Thursday, December 29, 2005

Game Design—Capitalist or Socialist?

We had a lead, and a good one at that. The year was 1999 and I was scrutinizing a wall-sized TV score board for a game show trivia contest at the now-defunct Entros restaurant in San Francisco. My ad agency, flush from a 200%+ growth cycle amidst The Year That Was The Dot Com Boom was celebrating its glory year. So, there I stood, staring at my scores with (my then girlfriend and now wife) Tracie and Hans.

By the rules of the game, our ad agency had been divided into groups of three and four. At the end of each round, if one team had a severe point lead over the other teams, the hostess would "adjust" that team's points downward to bring their points within striking distance of the other teams' points. Our lead was far and away beyond everyone else's... and then suddenly it wasn't. "Hey, that's not fair," Hans said quietly. "We earned those points."

Hans was totally right. And verily I say unto you: this was a socialist game, not a captialist game. In a socialist game, the losers are given a chance to score almost as soon as they have been scored upon (i.e. basketball) whereas in a capitalist game, the losers must fight twice as hard to regain an advantage (as in car racing).

Socialist games are more commonly played, most likely because they give the lesser skilled players a better chance at winning against the more skilled players. While this is more fun to watch, especially for non-players, for the winner in the lead, it blows chunks because they keep getting punished for doing well (or they must watch as the vanquished are given a "leg up"). Unfair for a few, but more playable by the many.

My mom was visiting for Christmas this year and she brought a Disney version of Monopoly for me and my wife to play. This got me thinking... are the core values of Disney even compatible with a game of Monopoly? After all, gaining THE monopoly is the sole objective of the game. Shutting out all the other players of the game—getting them to go bankrupt, in fact—is the game's self-named objective. That doesn't sound very Walt Disney-ish if you ask me!

And Monopoly is the most captialist of all capitalist games. You start with six to eight players. The game ends with one player and woe unto you if you get knocked out in the first hour... You had better have brought that scarf you've always wanted to finish knitting.

There are, however, some excellent capitalist games. Chess, for instance: if you take someone's piece, they can't win it back... unless they're cunning enough to advance their pawn to your back row. So Chess is very captialist: the powerful become more powerful and that's the end of it. But it ain't so bad playing a "winner takes all" game when there are only two players.

It is striking to me that America, which is such a capitalist culture, lists so many socialist games as among its most popular: Football, Basketball, Baseball, Soccer, Volleyball. Would that imply that socialist societies prefer capitalist games? In asian cultures, where there's less of an emphasis on individuality, is Monopoly or Chess or Risk or Car Racing more popular there? Or are their favorite games Soccer or Vollyball or Baseball or Basketball?

As long as games are defined with zero sums, there will always be a winner and loser. I have yet to see a game that doesn't define wins or losses in some kind of numerical fashion (the most armies, the most countries, the most dollars, the most words, etc.). There must be some game out there where everyone wins as a group without using a zero sum. And if such a game does exist, I wonder if it would be entertaining enough to watch on national TV.

Years ago, my wife and her friend Nancy started playing Squash together. Because neither of them were very good, they opted to not keep points. Instead, they called their Squash playing as "Cooperative Ballet Squash". No one ever won or lost.

But gawd, was it fun to watch.

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