Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Watching vs Performing vs Mastering

Watching vs Performing

There are two distinct aspects to board gaming; so distinct, that they aren't the same activity at all, though they look the same from the outside, and most games package some combination of them into the same box.

These are: luck and strategy. Passive and active entertainment. Watching and performing.

It's no crime to enjoy both. Moods vary, depending on the lateness of the day, alcohol consumed, and other factors.

When you roll the dice and laugh, groan, or jump for joy at the outcome, you are enjoying passive entertainment. Your having to push a button to cause the random event doesn't change that. The entertainment value is from seeing what happens to something outside of your control. Like watching television.

When you're called upon to think or make a decision, you are enjoying active entertainment. There are different levels of active entertainment, from the simple (trivia: do I know it or not?) to the complex (how do I get my battalion to that base?). Regardless of complexity, you can rank better or worse players, and most of the time you can work to improve yourself.

You can't rank or improve performance of experiencing passive entertainment; the participant isn't performing.

Obviously the writers of this article had expectations that games are there to amuse the players while the players watch. That's fine, if that's what they like. Unfortunately, they didn't realize that watching games play out is a different sort of entertainment than performing them. I'm sure that they would diss Chess as too boring.

Performing vs Mastery

My friend David pointed out this article about a division within active gaming: performing vs mastery. There are two types of activities within active gaming: performing what you know well (relishing an easy win), and mastering what you don't (struggling, failing, and eventually succeeding at a difficult win). The article is a good read.

The author claims that, while in action games, the player must improve in order for his or her performance to improve (mastery), in RPGs, the player's character gains performance disproportionately to the player's actual mastery. It's like: see what skills you've gained, though the player hasn't really achieved any new skills. I think that's a little unfair to RPGs, especially the ones that require actual player thinking. But mostly because RPGs are simulating a different type of fantasy: real players shouldn't have to get more physically fit for their characters to become more physically fit.

But the general point is sound: people play games for different reasons, depending on what types of entertainment or recreation they want at a given time. Ranking different types of games against each other is pointless if they are meant to provide different types of entertainment.


David Klein said...

For a while I was working on my performance in RPS but then I realized that manual dexterity can only take you so far. So I started to hone my strategic skills, thinking about how my opponent might respond and how I might best counter him. I have become quite good over time and now outright win about a third of the games and at least manage a tie in another third.

P.S. For extra credit: What is RPS?

Avraham Grief said...

That was a really good article.

Extra credit answer: RPS is Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Not related to the performance/mastery topic, but... There was one night when I played a series of RPS matches over the internet with my brother and I won a massive percentage of them. I'm not sure exactly how, but I did feel some level of confidence that I knew what he was going to choose... maybe it was some familial mental bond. I doubt it would be repeatable.

Mike said...

So, would Yahtzee fall into the "passive entertainment" category of gaming? I mean, I guess there is a slight bit of thinking and decision making, but not a whole lot. And what about Roll Through the Ages? It takes the decision making up a notch, but still finds it's base in dice rolling. Perhaps these sorts of games fall somewhere in the middle. Or is there a middle ground? I guess passive to active entertainment (in games) would be a continuum with the two extremes, but lots of room in the middle. But then you also have levels of active entertainment. Maybe the continuum metaphor doesn't work.

Thanks for the post. This really gets me thinking about the games I am trying to design and the audience I am designing them for. I am going to read Pixel Poppers now.

Chris said...

Started to write a reply but it rapidly got out of hand so I'm posting it to my blog tomorrow morning instead. :)

When it goes up, you should find it at:

(I sent a trackback as well).

Hope I offer an interesting counterpoint! :)

David Klein said...

Hi Mike, do you really find Yahtzee so trivial? I find the decisions quite difficult. The game is completely solved so there is an optimal play at each move. I played solitaire with a program that knew the optimal moves and I could play a full game optimally only about two thirds of the time, and I considered that quite good.

Dragonbear82 said...

Are games a medium? Someone posted something on another forum asking if comics are just pornagraphy these days and I pointed out that comics are a medium and no one would consider dilbert pornagraphy, (even in the lacking social value or artistic content sense). I've never really thought about it but it seems to make sense to me.

P.S. I find a ten game set of RPS to be an exceptionally interesting and delicate psychological game. It is very similar to the scene in the princess bride. "I can not choose the glass in front of you..."

Dragonbear82 said...

Games are really just type of medium, right? I mean to discount a whole genre of games because they are not like the ones you already know how to play is pretty similar to saying that novels are stupid because of all these trashy romance books with no real substance. Even if it were true that all romance novels are trashy, (which it's not) that doesn't say anything about the novel as a form. If anything it says something about the current state of the romance genre.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Re Yahtzee: Rather than a "continuum", most games alternate decision-making with awaiting the outcome of a lucky event.

In Yahtzee, for instance, you can divide the game experience very concretely:

Roll dice: luck
Decide what dice to reroll: decision
Roll dice: luck
Decide what dice to reroll: decision
Roll dice: luck
Decide where to place result: decision (if there is one to make)

For a player who enjoys decision making ONLY, the game stops being enjoyable after the first decision. Why reroll the dice to see what happens AFTER making the optimum decision? Does the outcome of the roll reflect on the skill of the decision? No.

That's why, in Chess, you move a piece and it moves, or you capture a pieces and it captures You don't roll dice to see if it moved or captured after you made the decision.

Those who enjoy luck ONLY are bothered by having to make the decision in the first place. They'd rather just roll the dice once.

Most people enjoy a little of both, one would assume.

Those who speak of a "continuum" are generally referring to the proportionate amounts of decision making to luck events, and how much of the luck is removed after the decision. But each event in the game, state to state, is pretty much one or the other.


Mike said...

OK. So, I guess I didn't come across like I thought. I don't want to say that Yahtzee is trivial. I was just trying to understand the whole passive/active dichotomy. I guess a better example would be Snakes and Ladders. There is no decision making in that game. Spin the spinner and move your pawn. Then slide down, climb up, or stay where you are. This game could be put on the far end of a continuum as one being passive with no active entertainment attached, no decisions needed to be made.

Sorry for the Yahtzee mis-perception. I enjoy Yahtzee. I am just trying to wrap my brain around these ideas.

Thanks for the reactions and again for the post.

Duncan M said...

After reading this and Chris' reply, I have a few thoughts:

It seems to me that what you are trying to define is less about the player and more about the mechanics inherent in the game systems. from what I can tell, these boil down to three classes of interactions: Fate, mental, and (one you seem to have omitted) contested.

Fate interactions or mechanics remove the outcome from the player's control entirely. These are chance mechanics. Dice rolls, card deals, random number generators, chaos theory, and quantum mechanics. Once the die is cast the outcome is determined by the outside forces and little can be done.

Mental interactions and mechanics cover a lot of ground but end up with the choice of the player having total effect over the result. Memory games, player moves in pure strategic games, and any sort of decision or planning within a game counts as a mental component. Except in some purely mental solitaire activities (sudoku, for instance) these activites must be paired with other mechanics lest the conclusion be foregone. There is only a single way to solve some puzzles and the mental activity is to figure out how.

The last classification is Contested. This often replaces or augments the other mechanics by positioning the action of the player against an opponent (human, mechanic, or otherwise simulated). Games that include physical components would be considered contested as you must pit yourself against the physical world to succeed (Jenga). In some cases you must pit your skills against other players (Pictionary). You may also find yourself pitting your Mental actions against Fate outcomes (a strategic move in Risk against the Fate of the dice).

In each case, the mechanics are rarely seen completely by themselves. Only in the most basic of contests can a single mechanic create a game (Fate - Scratch Card Lottery, Mental - Sudoku, Crossword, Contested - Arm Wrestling, Carnival Games) most of which will be solitary in nature.

Chris said...

Yehuda: thanks for replying to my open letter! My goals in picking at this piece are very different to your goals in writing it, but your framework helped me get an angle on something for which I've been trying to find an avenue of attack for a while. Many thanks!

Duncan: you propose an interesting system, but it's not clear to me that what you are offering is operating in the same space as what Yehuda is exploring. If Yehuda's claim is concerned with active versus passive participation, both your mental and contested categories would clearly fall under active.

(But I see why you posted this here and not at Only a Game, since it is much more relevant to Yehuda's goals in this regard than to mine!)


Roman Age said...

This is the comment I posted on Chris's blog 'Oly a game', however since his article was a response to this one, he suggested I post it here. So this is my first visit here.

Mmmh, reading, the article, the comments, it is a rather interesting topic.
I'm speaking for myself, but as a player, the experience that is felt as a result of using active or passive elements in a game are fundamentaly different ones. I think the player is very aware of it (even young children).

Just a few points that I haven't seen developed here:
- when there is a mix of active and passive elements in the rules, a passive action (based on chance) can still be seen as active to a certain extend, as the situation as it is in the present may come as the result of a previous decision that was active, a strategic decision, even when those two actions are very remotely related. This seems to be in fact very common, in many games.

- An action purely based on luck can also be active in the way that the player still has to make a decision, only this decision is not based on strategy but pure luck. Like picking a card from a set of three possible options... yes, you know you can avoid making a decision at all and always choose the one on the left, the odds are just the same, but since it's fun doing otherwise, you go along with the game. May be this type of active (but still based on pure chance) actions, can be considered at an intermediare level between true active (strategic) and true passive actions (when you may throw a dice, or have to pick the next card in the pile with no possible choice), at least in the way they are perceived by the player.