Lost in the Shuffle: Rituals in Gaming

(originally printed in Duelist #9, February 1996)

The Hot Chocolate of Games

What defines a game? Chess consists of a set of rules. But chess is also the shape of the pieces, the manner in which the game is played, the history of the game. If you always play chess in front of a fire with a cup of hot chocolate, then for you this atmosphere is part of the game itself. You might think of a game of chess as a person: The rules—the object of the game, the functions of the pieces—are the skeleton, relatively inflexible and providing structure for the rest. Then there is the body, or form of the game—the colors of the board, the military names, and the shapes of the pieces.

The flavor that a game has can completely change the experience a player has playing it. If a game has a science-fiction flavor, I will have a different experience than if it has a historical flavor, even if the game rules are essentially the same. Similarly, when I play go, if I play on a plastic board with plastic pieces, my play experience is completely different than if I play with a wooden board and stone pieces. I believe that some players internalize the game enough that the environment and trapping of the game make no difference; these people are playing a celestial go, a go that resides only in their hearts and minds. Unfortunately, I am anchored in this world when I play and only occasionally get a visitor's pass to a different world. For many game players, the form and flavor of a game is as important as the rules themselves.

But there is more to a game than just rules or form. Much of a game consists of the traditions and rituals that players bring to it. Some of the most interesting elements of a game are the traditions associated with play. Some of them have an obvious origin, such as cutting a deck of cards before the deal, while others, like the tradition of Ace being high in a given game, have a more obscure origin and meaning. Many games of cards have exceptionally strange rankings, making the 7, 8, A, K, Q, J, T, 9 order of cards in Le Truc, for example, seem perfectly normal. Often, these seemingly arbitrary rules—white going first in chess, or black going first in go, for example—are nothing but traditions that have been incorporated over time. Though I am sometimes tempted to teach such games without these arbitrary rules, since they can increase the difficulty of learning, they are a legitimate part of the game, and I always honor and pass them on to new players.

Often players bring their own rituals to games. I know one group of players who would call out, "Magic Realm" whenever two or more people rolled the same number on a die. The call was named for an old Avalon Hill game in which players apparently rolled a lot of ties. Another group would finish a game of Acquire by changing their money to the highest denomination and laying their bills down one at a time until only one player had any money remaining. The way some people choose to keep track of life in Magic, using stones while others choose paper and pencil or a counter, could be a considered a matter of tradition. As with most forms of entertainment, since such traditions change the way a game feels to play, they are truly part of the game.

It is interesting to track how traditions get spread. The call of "Magic Realm" has probably not spread to other gamin groups, but I believe it has spread to new people of the same group who have no idea where the call came from. In time, if the tradition is followed consistently enough, it might even change from tradition to rules of the game. An example of this in my group is the use of a timer in RoboRally. Using a timer makes the game go more quickly and make the game play a bit more amusing, so it has become a standard element of our games. Some trading card games now make a rule of knocking the table to indicate when a turn is done, a tradition that sprang up in Magic, and previous existed in many classic card games.

Zen and the Art of Game Playing

When I play a game I am very familiar with, I frequently find myself falling into a state of detachment. My body and enough of my brain know the task I am performing so that "I" can take a break. The mind is cleared as the body goes on autopilot, producing a special sort of relaxation—one in which there isn't enough concentration left over to worry about problems outside the game that I otherwise might fixate on. I am told that musicians are familiar with this frame of mind; I experience something akin to this when I juggle, or when I take a shower.

Although the best part of a game is the problem solving and innovation that it stimulates, I know many good game players who aren't at all innovative in certain games. There was probably some problem solving when they learned the game, but eventually they found a skill level they were comfortable with, kicked back, and settled in.

This is particularly apparent with games such as Uno or Klondike solitaire. These games have enough luck in them that most people play close-to-optimally anyway. It is obvious that the attraction is not problem solving; instead, I believe it is the ritual of play, the performance of a task players know well for the sake of the task. Just as some people find pleasure and relaxation in the daily rituals of cooking meals, walking the dog, or doing a paper route, many game players get the same pleasure through the ritual of the game. This is something positive that games offer to good and regular players, part of the art of game play that does not rely on continuous learning and problem solving.

Ritual gaming also provides a comfortable medium in which to relate to other people. The games act as modular rituals that can be fit into any part of the day. Similarly, games can provide an excellent social vehicle for an age in which so many of the social traditions have eroded, leaving many people a little lost when among those they don't know too well. A game provides a good, interactive common ground for dealing with strangers in a social setting, or with friends you have lost touch with. I wouldn't be surprised if game playing were more common among people without much daily routine, as a substitute for other sorts of rituals.

It is certainly not true that a ritual game player is a bad game player. There are many people who play a fine game of bridge or chess, even though it is essentially the same game they've played for the last twenty years. I consider this way of playing games no worse than my continuing to juggle from time to time, even though I've learned no new moves in years. One might think of this method of game play as software which ritual players have stopped revising; now they compete their software in the way Magic players compete their decks—they don't stop making decisions once their decks are tuned.

I often partake in ritual play, but there is no doubt that my favorite part of games is discovery. Nothing is quite like the discovery phase of a game, the period in which new players make their first big leaps in skill and the overall game technology is increasing rapidly. Because of this, I really enjoy learning new games. While most people find learning new rules too burdensome to do often, I have incorporated that into my whole game-playing style. You might say that learning new rules and trying new things with games is part of my personal ritual of gaming. For example, I'll seldom play a simple game of chess when I can play a weird variation that I haven't tried before. Are innovation and ritual in games mutually exclusive? I don't think so. One of the reasons I keep coming back to Magic, and why I've repeatedly returned to Cosmic Encounter, is because these games have enough variation to satisfy my interest in puzzle solving and innovation, while building a familiarity necessary to bring ritual play to another, higher level.

Understanding the role of ritual in games can add to your enjoyment of playing them. Don't be afraid to institute a convention, or to take pleasure in one you already have. Just as the smell of fresh bread may send you to a past that never really existed, the sounds of shuffling or the feel of the dice—the rituals of the game—may bring a purer pleasure than the play itself.

Lost in the Shuffle: Serious Fun

(originally printed in Duelist #11, July 1996)

The Stereotypes of Gaming

Have you ever played a game against someone who took game playing so seriously that he or she wasn't fun to play against? The player scowled with concentration, cursed when she made a mistake, and generally treated the game much more like a life-or-death situation than it ought to be. When she lost she blamed her luck, and when she won she treated you to a triumphant and detailed explanation of how you were defeated.

Have you ever competed against a player who just didn't try? While you attempted to play the best game you could he chatted with other players and made whimsical decisions. When he won it was frustrating because he used a strategy that relied on luck, and when he lost it was frustrating because he didn't care in the first place. Your game-play effort was wasted on someone who wasn't putting up a fight.

These are caricatures that most game players are familiar with. The competitive player is nasty and antisocial, while the casual player is creative and social. Or is it that the casual player is frivolous and unintelligent while the competitive player is analytical and loves a challenge? Which of these two styles is the "correct" way to game?

These two "camps" and the conflict between them have parallels in other circles: There are movie buffs who study and analyze films and who seem to have little in common with other enthusiasts who just watch and enjoy. There are sports fans whose lives are built around statistics and performances and whose view of athletics is far different from the experience of those who just like to play ball (or Frisbee, in my case). Part of the tension between these groups stems from the seemingly popular belief that a human has only a left or a right brain, not both. Many people believe that one can't be "artistic" and "scientific" at the same time: because I like mathematics and have some talent there, for example, I must be weak in literature or insensitive to affairs of the heart. Similarly, game players perceive irreconcilable differences between the "serious" game player and the person who plays "just for fun."

Innovators Versus Honers

So where do these two apparently opposite styles of play come from? The difference between playing games "for fun" and playing games "seriously" may emerge from the difference between the ritual game player and the non-ritual game player I described in Duelist #9. On the other hand, this distinction may sometimes stem from a player's preference for developing certain skills as he or she becomes a better game player.

Excellent in game play develops from two kinds of game play: innovative play and honing play. A person who is new to the game usually goes through a period of innovation in which he or she uncovers new strategies (all of which are probably well known by veterans of the game). The innovator operates by intuition, experimenting with new approaches, guessing at what might improve his or her game, and keeping a sharp lookout for what works. In situations where everyone starts a game on equal footing, a good innovator has the edge; after something new is discovered, there may even be a brief period where the innovator is the champion among his or her peers. Soon, however, imitators study the discovery and begin using it. This is where the "honers" step in—the players who take inventions and perfect them. Honing usually involves much more rigorous work and patience than inventing.

Often a player who plays "just for fun" is an inventor at heart, someone who likes exploring the game without worrying about the details. You may know someone in your Magic play group who doesn't win a lot of games or play in a lot of tournaments but who always seems to have some fresh perspective on the game. Perhaps he or she was playing with Balance, Juzám Djinn, or other cards long before they were recognized as being extremely powerful. These are the people whose ideas the "serious" players take to new heights in their painstakingly methodical efforts.

One of the interesting things about Magic: The Gathering is that the playing field is heavily weighted toward this kind of innovator. Every time a new expansion comes out or a new tournament format is introduced the game is wide open for discovery. The innovator's tournaments are those that occur right after the release of a new expansion; these tournaments are won by intuition, orthogonal thinking, and cleverness. The more familiar a tournament format becomes, the more understanding of an expansion matures and the more the honers will reign.

Naturally the true champions of the game will have to master both kinds of skills. I had the pleasure of watching some talented players do just that at the first Wizards of the Coast–sponsored professional tournament in New York. While some people thought that players would approach the new tournament format—five cards from all currently available sets—by taking their standard Type II decks and changing them as little as possible, these players realized that this was a second-rate strategy. Players explored Fallen Empires, Ice Age, Homelands, Chronicles, and Fourth Edition looking to build the best fighting machine that these new parameters allowed. These players took their innovation seriously. After the tournament each day people played Magic in the lobby of the hotel until the wee hours, talking about the correct strategies and testing their theories in game after game after game.

I liked the attitude of these players; they understood that at its core Magic is about variety, a variety they embraced in their tournament games and in their play. In many games and sports the champions become supporters of the most traditional interpretation of the game. I being a top Magic player becomes synonymous with the love of a new challenge rather than with more of the same I will be delighted.

Walking in Both Worlds

Innovating versus honing, fun versus seriousness—there are no right or wrong choices here, just different ways of viewing game playing. I like playing with players at both ends of the spectrum as well as those in between. The games I most enjoy are those that I can play seriously with my friends who take games seriously and in a relaxed manner with my friends who don't take them so seriously. That's why I like games that have a lot of depth but in which luck can give the game to anyone. It is an added bonus if the game is quick; then the really serious player can see his or her winning strategy pay off over the course of a session while the less concerned player can have sporadic wins.

When playing a game with someone who has a different playing style than you, you have three options: You can suffer, which is certainly the worst choice. You can quit playing with that opponent; this may lead to some hard feelings, although in the end if you aren't having fun this may be the best course of action. Or, preferably, you can learn to play in a manner that gives you both the best "compromise" game experience possible. For example, if you are a serious player playing games with less serious opponents you can find challenges in other ways than you do when you play with those who approach games with the same gravity as you do. Try challenging your intuition by playing quickly: play Magic with a less-than-optimal deck and see if you can win anyway. Try a crazy strategy and see what happens. Let your opponent take back moves if he or she wants to; after all, it can only make the game more of a challenge.

On the other hand, if you are a player who just wants to have fun and you are playing a serious opponent, attempt to provide the best challenge you can. Try playing in a highly unorthodox way to steer the game away from your opponent's usual patterns of play. Or you might ask to receive a handicap of some kind; this will provide him or her with more of a challenge and will usually be received as a compliment. If your opponent makes you uncomfortable with his or her intensity, try to separate yourself from it—don't let it intimidate or frustrate you. Remind yourself that your opponent enjoys this or he or she wouldn't be playing games—so relax and enjoy the show!

Not all players can or should like both types of game play. Some players really only enjoy a game if they are being challenged to the utmost. Others get enough of that in real life and prefer to take it easier with their hobbies. But just as a scientist shouldn't assume an artist is an airhead, a serious game player shouldn't look down on players who don't work hard to refine their game. And just as an artist shouldn't assume the scientist doesn't appreciate intuition and emotion, people with a more lighthearted approach to game playing shouldn't assume that the serious game player isn't out to have fun, too.