December 2011 Archives

There are many ways to categorize games, but one keeps coming up for me lately given the kinds of games I have been playing, and I haven't found a good concise post to link to. So here it is. 

There is a classic dichotomy in game analysis between games of skill and games of chance.  Winning a game "of skill" requires performing or manipulating the game with greater aptitude than your opponent.  Winning a game "of chance" does not depend on the player's ability at all; success is determined by chance events along probabilistic lines.  As with any taxonomy, this breaks down if you try to be pure about it.  Few games, although many of our best-beloved, are purely one or the other.  Darts is a game of skill, and chance can be nearly eliminated with sufficient skill.  The card game War is entirely a game of chance, as is Roulette.  There may be some skill in betting sensibly in Roulette, but the results of even that are up to chance.  The line is almost always fuzzier, though, and when there are stakes, the split can be contentious.  A good way to draw a line is whether the outcome is determined by skill or by chance.

A couple of years ago, Eric Zimmerman and Naomi Clark gave a GDC talk that presented a third kind of game that has been seeing increasing relevance in the last half-decade: games of labor.  In games "of labor", what matters most is the time or effort that you put in.  Skill doesn't matter as much, as you will eventually win or succeed if you just put in enough time.  Note that I am not saying "if you practice enough" ... I mean, literally, that if you do something 100 or 1000 times, you will 'win', without regard to how well you did those first 99 efforts.  Chance doesn't matter in these games either, as the game is structured around the expectation of success given a certain amount of effort.  You know that reward will come on the 100th action, and not if you get lucky on the fifth attempt.

Note, again, that it is rare to see a pure game of labor.  In World of Warcraft, as in many RPGs, there are mechanics that work to make the game 'of labor': grind for long enough against enemies that are not meant to pose a threat, and you will accrue enough power in the form of abilities or equipment that once-difficult enemies may be defeated with dead-stupid tactics.  Skill in the game can be overcome with sufficient effort - a new but skilled player might be beaten by a less skilled player who has merely put in the time in the game, for instance by having the right equipment for the job.   However, skill makes that grinding labor unnecessary, and chance may cut the labor short by giving you what you want more quickly.  Regardless of the purity of the mechanic or the game, what is important from a design perspective is the expectation of what leads to success.

A major part of their GDC talk, as with earlier good discussion about skill vs chance, was about the mindset of the player and the expectation of reward.  Zimmerman and Clark noted that much of the motivation in games comes out of what the player strives for, what frustrates their effort, and therefore what success will mean to the player. A major part of this ternary distinction is what the fantasy of success is for the player.  When a player engages in a game of chance, the obstacle is the odds, and the fantasy for success is being fortunate, being the chosen one.  When a player enters a game of skill, the obstacle is the skill of the other players and the fantasy is of being the best at the game. 

The fantasy that appeals is really important for why and whether you play the game - players aiming to prove themselves will be frustrated by a win that felt like it was "pure luck."  In games of labor, the fantasy is that regardless of your skill, regardless of luck, if you do the work, you will be rewarded.  The fantasy is that success is ultimately a matter of effort or time, and NOT your innate or developed talent or who you are or fate.

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