Taking Games Seriously

David Sirlin is an interesting guy. A professional game designer, Sirlin writes short, witty essays on game design and high-level competitive play. Sirlin prefers and writes about an unusual style of play, a style that shouldn't really be called play at all; it isn't relaxing and the process itself isn't always fun. Sirlin plays games to win them, period.

This style of playing to win reveals a hidden level of complexity and richness not present in most games, but almost always present in the most successful, enduring games. Sirlin frequently uses the arcade fighting game Street Fighter as his example when trying to make a point, but the same holds true for first person shooters like Quake and real time strategy games like Starcraft. These games are similar to Chess in their strategic complexity, and it is no wonder that they produced tournament sub-cultures that continue years after the games were created.

One of the themes he frequently touches on is how playing to win creates positive feedback loops of self-improvement. Just as market competition creates incentives for products and services to constantly improve, so too does tournament level game play. And, just as in markets, loss is often a more important signal than gain. You know you're doing something wrong when you lose, and you know there is room for improvement, something new you can learn and change. When you win, it is usually a sign that you are doing something right, but sometimes it could just be that the competition sucks.

His series of essays on "Playing to Win" is well worth reading, as is his essay on World/Player Interaction. Anyone who has played either Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Zelda: The Wind Waker will appreciate the Seinfeld image at the bottom of the page.

I also liked his unflinching embrace of the competitive spirit, as if he were a protagonist in an Ayn Rand novel.

These games have taught me that playing to win is the only kind of playing worthwhile... I carry this attitude towards business as well as games. I dream not just of winning, but of crushing business competitors—of reducing them to rubble and utterly destroying them. The means to this end, I believe, are to walk the path of continuous self-improvement. By developing products and services so far superior to one's enemies', by looking inward and always trying to do better, one will eventually pull far ahead.

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With the greatest

With the greatest respect...what the hell is the point of playing a game if your whole purpose is not to the win? Surely that is the raison d'etre of playing any game? :wall:

Thanks for the tip.

"You know you’re doing

"You know you’re doing something wrong when you lose, and you know there is room for improvement, something new you can learn and change. When you win, it is usually a sign that you are doing something right, but sometimes it could just be that the competition sucks."

I think that's a good metaphor for life in general (taking life in the broad sense of all biological life). There is no way to "win" for all time, but you can always lose.

This has surely got to be

This has surely got to be the greatest push for capitalism, ever:

I dream not just of winning, but of crushing business competitors—of reducing them to rubble and utterly destroying them.

Go rubble and destruction! Vive la laissez faire!

It's kind of interesting

It's kind of interesting that you point this guy out Micha; I thought for awhile I shared the same philosophy of gaming that he does. However, I'm not really convinced of that any more, because some games (an RTS and a card game come to mind) I just keep playing even though I hardly ever win. If winning is what I desire, why would I continue to play these games if not for fun?

The Good Life: "To crush

The Good Life: "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women."

Good articles by Sirlin, he should take up poker.

Jonathan Coulton, Gambler's

Jonathan Coulton, Gambler's Prayer:

So Lord lift me up in your tender embrace
Lend me your wisdom, your strength and your grace
Help me to smash my opponent’s fat face
Oh Lord help me take money from my friends

Deep down I know
That it’s only a game
But I want them shaking in terror and shame
It’s just poker and beer
Still I need them to fear me Lord
It’s not enough just to win

The next best thing to

The next best thing to playing and winning...

Is playing and losing.

Crushing your enemies is fine, for the weak minded. I prefer conversion.

Thinking of prisoners dilemma.

Would you actually trust this guy enough to turn you back on him?

As a matter of fact, if I had to work with him, knowing his philosophy, he would not be an enemy to convert, but one to eliminate from the game entirely. Fine philosophy for those who don't need have someone watching their back.

I would probably dedicate extra resources to damaging him. Tattoo "poor impulse control" on this guys head.

It was only the joy of playing Chess, win or lose, that kept me coming till I could consistently win.

Working in R & D, I always picked my team based on their joy of the chase.