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September 2014

Treacherous Play

An open letter to Miguel Sicart at and Douglas Wilson at as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Junta 1978Dear Miguel and Doug,

Treachery has long been an important aspect of competitive boardgames, but in videogames there seems to be far less betrayal between players. When treacherous play occurs in digital games, it is more likely to occur between the player and the game designer – who presumably enjoys imagining the schadenfreude they'd experience if they could watch their eventual ‘victim’! Except, as the two of you stress in your wonderful paper Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design, certain players will actively enjoy and seek out the challenge this represents. There seems to be something of a paradox here, since not every way of increasing challenge will be welcomed even by those players who happily endure betrayal of this kind. Is it solely the pursuit of victory that makes treacherous play entertaining, or is there a strange pleasure to be taken from the act of being betrayed? My sense is that this goes beyond the desire to pursue conventional challenges and into the social dimensions of play.

It's been several years – and several additions to families – since we last corresponded (in the case of Miguel) or met (in the case of Doug), and I thought it would be interesting to resume our discussions with the additional perspectives we have since gained. You may recall, when the two of you wanted to include me in your list of ‘conservative’ game designers on the basis of my position in 21st Century Game Design, I was fairly incensed. The cause of my disgruntlement was that the core argument of that book was precisely that commercial developers should study and understand players in order to create games that meet those needs – even if those needs include frustration and betrayal that the majority of players would not enjoy! But I can see where the misunderstanding originates, since my friend Richard Boon and I do make a lot of arguments in that book for more forgiving design. I didn't at the time appreciate that this could be misconstrued as a universal argument for forgiving play, rather than a general argument in cases where forgiving play would be justified, such as most mass market games.

Treacherous play intrigues me because it skirts the boundaries of common assumptions about games. In 1975, Vincent Tsao published what I and many other boardgamers consider the pinnacle of entertaining treachery: Junta. The game, pictured above in the West End Games edition that helped popularize it a decade later, pits players against one another for control of a 'banana republic', siphoning foreign aid, setting up coups, and assassinating the president (who then returns as ‘the president's brother-in-law’). Interestingly, even though players know the game will be Machiavellian and highly treacherous, the anger evoked can still bleed out of the ‘magic circle’ and into everyday life. After several all-night games at university, the bickering and reprisals went on between friends long after the game was over – and in one case I felt so guilty about one key betrayal that it robbed me of any sense of triumph for winning.

This kind of treachery does occur in videogames as well, of course – in the early arcade, for instance, Joust and Gauntlet both incentivised players to betray at certain points despite being fundamentally co-operative games. However, the effect seems fairly trivial next to something like Junta, perhaps because the arcade’s kind of play was less overtly tied to imaginative role-play: the emotional impact of betrayal is less drastic, less far reaching without it. But the arcade was a more treacherous place to play in terms of the relationship between designer and player: the coins must flow, so the designer had few reasons to be nice. The difficulty ramped up rapidly, the games pulled unexpected upsets upon unwary players (particularly in the late 80’s and early 90’s) such that watching another player over their shoulder and learning what to expect was as much a part of the culture of play at that time as actually dropping your own coin in the slot.

One set of contemporary games that offer intriguing possibilities for betrayal are the New Super Mario Bros. titles on Wii and Wii U. More than any other multiplayer videogame I have seen, they allow players the opportunity to control difficulty (making play harder or easier) and simultaneously permit those with a wicked streak to enact spontaneous betrayal to a shocking degree. This is particular so on the Wii U where the touchscreen Boost Mode player can literally decide who lives and who dies by helping or hindering with their powers – which interestingly can generate the kind of deals and bargains typical of a game of Junta as players jockey for the touchscreen player's favour. Unlike other games I've mentioned, however, the same tools that allow for betrayal also permit an incredible softening of difficulty: a Boost Mode player can radically reduce challenge, if the players so desire, as can a cooperative team on the earlier Wii version. This capacity to adjust to the player's needs regarding difficulty has long been an aspect of computer RPG games, which become easier the more you grind and harder the quicker you press ahead, but even this lacks the fluidity of player response present in the multiplayer 2D Marios.

Of course, Mario was also an entry point for abusive games – you cite Kaizo Mario, for instance. But I think right from the beginning, with Donkey Kong, single player Mario games were already games of betrayal, or rather games that by design allowed the player to fail and feel able to blame that failure either on the designer or themselves, according to their inclination. The sensibilities of the arcade always skirted with something like betrayal, and even contemporary ‘official’ Mario games get close to a return to this in their final, always demanding worlds. Of course, this does not rise to the levels of your abusive play, but as the player faces down challenges that seem, initially at least, beyond mastery there is at least a liminal sense of betrayal, even if my more general term, ‘punishing’ is more appropriate in such cases.

The journey from arcade sensibilities to the contemporary trend for more forgiving play brings me back to 21st Century Game Design. At the time Richard and I wrote that manuscript, the casual revolution was only just happening – and mostly out of independent developers like PopCap. At International Hobo, we were working almost exclusively with console publishers at that time, and were constantly frustrated by the assumptions of challenge that would hit us like the proverbial brick wall on various projects. We continually pushed for new design elements and structures that would allow players better control over their experience. For instance, we advocated a fail-continue structure for games aiming for a broad market because using such an approach allowed for superior player autonomy: challenge-oriented players would not accept failure and would therefore fight on to beat each level, while other players need not be held up by bottlenecks in such a structure. We were refused every time – often with cries of “but then it’s not even a game!” In the decade since, every one of our suggestions has been implemented in a videogame, almost all of them by Nintendo, and almost all of them in games garnering higher sales than earlier, less forgiving titles. The aforementioned New Super Mario Bros. games are a case in point, since they do indeed offer fail-continue, and at the high watermark have sold almost 30 million units. Fail-continue does not, as we always insisted it wouldn’t, void challenge: it just allows less skilled players to avoid difficult choke points.

Unfortunately, we did not and could not anticipate the direction the market for videogames was going to go. We were correct that modelling players was going to be core to game design in the 21st century – what we got wrong was the idea that this would be grounded on understanding player needs. In fact, as ‘social’ games grew in commercial influence, the player models used were merely statistical aggregates of player behaviour – sufficient for optimizing profit, grossly inadequate for player satisfaction. These viral games on Facebook and elsewhere pioneered a new kind of treachery – one that was not about the pleasure taken from betrayal-through-play, but about manipulating the player into paying to obviate their dissatisfaction. And this is entirely contrary to the ideal of player satisfaction that Richard and I thought we were advocating, even though it is broadly consistent with the general position we presented on commercial game design back in the early 2000s. In any such cases, where betrayal serves a profit motive against the satisfaction of the player, I find it hard to offer any defence beyond the recognition that games, in the context of gambling, have long had something of this character.

I will not take any more of your time, nor hold out any expectation of explicit replies to this missive, but I wanted to try to keep the dialogue we had begun alive. It was a pleasure to meet you in Copenhagen, Doug, and a disappointment not to get to meet Miguel while I was there, but such are the vagaries of life. I have now rather given up hope of our paths crossing or re-crossing, but life is full of surprises.

May all your betrayals be playful,


Douglas has replied by Twitter (see the comments), Miguel has vouched to reply later this year.

No-one else has replied yet.