Friday, May 7, 2010

Luck: the spoonful of sugar

Mainly due to my increased conscious thinking about game theory, I've started playing more chess these days, mainly against the computer as chess enthusiasts are few and far-between.  The reason for this is fairly straightforward to me, now that I've been playing the game more.

Chess is not fun.

In popular language, calling a game "not fun" is tantamount to saying it's not a good game.  Games are supposed to be fun, after all: that is their purpose.  If a game is not fun, it is not fulfilling its purpose.  But I still think chess is one of the best games ever invented and enjoy playing it--I just don't have fun while I'm doing it.

Before you start thinking I'm barking up the wrong tree--that chess is indeed fun, I'm just describing a different kind of fun or something--know that I truly do not find it fun and yet I truly do find it worthwhile.  Other people might find it fun, and other people may find it not enjoyable.  The important thing is that at least one person is capable of finding a game not fun and still finding it worthwhile.

So the question to ask is, why?  Why is chess not all that fun, while still being a good game?  What makes a game fun, after all?

I posit that the key element to making a game fun is a heavy luck component.  The reason has to do with simple psychology: I don't like blaming mistakes on myself, so I will take whatever steps necessary to avoid doing that.  Sometimes, events conspire so that I'm forced to accept my mistakes--this happens.  However, when it comes to games, players have several powerful options when it comes to denying responsibility, the most powerful of which will be to call the game "not fun," "useless," and ultimately, "a waste of time."

If a player does well at a game, that player will likely enjoy the game until he starts doing poorly.  The tricky part is that at some point the player must do poorly, or there is no sense of accomplishment for getting better.  If everyone can do equally well at a game, it is truly a waste of time--pure diversion--and it will quickly lose its appeal.  It reminds me of  the expression, "He who is friends with everyone is friends with no one."  To be a great game, the game must challenge its participants at some point.  This means the player will eventually make a mistake, lose, and will be looking for someone to blame it on.

Games considered fun usually designate the blame for the player: it's not the game's fault, it's certainly not the player's fault--it's luck's fault!  You got dealt a bad hand!  Your numbers didn't come up!  You got tougher questions than your opponents!  Now the player can blame something else for the mistake and go on playing, sans bruised ego.

Once a game has established luck as a common enemy, the game works its way into a trickier situation: how to encourage players to learn more about the game.  Not many people will dedicate much time to a game that solely awards players based completely on luck.  People, in addition to needing something to blame failure on, need a mechanic that will point success back at them.  In other words, they need to be able to express what they did to deserve the win.  Luck needs to play a limited role here, as any win attributed to luck isn't attributable to anyone.

In this way of seeing things, a game's "fun" and a game's "worth" aren't merely two distinct descriptors, but are potentially pitted against each other.  A game needs to assign losses to luck (to be fun) and assign wins to players (to be worthwhile).  This is difficult, but then again, it should be.  Otherwise, every game would be good, and "good" would lose its meaning.

It also explains why chess is not fun and worthwhile, poker is fun and worthwhile, and Candyland or the lottery are fun and not worthwhile.  Each of them manages luck differently, and result in different experiences.  In chess, there is no luck--or to be specific, the only luck in the game (an opponent's mistake or oversight) cannot be used to justify a loss.  The player is completely responsible for any loss.  

To me, a game of chess is nerve-racking, all-consuming, and a frequent cause of rage.  These are not descriptions of a fun activity to me.  They do, however, suggest a level of emotional attachment that an activity which can only be described as "fun" would lack.  Games need to move beyond fun to be worth anything, but don't forget that fun is an important "spoonful of sugar" that helps the medicine go down.  While chess teaches me a lot of lessons about games, system design, and life in general, I still wish I had more people willing to play it with me.  


Remy77077 said...

I do think a lot of this is purely from your perspective - "Other people might find it fun, and other people may find it not enjoyable. The important thing is that at least one person is capable of finding a game not fun and still finding it worthwhile".

Other people most likely do NOT enjoying losing due to luck, and only want to know it was their own fault when they lose. Many people can find those games the most worthwhile, =and= the most fun.

I think everyone has very unique luck=fun tolerances. I know mine exists but is pretty low. I personally find games where there is SOME small luck element, yet are a very high % of pure skill (for example - Street Fighter 2 series). Once it becomes too much about luck (eg. a lottery), I don't find it so much fun or worthwhile.

Remy77077 said...

Also, to add to this... chess is fairly unusual in that it has no luck AND perfect information. Most competitive games will either have some luck element (dice rolls in most table top strategy games) and/or some imperfect information (eg: 'fog of war' in most computer strategy games). This is why I consider chess in some ways to be 'too pure' in that there is in some ways zero strategy (how I define strategy) - weighing of alternatives in 'fuzzy' situations - there could be argued to always be a calculable 'best' move (hence the ability and attempts to write 'perfect' chess AIs). You might also see that as 100% pure strategy, depending on how you define strategy (it's a very woolly word).

BTW I actually still enjoy chess, but also don't have a regular outlet to play it. I last managed to get some games against friends on facebook.

Ferguson said...

Fun is a rather woolly word itself, as I've mentioned before. My main point here is to point out the frequent conflation of the idea of fun with other types of enjoyment, which I believe you're guilty of, as well, Remy. It's easy to do, and most of the time it's inconsequential, but I think when we're talking about games, it's an important distinction to make.

Our relationships with games deepen like our relationships with people. As we play a game, our perception of it will change. My use of the word "fun" is mainly applying to a very superficial assessment of a game, which is how I feel it is mostly used. It's similar to calling someone "friendly." While we might define "friendly" as "someone pleasant to be around," we wouldn't call people friendly if they are only pleasant to be around "once you get to know them." It's an important distinction to make, I think.

Chess and Street Fighter are both rewarding enterprises when it comes to games, but I wouldn't suggest either one to a stranger looking for a "fun" game.

Remy77077 said...

I couldn't agree more about the word "fun"! And guilty as charged. I definitely say a game I find nerve-racking, consuming and rage-causing is a LOT of 'fun', because I enjoy being consumed by it, and the fiero payoff at the end when I manage to win makes the whole experience & process fun.

And of course simple learning and improvement can also be fun; it's not all about some goal-orientated payoff.

But as you say, I am using 'fun' very differently to your thrust here. So I'd ask, what game conforms to your definition of a game, and yet is still 'fun' in the sense you write about here? Monopoly? Snakes & Ladders? What about videogames? Tetris?

Wouldn't any game that became competitive shift to become 'not fun' towards the 'worthwhile'?

Ferguson said...

I would say, yes, any game that put the players into a competitive situation would by its nature be less fun for the players than a game that didn't. And you're right--these games are more interesting than games with non-intelligent opponents because intelligence is capable of adapting to strategies (notice I'm purposefully not saying "human" intelligence).

But I find the question of what "what is a game and also fun" to be more interesting. By my definitions of games and fun, Monopoly and Tetris are both games and fun, while Snakes and Ladders and the lottery are fun, but not games. Why is this? Because all of these play activities allow players to pin losses on luck, but only Monopoly and Tetris allow players to have different strategies, the fourth component of a game. (In the case of the lottery, while players may have different strategies, it is difficult to imagine a strategy that could possibly be considered verifiably better than another strategy.) The strategic component of a game is what makes it possible for players to take credit for the win--successful strategies are ones that win more often than chance.

But notice the progression that implies. If players engage in different strategies and one player wins more often than the other players, that strategy could be said to be the best one. Once the rest of the players change their strategies to the winning strategy, the luck element of the game returns to be the deciding factor. Great games will not have an "ultimate strategy"--that is, a strategy that minimizes the chances of loss more than any other possible strategy while maximizing the chance of winning more than any other possible strategy.

In other words, we should look for "layers" in games, where a new ideal strategy emerges when all the players switch to a common strategy. To remain relevant and interesting, a game must allow a player to "one-up" the other players regardless of the strategies they employ. If this sounds difficult to do, well, welcome to the art of gamecrafting. Turns out you need to know more than C++ to make a decent game.