I can’t lose!

Discussing games earlier today -as Auriea and I often end up doing, even to the point where we run out of gas on the highway- we became aware of a difference between computer games and other games that we hadn’t noticed before. It’s related to the fact that most non-computer games tend to require multiple players, while computer games allow you to play on your own.

It’s hard to believe that despite of all the potential that interactive technologies offer, the most prevalent structure in games is the binary one: you win or you lose. And much like the computer’s binary system, it is a false duality because the couple simply consists of a single possibility and its negation, a one and a zero. As a result, for all the talk about meaningful choices, most games only lead to a single outcome: winning.

Because you can’t really lose a computer game.
At least not the typical linear sort that is still the bulk of the offer.

There is only one way to end such a game. And it’s by winning. Or only one way of winning and it’s ending it. If you fail to win a level, you cannot progress in the game. If you stop playing after this, you haven’t really lost. You just gave up mid-way.

In games we play without computers, you generally lose when somebody else wins. This concludes the game. You have really lost. The virtual opponents in computer games cannot replace actual players because they tend to be part of the story, and as such not on the same level as the player.

This diffference does not necessarily make computer games inferior, but it’s another illustration of the fact that many game designers are trying hard to deny: that computer games are an entirely new form of entertainment only vaguely (and probably temporarily) related to traditional games.

8 thoughts on “I can’t lose!”

  1. This is true, but even us people who like goal-orientated games tend to go by “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s about how you play the game”. ^_^

    Computer opponents, levels, bosses etc. in games are basically like tests we set for ourselves, not that different from new year’s resolutions like ‘eat less’ or ‘exercise more’ or ‘quit smoking’. It’s impossible to “lose” those as well.

  2. I think you can do interesting things with multi-player over computers that you can’t do with board games ect. Real-time and imperfect information come to mind. I see what you’re getting at though, I think you’re on the same wave here as Raph Koster was in his GDC talk. He was saying how most of the history of games have been symmetrical games, but then we diverted into asymmetrical games with cooler and cooler aliens.

    Now consider slight assymettries, consider role oppositions and symbiotics and parasitics, people organized socially by rules.

    I think you’re really saying that multiplayer is a good deal, right?

    Life is multiplayer. So late…

  3. Rinku, I wish games were designed with a focus on the path rather than the goal, but in my experience they most often are not. Even your own newest game relies entirely on progress through the levels in order to tell its story. In many games, if you fail to complete a level, the whole thing breaks. If you, on the other hand, fail to stop smoking after a new year’s resolution, for instance, you don’t die. Instead it adds something to the story of your life.

    I would like games to take a less binary approach to interaction, where not only failure is equally interesting as success but where there are many more possible outcomes.

  4. Patrick, I’m not advocating multiplayer over single player. Just pointing out a difference between computer games and non-computer games. Because I think it is important to think a lot more about the differences than to think about what our medium has in common with other media. We need to identify those differences and exploit them. Because they are the strength of the medium.

    As for contemporary (massively) multiplayer games, I think most of them are single player games played in a public space and not true multiplayer games anyway. So they fall in the same category.

    I absolutely adore the single player activity that computer games allow for. Like so many others, I vastly prefer computer games over traditional ones. I think the intimacy of experience that interactive software allows for is a great artistic opportunity.

  5. Good point Michael, that some games don’t continue until certain goals are met, but games are still in their infancy, and it’s a problem with the media that will be overcome after it’s easier to make them that way (with game creation software with modules simplifying things for example).

    It can also be thought of as similar to New Year’s resolutions in this way: if you die in Immortal Defense, you try again if you want to keep playing the same game; if you don’t quit smoking, you try again if you want to keep trying the same resolution.

    But I agree that it’s better when games allow multiple goals or multiple ways to achieve a goal, they are more compelling that way, and my next game is made with that in mind (it was started in 2004 but I never got around to finishing it, I will probably by the end of the year — it’s very different from ID, you will probably like it more).

    But such games take years to make and much more planning, because you’re creating a world more than a set of challenges, and are relatively risky for the indie developer (I doubt my next game will sell as well, but it’s important to make anyway).

  6. That is a very insightful point! When I first read this over a week ago, I hoped I might come up with something brilliant to say in response, but I haven’t. So I’ll just say thanks for the great post. :)

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