The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Spirit of Gaming

Greg J. Schloesser

July, 2000

Why do you play games? To win? To challenge your mind and stretch your thinking? Or for the enjoyment of matching wits and skills with your opponents? Or do you simply like the camaraderie and good-natured banter associated with social game playing?

I'd venture that your answer is "all of the above."

The problem, though, is that most games are competitive: players try to outsmart and defeat their opponents, which often requires them to do things that hinder their opponents' chances or progress. In many multi-player games, for instance, you hear the familiar whine, "I'm not winning, he is!" In other words, "Why are you attacking me when you should be attacking him?" Is this fair? Would you do this in a non-game situation?

Players during a game often act in ways that are contrary to their normal behavior patterns. In "real life" we don't often make a deal with someone and then deliberately break it in order to cause him harm. At least I hope not. And how often in life do we actively encourage others to intentionally harm someone else? Rarely, if ever.

Such behavior, however, is perfectly acceptable in most games. In fact, it's often essential if the game is to work properly and players are to have reasonable chances to win. But at what point does it cross the line that separates acceptable gaming practice from poor sportsmanship? Just how angry should a player get when a deal he struck with an opponent is broken? Does he have the right to get angry at all?

It's a Jungle Out There

Some time ago I was in a game of Quo Vadis? by Reiner Knizia, a game that relies heavily on negotiation and deal making. One player suddenly decided to throw his support completely to another player. He thought (incorrectly) that he could no longer win, but he was also angry at somebody else for having broken an earlier deal with him. The deal had not in fact been broken, but that shouldn't have mattered. The point is that Quo Vadis? is a game in which deals are made and broken, not unlike Diplomacy. This is an integral mechanism of many games and the player should not have allowed himself to get angry. The result in this case was that the player he had decided to help was granted free passage into the final slot in the Senate, collected handsome laurels along the way, and ended the game favorably.

Here's another example. In a recent three-player game of Big City, one player (we'll call him Jim) placed a factory in a neighborhood where it adversely affected another player (let's call him Fred). In Big City, certain land plots become unusable when a factory is placed in them, and plots bordering the factory become far less desirable because of the negative points associated with building adjacent to factories. Jim's placement of the factory negatively impacted Fred in just that way, and he angrily told Jim he should have placed the factory where it would more likely have affected the leader (me!). Fred was so upset that he loudly proclaimed he would throw the game to me just so Jim wouldn't win. He attempted to do this by constructing buildings in neighborhoods so as to aid my efforts.

I refused to play along. I told Fred this was unacceptable and that I would abandon the game if he insisted. Fortunately, he was persuaded to continue play in keeping with the spirit of the game.

This type of behavior, in my opinion, runs counter to the spirit of gaming and ruins the experience for the other players. I've always firmly believed that players should try above all to enjoy each game while of course making their best efforts to win. Even if a player feels he can't win, he should still do his best to maximize his finishing position. Several times I've seen players who when attacked throw reason and caution to the winds and go all out to devastate their attackers regardless of the consequences to themselves. As one of our local gamers expresses this attitude, "I may not win, but I guarantee you won't either." It's a childish attitude that can certainly ruin the gaming experience for everyone involved.

Revenge Is Sweet

Don't get me wrong: revenge—especially the threat of revenge—is a legitimate tactic (or bluff). Hitting a player who has previously smacked you is often a good move, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that attacking you has consequences. But "revenge" counterattacks can often not only inflict punishment on the player who originally attacked you but can also benefit your own position: two birds with one stone.

Depending on the length of the game, pausing a turn or two before wreaking havoc upon a tormentor may be acceptable if it doesn't slow your progress so much that you can't recover. If such a strategy makes it unlikely you will progress further, or even sets you hopelessly far back, then it's not a good idea.

Now, that said, there are times when a player has been so thoroughly harassed and smashed at every turn by an opponent that retribution and revenge are necessary if only as a matter of honor. These situations are very rare, however, and you may want to think about whether it's wise to play with a person who pursues such irrational behavior.

I've heard people defend this attitude by saying that destroying a player who broke a deal and/or attacked you mercilessly sends him a strong message that you are not to be trifled with. Although I can understand that argument, I don't agree with it. There are much better ways to get that message across without ruining the game experience for everyone else.

We play games for several reasons: the socializing opportunities it offers with friends and family, the challenge of pitting your skills against opponents and the game system, and the sheer enjoyment derived from the overall gaming experience. What a shame for this adventure to be ruined by players who refuse to recognize this social nature of gaming.

- Greg J. Schloesser

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