader events.

  13. Guy Shalev says:

    Some content from the discussion held on John Kim’s journal regarding CSI Games is relevant.

  14. […] pm (Blinders, Level 1, Components, Definition) Quite recently we held a discussions called “Competition? What for?” on this very blog, and with this post I’m going to give a suggestion on a possible […]

  15. callans says:

    Old post, hope you don’t mind a comment added.

    Where this is, it’s outside the game. It’s outside social contract even.

    Let me put it this way – would you admire someone for, say, being able to run really fast – like really fast. Would you just admire that quality in them? I would – perhaps a tad jelously, but I would admire them for owning that raw ability.

    What about other personal qualities of them? Their ability to think quick? To jump high? To remember acurately and quickly? They gym regularly and have big muscles?

    When Ron talks about what you show or demonstrate, he’s talking about what people show about themselves as a raw physical person – their own, physical and mental capacities, just out their and on display.

    Do you admire other peoples raw physical and mental capacities? If you don’t, there will be no competition element to cranium rats – not just because you wouldn’t have designed it in, but because in real life, your just not interested in what other people have to show and demonstrate about their own physical and mental ability. Nor, presumably, in showing it yourself.

    It’s rough, but it’s a yes/no question. Do you admire other peoples raw abilities? You might only admire certain ones, and that’s okay – you might admire running ability and memory ability. That’s fine to admire. If they were the case, is running ability or memory ability part of cranium rats? If you admire other raw physical or mental qualities about someone, are they tested in the game and importantly, showcased?

  16. Guy Shalev says:

    It is more than fine Callan. In fact, this is what I was aiming for; the reason I keep all posts on the same page is to help signify that they’re all open for discussion, indefinitely.

    Great post Callan.
    I think one of the things many board-games are built on is that we admire someone’s ability to “stay ahead of the game”, and that’s what I think of when I hear “One-upmanship”, or “Stepping up”.

    In Settlers, it’s the ability to forge alliances, break them when it’s the best moment, protect yourself against others’ alliances and backstabbing attempts, and more than anything else, the ability to do so in a consistent manner.

    We admire others’ skill at competition, and we compete in order to prove that we can compete, and prevail, heh.

  17. Callan says:

    Yeah, you just have to remember it’s prevailing not inside the game, but in real life. Although small, every boardgame won is a notch on the belt. Sports employ real life trophies, that are notches on the belt as well.

    The ability to also reflect on the events of play and compare them agains the social/political standards of our time is also possible and even valuable. But basically notches come first, reflection is more of a fun but secondary bonus.

  18. Guy Shalev says:

    Regarding reflexive moments, it’s interesting that I posited that that is the main form in which we create stories during play.

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