Competition Likes Precision

Here’s a simple maxim:

Competitive games need clearer rules than cooperative games.

The reasons should be pretty obvious: in a competitive game, the participants are motivated to interpret rules differently, because each person wants to interpret the rules in their own favor. In a cooperative game, the participants are motivated to interpret the rules the same way because they share the same goal.

If the rules aren’t clear in a cooperative game, you can get along on good intentions, but a competitive game will (and should) grind to a halt. A competitive game with fuzzy rules doesn’t have a long life ahead of it. Look at successful games like chess or Monopoly: there’s nothing to debate.

Many competitive sports have referees, but you almost never see the ref interpret the rules. They don’t stop the game to discuss whether the rule about the ball needing to land inside the line makes sense. Their job is to judge reality. They watch and see if the ball was in, whether the runner touched the base before the catcher touched them. Once that physical fact is decided, the rules are crystal clear on what it means. You might not agree that the pitch was in the strike zone, but we all know what a strike means and does.

“There’s nothing in the rulebook that says an elephant can’t pitch!”

It makes sense that computers are excellent platforms for competitive games: no need to interpret rules at all. The computer enforces the rules for you. It’s the referee and the rule book, all in one.

This should also tell you something you already knew about D&D. Yep, rambling, confusing, inexact, fuzzy, wonderful, mysterious, “why can’t elfin chain mail be magical?” old school D&D was never competitive, or else it would never have been as enormously successful as it was. Sure, somewhere in our teen years we passed through the crucible of making it competitive, pitting players vs GM, but hey, we were kids with kid-powered egos.

We also learned (the hard way) that the players can try to compete with the GM without definite catastrophe, but if the GM decides to compete with the players and puts any effort into it, everyone loses.

    Ben Robbins | May 10th, 2010 | game theory | show comments