Thursday, January 12, 2006

It's Not if You Win or Lose ...

Grantland Rice, an American sportswriter who lived from 1880-1954, once wrote, "For when the One Great Scorer comes, / To write against your name, / He marks - not that you won or lost - / But how you played the Game." I'm sure we've every one heard that saying, probably in its shorter more succinct form.

There's no doubt that Rice's saying has become a touchstone for competition of all sorts. But, that doesn't mean that everyone agrees with his point of view:
Grantland Rice, the great sportswriter once said, 'It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.' Well Grantland Rice can go to hell as far as I'm concerned.
Gene Autry

I have never had much sympathy for the point of view, "it isn't whether you win or lose that counts, but how you play the game."
Richard Nixon

Winning isn't the only thing; it's everything.
Vince Lombardi
However, Autry, Lombardi, and Nixon were from an older generation than I; for myself, Rice's words were a simple tenet of life, to the point that I had no idea who might have first spoke them before I began to research this article. I was brought up to be gracious in defeat and polite in victory. Now, when I win a game, or even win a string of games, I'm almost embarassed to say so, online, in-person, or elsewhere. To do otherwise would be "gloating", "vanity", "poor sportsmanship" or other such bad things.

The Flip Side

Of course, there's a flip side to this. I always try and win the games I'm playing. And I get annoyed in a game if there's someone else who isn't playing to win. Now, I've never encountered some of the truly frustrating elements that I've heard other people mention in their gameplaying, such as someone throwing a game so that their spouse can win, but I've had players give up, start pursuing terrible strategies, or push the end of the game even when it's not in their best interest (or at least not in their best interest in-game, as their reasoning is sometimes, "Well, I'm going to lose anyway, and I just want to get it over as fast as I can").

That's not right, any of it, and I don't think people should be playing a game if they're not trying to win it. Which at first seems to fly in the face of good 'ole Grantland Rice's axiom. Fortunately our very own Reiner Knizia comes to the rescue with a quote of his own:
When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.
Reiner Knizia
Now there's an idea that I can fully stand behind, and not just because I was indoctrinated with the axiom as a youth (as was the case with Grantland Rice's famous saying). You do want to play to win, and that should be your goal, but if you end up losing, that should be OK too. Otherwise you end up with a bad experience when gaming as often as not, and what's the fun in that?

Defining Winning

Of course every question of this sort raises new ones, and the obvious response here is, "what's winning?" I always though I knew: it was coming in first, and if you couldn't do that, second, and if you couldn't do that, third. I always play to achieve the best position I can in a game.

Of course this can wind up being a probabilistic exercise. If I have a 5% chance of achieving first place, a 20% chance of achieving second, and a 75% chance of achieving third, and the criteria needed to achieve first place and second place are different, which do I go for?

In general I'll try and go for the first if there's a reasonable chance I can achieve it, even if it results in forgoing second, but if that chance for first diminishes sufficiently I might go for second instead.

When a new player joined my regular review group a year or two ago now, I was surprised to hear that he had a different philosophy: always play for first, whether you have a decent chance at it, a dwindling small chance at it, or no chance at it. Never accept anything less.

This has resulted in some entirely friendly disputes between us, and I think we both accept that we'll play games differently. But it can result in some awkwardness in a king-making situation. If I'm in third-place in a game, and I have a last chance to make a difference in another player's score, I'm likely to hurt the second-place player rather than the first-place one, unless the scores are very close. Hurting the second-place player can help me rise in position, but hurting the first-place does nothing.

The other player would do the exact opposite, always.

I feel like I'm vindicated somewhat by the fact that whenever I see a discussion of competitive ranking, inevitably the second place player is rewarded more than the third. I played Days of Wonder's Gang of Four for a long time before I figured out how to play a hand to go out, but during that early time period my ranking slowly rose because I regularly came in second out of four. Likewise, if I was playing Survivor and I honestly felt like my chance was second place (earning $100,000) or third place (earning an estimated $65,000) you can bet I'd play for that additional $35,000.

I'm a bit envious when I read about a game club designing their own ranking system (which inevitably rewards place), because it sounds like a neat way to recognize winning in exactly the way I think it should be recognized.

So, that's my definition of winning: achieving the best position I reasonably can, which may or may not be first.


It's not whether you win or lose? Perhaps not, and our society has definitely been sending that message for decades. But, nonetheless, I play to win, and I hope all the other players do too, whether they feel like winning is the only thing or not.


huzonfirst said...

Yes, Knizia's quote is my favorite ones concerning gaming. To me, the *goal* of winning is important for several reasons. It gives me a reason to play, an objective, and that makes my decisions meaningful. Just as important, it allows me to predict what my opponents will do, assuming that they are also playing to win. Finally, it is the ultimate answer to non-gamers who criticize gamers as people who "only think about winning". It explains why it's important for a game to have a winner, while at the same time the players aren't that concerned about whether they win or not. As for me, I would much rather play well in a game than win it. Of course, I'd rather do both, but lucking into a win leaves you with a hollow feeling, while losing a well fought game, even though it can be a bit frustrating, is ultimately very satisfying.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting topic, and something that came up a bit after our lunch-hour game of Wizard. However, I'd like to suggest that your article describes two very different situations:

(1) There is an obvious difference between placing second, third, or fourth in the Survivor TV show. It only makes sense that players strive to reach realistic goals, and "playing for second" is a valid strategy.

(2) On the other hand, consider our card games at lunch only track who wins - there is no difference between placing second or last, and thus no incentive to try and improve your position.

Winning is obviously a term that depends on what goals you have selected. Consider placing 2nd in a poker tournament, and earning $2000 over your initial buy-in. One player might consider this a stunning victory because of the pay out. Another player might be disappointed because their goal was to qualify for a bigger tournament by taking 1st. It's really all perspective, and what you want to come away from the game with.

Interestingly enough, we tried using a ranking system like the one you mentioned for our Wizard games. Players would earn points for how well they finished, which were tracked over a period of several weeks.

Unfortunately, that point system led to "oddball" tactics and many boring games as the back of the pack was busy scrapping and clawing for relative gains. When we chose to target the leader instead, the games stayed much closer for all players involved and were often more interesting.

Before long, we decided that Wizard is more fun without tracking positional finishes - keeping the stakes lower and the scope to determine a "winner" much shorter gives us more than enough enjoyment.

Coldfoot said...

“It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame.”

Oscar Wilde

Anonymous said...

I used to have a strong preference for playing for position, but lately I tend to think more about maximizing my score in relation to the first place player. In other words, imagine that the prize money is not awarded in fixed ratios according to place, but proportionally by score. Obviously this only works in games that have a clearly linear victory point track, but in these games I find this to be a more satisfying play style than having the leader coast to the end because the others are squabbling with each other over place. I think it's also a good approximation of "play for first no matter how small your chances", because that doesn't make much sense when your chance is zero.

Kimbo said...

"Second place is just the First loser..."

Playing for position is a cop out. I've seen the attitude that 2nd place is better than 3rd place before. Why? Both the 2nd place and 3rd place finishers lost the game. Unless position means something (tournament seed, prize money, etc.) playing for position is simply a way to make ourselves feel better about losing.

It's also a variant of "King Making", a tactic that usually pisses everyone off.

Do I believe the above statements? I'm not sure... I enjoy winning a game, but I play games for enjoyment. There has to be more losers than winners, so anyone who can only enjoy a game by winning shouldn't be playing games.

Shannon Appelcline said...

Another good quote. It looks like Vern Law, a baseball player, might have originated it, though I also find a lot of attributions to Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Anonymous said...

One aspect I find offputting about these discussions is that they don't deal with dedication. If you're playing to win then absolutely anything and everything, without restraint that is within the game is fair game in pursuit of victory. No, this doesn't mean negotiation in a non-negotiation game, or cheating (both are activities outside of the scope of the game). It means simply that you are unreservedly dedicated to winning. Now as for the question on when and if you convert from playing for first to playing for second or N'th, I consider that a personal question and thus part of the metagame of knowing your other players and their behavioural patterns.

Harry said...

Does anyone not recognize that this is a metaphor and the "game" referred to is LIFE?