So, my brain has been buzzing with ideas of how people play games and why they play them how they do. Tom was playing to win. He saw the numeric structure and where the points could be most efficiently gained and pressed the advantages his cards gave him to focus on the most profitable areas. Then with his "profits" he could diversify at the last minute to stave off penalties. He saw the system of the game and determined how to play it in a more optimal way, even though that is outside the way I intuited that the game was supposed to be played. I was playing in the way I imagine the makers of the game intended it to played, whereas Tom was playing in a way that worked around the obvious approach to take advantage of the system. It's a totally legitimate way to the play the game, and I'll confess a bit of jealousy that I didn't see the same type of strategy. I was playing the conventional way, taking on the challenges from the angles it seemed to me the game designers intended. I was walking through the maze to reach the goal, when a legitimate and smart way to reach the goal would be to simply walk around the maze instead. I was playing to play.
Playing To WinWhat is the goal of a game? It's to win, right? You want to reach the Candy Castle first, to destroy your opponent's army, to beat all the levels, to get the high score. So logically, you want to optimize your strategy and take whatever steps that will give you the most points or propel you quickest to victory. In a point-based game, it means you have to pursue points and do whatever will give you the most points the quickest. In this efficiency, you may abandon whole parts of the game that don't contribute to your strategy. If you find a particularly effective strategy (or a game is unbalanced), you may never need to deviate from it. You've figured out the game and mastered it. You win, and you win regularly. What if that's not actually the goal of the game? What if you're playing the game for fun or socializing? What if it's to be stimulated and challenged by the obstacles in a game?
Playing To PlayI'm not a particularly competitive person, so winning is not usually the goal for me. I am happy to play sub-optimally and lose if I can make the game more enjoyable. I also like to play along with the way game designers seem to be funneling me, even if it's less than optimal. Jen and I almost always have a game of Scrabble going on online. We've gotten to the point where we can play highly optimal and efficient games by tightly clustering our words together to maximize points, playing lots of small words that don't get used outside of Scrabble. It's definitely a winning strategy. You maximize the amount of points while denying your opponent opportunities for triple word scores and the like. It also just makes for miserable, protracted, constipated games. I'll gladly throw Jen an triple word score if it means I can open the board up for easier play or play a satisfying word. It means I have more fun playing, which for me is the point. Once a game ceases to be fun, whether because I've figured it out and it's no longer a challenge or it's become a grind to optimize the strategy, I feel it's a loss.
For some people, the enjoyment is figuring the game out, mastering the system. It's a fun intellectual challenge to beat the system of the game using the system's rules. For others, it's a need to win the game, regardless of how it's done. And for others the win is in having fun, socializing, and exploring the experience of a game, even if it is a suboptimal way to play. These are all legitimate ways to play, though there can be some cultural clashes when gamers from different approaches meet. Jen and I play Settlers of Catan in a pretty conciliatory way. We won't attack each other until we feel wronged or the other person is gaining too much of an advantage. I've also played with other people who as soon as they can use the robber to steal one of your cards and deprive you of resources, they immediately and gleefully will do so. It's a winning strategy ... if your goal is to win.
Exploiting the GameSome people find ways to exploit a game's structure to win. It may be finding an unbalanced tactic that gives you an unfair advantage or finding a flaw or vulnerability in the game. I found with the game Nethack, I could hide my saved game from the system that would delete it if I died in the game. (Hey, it's a hard game.) Or you may be able beat an enemy by standing on something where the enemy can't reach you and just whaling away on them.
This hovers on the edge of cheating. The challenges posed by the game are removed or significantly weakened. You're not playing better, but weakening the game or pressing on flaws in the game to circumvent the challenges. This starts to defeat some purposes of playing a game. Sure, you're getting closer to the ostensible goal of the game (winning), but losing out on overcoming challenges, pitting your skill against the rules. You can use cheat codes to play in God Mode, but then what would winning even mean? If there's no challenge, what's the point? If you're playing against another person, rather than against the game, you're going to start accumulating ill will by cheating the other person or bringing them to use the same tactics, and starting to break the game. And who wants to play a broken game? That's no fun.
Breaking the GameWell, some people do like to break the game. A while back, I was talking with a teenager who was quite proud of his prowess in playing an online multiplayer game. He had found several exploits in the game. One was to perform a series of actions that caused the server to lag in tracking his location, so he could essentially become invisible and super fast and slaughter anyone he liked. He thought this was so cool. He relished his domination in the way that a teenage boy can. He also took it as a mark of pride that he had become so skilled in killing other players that many people would log off the shared server as soon as he logged on. I'm still kicking myself for not telling him that fact meant he'd lost. As soon as people don't want to play with you and stop playing the game because of you, you've lost. You may have won the game, but you have lost in so many ways.
First off, you've broken the game. The challenge drains out of it. The fun is diminished. Secondly, you're losing the point of playing games: to have fun. You destroy the fun for others, and you lose the fun of matching your skill against the game. Thirdly, you're being a jerk and losing the social game. You're losing points with friends or acquaintances by being a dick. Fourth, if you drive enough people away, you'll have no one to play with. Game over, man. Game over.