Sunday, April 19, 2009

Winning Isn't Everything

I had every intent of writing 2 articles to make up for not writing one on Friday, but I was stumped for a topic. Fortunately, someone awesome decided to give me an idea for a preachy article.

This article is about fairness and "playing to win." Playing to win is a concept coined by David Sirlin, lead designer for Street Fighter HD and the author of the gaming blog In a nutshell, playing to win is having the mindset that a person should do anything it takes to achieve victory. All avenues to victory should be explored, and the concept of what is honorable should be condemned.

I agree with this view. I would not write a real article about it though if I did not have some sort of unique statement on it. It is not my intention to regurgitate his material; it's present on his website.

Playing to win is probably a bad idea for most people. In fact, I feel that the idea of playing to win is sort of a flawed view. I think that on many levels it is not a good idea. Only in one circumstance is it worth following - within the realms of tournament, league, or other ranked play. In these scenarios you should do everything you can to win, within the rules of the game. I don't think that disconnecting to avoid losses is a winning move, so perhaps I should restrict ranked play even further to say, ranked play that actually matters (eg. not XBL ranked matches or something).

The crux of my argument isn't what most people expect when they hear I dislike the playing to win mentality. I think that 'unfair' tactics should be used, because they're probably not unfair. I think that concession should not be given to a weaker opponent, such as a handicap or letting them get up without being harassed or whatever.

I dislike playing to win because it creates awful, egocentric player attitudes. If you adopt a 'win at all costs' mentality, you may win the games at hand, but you lose out on much more. You lose out on potential friends who may be offended by how you play. You most likely also lose out on good competition because if you pummel your opponents mercilessly, they may never get a chance to figure out how to beat you. Playing to win teaches people disrespect. It teaches people how to treat others poorly and how to look down on people who do not follow your ideals. This is a poor philosophy.

Instead, I believe in a philosophy of playing to learn, or playing to improve. In actuality, Sirlin and many pro SF players believe in this philosophy too. However, many people who read about playing to win miss the point, that the goal of playing to win is to shed the restrictions that hold us back so we can improve. It is not the actual victory that is the important thing. However, Sirlin and many of his friends were brought up in a world where there were numerous people who criticized them for their excellent play, and they saw themselves as clearly better. Such an idea as playing to win was very natural for them to create for themselves.

But this is 2008, not 1992. Playing to win is shouted over the internet as a phrase used to discriminate against "scrubs." This mentality is not something I can abide by.

Playing to learn is about improvement. Improvement at any cost, even winning or honor. No expense should be spared to get better. Instead of trying our best to defeat the enemy we're now trying our best to exceed our previous limits. If we can do this, winning is natural, because we're getting better and better.

Playing to learn is also about sharing and helping your other players get better too. Why would we care about other players? Even the most selfish player can agree with this - if you play better competition, you get better, period. This is absolutely undisputable.

Once upon a time I played Guilty Gear. I was decent at it. I played /slash and #reload, for reference. I played Ky in both games. Relative to the people near me, I was not as skilled, but I could compete. But one day they went to Evolution and suddenly I was far, far weaker than them. Then I played against them for a while and my skill level jumped dramatically higher in only a few weeks. Then I quit GG, mostly because my fingers were not skillful enough to keep up with my expectations for myself.

Helping people get to your skill level also helps you gain an understanding of overall play. If you see how other players develop and their tendencies and habits, you can adapt some of these things into your game plan. For instance, I am generally a 'safe' defensive player in fighting games. I like a relaxed, slow-paced game with few twists and thus, my play style is very boring. Many of my friends run the full range between overly cautious (more than me) and very aggressive and risky. Helping them improve by teaching them little nuances of play has also let me see how their playstyles work. In particular, the high risk players have taught me quite a bit about how to play a little edgier game and press advantage more. At the same time, my 'textbook' type play helps them improve their defense game too.

As a side note, I discovered 'The Book of Nothing' because of collaboration with a friend playing Street Fighter 4. I noticed that there were times when both of us would do really dumb things, like jump at each other at the exact same times. I looked a little deeper to find little habits embedded in each of us. I told myself, "hey, maybe it's because doing things at the first opportunity might not always be smart" and I explained it to my friend. That day, we practiced hard to not do things at the right time, and instead do them later, earlier, not at all, and so on. We got a lot better that day! I feel sort of lame explaining that I learned all of that playing SF4, like I should have known it sooner.

Back on topic, playing to learn means throwing away all concept of victory sometimes because when you are playing casually, either on console or at the arcade, you want to mess around. I'll use a more specific example to illustrate this more clearly.

In Soul Calibur, being knocked down is really bad for you. It's highly dangerous to get knocked down because you are totally at your opponent's mercy. They can hit you on the ground, they can hit you while you're getting up and they get way more choices about what to do than in a 2D fighter. Your opponent has tons of tempo advantage and your options are very few.

In this knocked down situation you should experiment with any and all options you have because you may find that you have some new option you didn't know about. For instance, as soon as you start rising, you can start inputting attacks. Your attacks have almost zero chance of beating your opponent's, because they get to start their attack very early. But you could do a move with some sort of evasion or parry to try and deflect their attack. If they guess a certain way, attacking becomes actually a viable option instead of just having to guess blocking high or low, or staying on the ground. However, the specific options available to you need testing. In a lot of cases your character might not have any good attacks to use. Some characters might have several!

Another situation is with 'cheap' moves. Playing to win is very clear on this issue. Abuse the cheap moves! But playing to learn is not so clear. If it is clear your opponent can't beat a particular move or series of moves, the best option you have is to teach them how to beat it. If you don't know, you should try to figure out a way to beat that move. For instance, if your friend dies every time to a proxy gateway rush, you should teach him how to defeat it. Instead of playing lots of 3-minute games where your friend is frustrated, you beat him once then talk it over. "How do you beat that?" Once you explain how to defeat your strategy, then you're naturally forced into developing new counter strategies. And maybe the same can be said in reverse, if your opponent figures out something tricky, he will be more apt to show you how to beat it if you taught him how to beat your proxy gateway rush.

Playing to learn is a journey of cooperation. If the people around you grow, so will you.

I am not the only person to hold these philosophies. Ryan Gutierrez, better known on the internet as gootecks, has a program in his local area that he calls "Scrubs to Winners' Clubs." His friends take players that suck at Street Fighter, and give them training time, teach them basics, and help them become winners. Ryan and his crew are doing awesome work for the SF community, and I applaud their efforts. I know that they don't quite understand all the concepts of 'playing to learn' the same way I do (good players aren't as good at explaining things, fortunately I am not very good!), but they do know that building the community will help everyone get better. You can check his stuff out at, he has a ton of podcasts and a blog too.

I could explain a lot of anecdotes about how playing to learn has improved my skills at various games, even if the 'scrubs' I taught never really made it to the winners' clubs. But as I understand more about how people learn things, I'll get better at teaching and my competition will get better at teaching me new things too.

Unfortunately, I'm stuck being only good at Soul Calibur, lol.

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