Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Game That is Both Competitive and Cooperative

While researching game categorization (aka classification), it is clear that most attempts at classification fail due to trying to establish classes rather than continuum. While many thinkers categorize play as a continuum - say more or less orderly or sports-like - when it comes to taxonomy of the games themselves this system breaks down. Apparently, a taxonomy requires "boxes", not "scales".

There are very few attempted classes I've seen in which a scale would not be more appropriate. Not only because there are an infinite number of games, but because most games constitute an infinite number of arrangements. For instance, how can football be all skill if the game starts with a coin toss? Does flipping a coin make football a game of luck? Or is the luck element an insignificant part of the overall game (I'll come back to that in a different post)?

One box that interests me in particular is the cooperative/competitive distinction. It is generally assumed that every game is either cooperative or competitive. Box, box.

First of all, outside of the game rules all games are cooperative. All players agree to cooperate to play, agree to the rules, agree to enforce penalties, agree to the time, and so on. This is semantic, and not considered when classifying the the rules themselves.

Second of all, any game with teams is a mixture of cooperative and competitive, at least in some regards. You cooperate with that player and compete against that other player.

In the Frisbee games I used to play on Fridays in Jerusalem, and the soccer games I played during recess at school, players spontaneously switched sides when one side seemed to be unbalanced. Was this an act of cooperation, competition, or both, or was it simply an abrogation of the rules? And what did that make the game?

Semantics aside, it is not that difficult to come up with a game mechanic that blows this division out of the water. In fact, I'm using the following mechanic in a game I'm currently designing:

All players compete for resources in order to win the game. The resources are available randomly (random resources are available at set times during each round). With perfect resource availability and perfectly cooperative play, all players can win the game. In most games, the resource availability schedule makes this impossible. Even if it were possible, non-cooperative hidden decisions made by each player will probably make it impossible. Therefore, in most games, only some players, one player, or possibly no players will win the game.

Question: is this a competitive game or a cooperative game?


Update: I am, of course, an idiot. The Prisoner's Dilemma and many other game theory games are perfect examples of games that are both competitive and/or cooperative.
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