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.


Bet Shemesh Board Gaming Club said...

It's competitive unless all players agree to try and have all players win. Otherwise it's just factions and joint victories. A game played with X teams against eachother is still a competitive game even if players on the same team cooperate.

As long as there is any competition I'd classify a game as competitive. Only if all players share victory or loss then it would be a cooperative game.

Yehuda said...

I added an update: any classic game theory problem is a game that has both cooperative and competitive elements.

Avri, all you're saying is that the game can be either cooperative or competitive as players choose, although their choices might be constrained by random elements or previous choices.

All of which is true, but hardly solves the problem of classification.


Brett said...

I'd have to say that as long as there is a victory condition, a scenario in which one or more players can win, a game is competitive.

I'd even go so far as to say all games are competitive, though not all competitions are games. But this whole line of reasoning is related to the definition of game, rather than classification of games.

Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that a game is an activity which has an ending condition in which one or more players is declared the winner (and this is probably suitable for this discussion, though it doesn't necessarily include role-playing or possibly some other forms of game), it must necessarily be a competition.

Whether the competition is strictly between players in a directly competitive game, between the players and the game rules or system in a fully cooperative game or some admixture of both scenarios (or even competition with oneself to best a personal high score in a solo game), competition is the heart of every game.

So, "Competitive" as a game classification is not useful, as all games fall into that class.

This leaves us with "Cooperative" as the other of your choices--but not the other end of a coop/competitive sliding scale, since competition is a constant in games, no game having zero degrees of competition.

This suggests that games can have a higher or lower degree of competitiveness, which is certainly true. Concurrently, games can have a higher or lower degree of cooperativeness. At the bare minimum, as you mentioned in your post, the lowest degree of cooperation in a game is the simple social contract in which all players agree to play by the rules. From this, a game's cooperativeness ranges from partially cooperative, in which some players cooperate in a limited way against the other players or the game system, but only a subset of players can actually win, to fully cooperative, in which all players cooperate in competition against the game system and all players win or lose as a whole.

So, discarding "Competitive" as a useless classification, I would suggest two: "Cooperative" and "Semi-Cooperative" to cover the full range of games with either full or partially cooperative game play.

Ian Schreiber said...

A rare element in games (but one that fascinates me) is where there can only be one winner (hence competition), but it is also possible for ALL players to lose against the game system (so they must work together to prevent a total loss -- cooperation). Best example I know of is the obscure Avalon Hill game, "Republic of Rome".

For lack of a better term, I've called this mechanic "coopetition".