Thursday, August 02, 2012

Olympics Badminton: A Study in Bad Game Design

Here's a game for you:

The game lasts eight rounds. In each of the last five rounds, if you lose against your opponents you are out of the game. In other words, you have to win each round in order to win the game.

In the first three rounds, if you lose against your opponents, the only result is that you will receive easier challenges in the last five rounds; there are no penalties for losing, because the rounds are not scored. If you win these rounds, you face harder challenges in the last five rounds, making it much harder to win the whole game.

And oh yeah: The only thing that counts is winning the whole game, for which you are massively rewarded.

Any idiot could tell you that a player's best move is to LOSE the first three rounds. These rounds don't count for anything other than to make your life more difficult in the last five rounds, which are the only ones that actually provide any payoff; and the payoff is the same whether the challenges in the last rounds are more or less difficult.

Sounds like a dumb game? That's Badminton in the London 2012 Olympics, where 4 pairs of players, including the most recent gold medal winner from the last Olympics, were tossed out of the Olympics for "match fixing". Did they toss the game because of shadowy gambling connections? No, they played the game as it was designed by losing the first games in order to face easier challenges in the last games, the last ones being the only ones that counted.

But to hear the Olympics officials, the media, the fans, and the news pundits talk about it, you would think that they cheated. A scandal! A shame on the Olympics, the game, and the world! Well, technically they violated two codes of sportsmanship that require players to play their best during all games and adhere to the spirit of the games. But some of what I've heard is just nonsense.

"The players are supposed to be providing an example to the young people of the world" (BBC). Uh, no they're not. They're supposed to win the gold medal.

People who paid money to watch the game don't expect to see lackluster performance. "Who wants to sit through something like that?" said the Olympic chief. So what? The players are there to win the gold medal, not to entertain the audience. How about we ask them to perform a tap dance while they play? That would be entertaining.

"It's not in the spirit of the games." Really? Trying to win a gold medal by conserving your resources during completely irrelevant rounds is not in the spirit of the games?

I don't know who made the decision to add these useless and silly preliminary rounds (apparently added to prolong the games so that the organizers make more money by selling more tickets), but whomever it was wasn't a game designer, or a good one at any rate. A good game designer knows that when you want players to perform a particular task, you have to offer a reward that motivates them. If the reward for throwing the game is higher than the reward for winning it, guess what is going to happen?

You can't just toss a meaningless game or fake competition or points (I'm looking at you, poorly designed gamification) into an activity and expect someone to play for them if you simultaneously punish them for doing so.

How about providing games that matter to the players, and not just the spectators and the sponsors?



Gargaj said...

"In the first three rounds, if you lose against your opponents, the only result is that you will receive easier challenges in the last five rounds"

That is not true though. If you lose those rounds, chances are you won't qualify for the knockout-stage.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Gargaj, Thanks for the comment.

My example game was not intended to match exactly the actual rules of Olympic backgammon, but to convey the same general idea. With respect to the particular teams that were expelled, in their case they (thought they) really had nothing to lose by losing.


legian bali said...

i think the blame should be the competition format, because now are using group, not knockout, in group format you can predicted who is you opponent in next game, so you can control which game to be win and lose, depend in other group that who is in the top of group, or if using group format, in the last game you should play the game in the same time, like in football. but for me better using knockout, so the athlete will really fight, cause, if you lose then you out