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Competence in a system


I’ve been thinking about competence in a system recently for various reasons and thought that I’d like to talk about it in relation to game design for this blog *dusts hands and walks off*.


For those that find that to be an introduction lacking in clarity a quick explanation of competence in a system is probably a good idea. Imagine a very simple game where you have to guess odds or evens then roll a standard d6 and win if you were right, then imagine a game where you roll the dice by slamming a cup with the dice in down and not looking under it and make the same guess. Which game would you rather play?


Alternatively, imagine that there are two boxes each with nothing in them apart from red and green balls. One has 50 green balls and 50 red balls and you’re allowed to look into the box and check it, and another has an undisclosed number of red and green balls but has at least one ball in it. You have to pick a box and pick a colour then someone sticks their hand in the box and pulls a ball out. If you guessed the colour correctly you win, which box would you pick?


In all the above your chances are 50/50 and it doesn’t matter which you pick. Despite that two thirds of people prefer the dice game where they guess then roll and an even greater number will pick the box with the 50 green and 50 red balls, and the reason they do so is something called “competence”, specifically within a given system.


Essentially competence is the given information that could be known about a situation. People prefer a situation where they have as much of the possible information as they can get. In the instance of a game where the dice is rolled and then they guess there is information that the player could access, the dice’s status is already information which is present in the system and they have imperfect information. In a game where the dice is guessed before rolling then the player has all the information that could possibly be possessed.


When there’s a box of balls, its even worse. Because with the dice in the slammed cup, no one knows the number of the dice, but the box with unknown contents was filled by someone, so the information of its contents absolutely exists within the system. Players react when they have imperfect competence compared to the absolute theoretical competence of the system, irrespective if it is practically accessible to them or not.


One of the reasons that this subject occurred to me is that I had a conversation with follow designer Mike Hutchinson in relation to the differences between Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow and Skull. For the record, Mike loves Skull and isn’t a fan of Werewolves, which I find weird. Not that I dislike either game, simply that I don’t understand liking one and not the other. To me, either game comes down to reading the intentions and patterns of behaviours of other players and little else. If there is a difference its in relation to the level of perceived, or mis-perceived competence within the system. In Werewolves each player has a single card, werewolf or villager, which is foisted upon them at the start of the game and they are, in the basic version, unable to shift this information. In Skull players choose a card to play, and can even play more cards through the round. If a player does play another card it doesn’t actually shift the ratio of possessed competence in the system, but it significantly shifts the mis-perception of such competence, and playing the cards in skull doesn’t give a player more information than they had in Werewolves. If anything, the multiple rounds of voting in a game of Werewolves gives players far more objective information than in a game of Skull. Despite this Skull is generally seen as a more serious game of bluff and intimidation than Werewolves, even though the systemic competence suggests that its far less one of either ability.


I’ve also been thinking about hidden movement games. I love hidden movement games, Scotland Yard is one of my favourite games ever, and I’ve been playing quite a bit of TTS based Fury of Dracula recently. Hidden movement games have as central to them a player’s perception of their own competence as compared to both other player’s competence and overall system competence. If you’ve ever played one of those games its not uncommon for both the hidden player to be certain that the seekers know exactly where they are and for the seekers to be simultaneously certain that they’re blundering in the dark. Essentially, both sides will often perceive their opposition as being in possession of far greater systemic competence than them despite evidence to the contrary and despite the fact that such belief produces exactly the sort of tension that tortures players during the game.


What I find personally so interesting in hidden movement games is that the systemic competence is both discoverable and entirely defined by other players of the game. A solo or multi-player solitaire hidden movement game is impossible, the game is always defined by the actions of the other player.


Think carefully about player competence, and perceived competence in relation to overall systemic competence in a game. Players prefer to believe that they have a fair level of competence and far prefer zero but complete competence over zero incomplete, or even low incomplete competence. If a player perceives competence in another to be important to their own chances of victory and goals notice how it is perceived and how it effects actions and tensions.


How have you noticed perceptions of competence or lack thereof to effect play in games that you’ve played? How have you manipulated or considered it in your own designs?

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