The Philosophy of game design: The ontology of victory.
Okay, bear with me a minute here. My first self-released game, SSO is a semi-co-op, but in an unusual way. Generally what semi-co-op means is that the game has an all lose condition, but that of the players that win, some win better than others. In SSO, players have to work together to win, and can all win equally, but win or lose as individuals. You don’t win better than someone else, but sometimes your win is dependent on their loss. However, it does mean that I’ve ended up in a lot of discussions about more traditional semi-co-ops and the nature of their win/loss conditions, and it throws up an interesting philosophical question, which is what I’d like to write about in this blog. So, this is about something that I don’t think is really relevant to my own game, but my own game led me to thinking about it. That said, on with the point.
What is often said by those who are against standard semi-co-ops amounts to something along the lines that what is said by those games to be losing is, in fact, drawing, and what is said to be second place winning is actually losing. The position is this, that there are objectively three possible states in a game, winning, whereby you get the best possible result, losing, in which someone gets a better result than you, and drawing, where everyone gets the same result as you or worse. These categories are claimed to be absolute and beyond the powers of a game designer to re-define. As such, if a player in a semi-co-op is in second or third place, with no chance of gaining first place they can actually improve their position by making sure everyone loses the game, since they will then move from losing to drawing.
Onto ontology. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, and one of its most well-known products is the ontological argument for the existence of god. This argument runs something along the lines of: god is, by definition, the greatest thing. It is greater to exist than not to exist, therefore god must exist. It doesn’t work (existence is not a predicate, which is to say, for a thing to have qualities it must exist rather than that existence is itself a quality that a thing can possess), but it does illustrate the idea. Ideas can have absolute definitions and things that don’t subscribe to those definitions are objectively not members of the set that describes those ideas. So, the question becomes, are the definitions of victory ontological absolutes, or are they simply definitional conditions set up by a game designer?
It could be said that part of the question relates to the nature of spoil-sporting in games. Two examples of game ruining behavior are cheating and spoil-sporting. In cheating one player secretly begins playing by a separate set of rules to the other players, they essentially concede the original game and start playing a different game from all other players with its own set of private rules. By secretly altering the nature of the game so that they can win their own new game they destroy the chances of all other players having any chance of playing the game they are engaging in, much less winning it. I’ve spoken to some groups who have inveterate and known cheaters who ensure they play multi-player solitaire games on the understanding that the cheating player is engaging in a separate game not related to the other players who then compare their results separate from that of the cheater. Spoil-sporting is the process of deciding a personal set of game conditions within the rules of the game that a given player states are then their conditions for winning or losing. They are not attempting to win the game as stated, rather they will state that they won their own game because they achieved something separate from what other players were aiming to achieve. Deciding that claiming the most victory points in Ticket to Ride is, in fact, secondary to making the biggest Jenga tower of train minis would be a example. On a lesser level this can be seen in the “moral victory”, where a player loses, but claims a special victory because they didn’t have a certain element destroyed. It can be seen in small children who lose foot races and then firmly insist that in fact the race was to a different landmark that they suddenly define.
Are winning, losing and drawing then ontological absolutes or categories defined by a game designer, is ignoring the definitions of the game designer an act of returning to a higher truth or simply an act of spoil-sporting? I’d argue that there are no games where it is reasonable or fair to re-define the categories of winning, losing and drawing outside of the definitions of the game designer, if the game says that you lost then you lost, and the fact that everyone else also lost doesn’t transform that loss into a draw just because it means that no-one beat you any more than setting up a set of private victory conditions in any game means that you won when you achieve them.
The analogy sometimes given for semi-co-ops of this nature are a game of chicken. Two cars head towards each other, whoever reaches a certain point first and survives wins. There are then three possible states for a driver, they reach the point and survive, meaning they win, they reach it second and survive, meaning they lose, or both drivers smash into each other and die, which is an undefined state. The anti-co-op player counts that undefined state as a draw, the pro-co-op player counts it as a mutual loss. Further, the pro-co-op player will say that it is a better form of loss, or a secondary win, to lose and survive as opposed to lose and die.
Clearly, no-one is suggesting that this analogy is the same as a mental exercise as it would be as a practical one. Its that divide that many anti-co-op players will take as a break point where they will happily say that the mutual loss is better than the better loss/secondary win, because they’re not actually going to die. The idea of dying in the head-on collision is a form of added on imagination, a sort of roleplaying, that has less reality than the fact of having won, lost or drawn.
The issue for me is that all parts of a game are, by such a definition, roleplaying. Unless you’re competing in some form of cash tournament winning, losing or drawing are all arbitrary constructs. The victory points that I gain in Ticket to Ride are worthless, winning the game has no absolute meaning or value removed from the game. A player who chooses to question the value of the designer set win/lose/draw conditions of a game they don’t happen to enjoy are doing so arbitrarily because they don’t like the game rather than because they are connecting back to an absolute truth. There is no ontological argument for the existence of victory.
That’s just my take though, and in saying all of this I can’t personally think of a good traditional semi-co-op, but I think that’s due to factors other than the definitions of victory. I suspect that the lack of quality in traditional semi-co-ops has more to do with poor design choices than an absolute fact about the nature of the category, although it may be that there is practically never a good reason to include traditional semi-co-op mechanics in a game. Certainly, I think that tanking such games once one finds “true victory” to be beyond their grasp in order to gain a better result to be nothing other than willful spoil-sporting. What do you think? Have you ever tanked a semi-co-op believing that doing so improves your personal position? Do you just avoid semi-co-ops like the plague, or do you enjoy them, and if so, why?