Monday, 19 January 2015

It's Just a Game

Let's consider the game. What is it? Basically, it's some activity with a competitive element to it. Tiggy is a game. You compete against the other players to try and avoid being it There's no real winner and there is no defined end either (except, maybe, the bell if you catch my drift). But, despite that, it's definitely competitive. At some point you reach a point where helping your fellow player only makes sense if it helps yourself. It is a game. The point of bringing up tiggy is because it does, to my mind, raise some questions about the nature of a game. You can't say that games exist to be won (i.e. are competitive) and simultaneously say that tiggy is a game because that lacks a winner. Maybe being in (i.e. it) at the end counts as losing so everyone else wins. Maybe you have to say that a game has two meanings. Firstly, it's some activity with a competitive element to it. Secondly, it's some activity undertaken for amusement (although, how is, for instance, a play not a game here?).

Whatever. To me, a game is competitive. It's something that you play. It's something where you either try to beat other players or some aspect of the house (say, for instance, a time limit). Games thrive on the idea that they pit players against something with some sort of stake involved (which is, as tiggy shows, not losing in all cases and usually winning as well). Games are, in short, probably the most worthwhile form of entertainment out there. But, there is a problem with games and that's when players have different intentions.

Take, for instance, a game of basketball that I played in year eight. My thirteen year old self (unless I was twelve at the time) was on the losing team and one of my friends spent a large part of the game saying, "It's just a game". That's a phrase that exists to try and make people realise that games aren't really super important... it's time to let go. But, there's the problem. Games mean more to some people... it's never really just a game: it's a lie. However, a PE lesson is surely just a game (ignoring that it's meant to be educational)? Well, the real problem here is that my friend and I had very different goals. I didn't want to give up. He'd already given up. "It's just a game" was more an excuse to not try than a phrase to make me (and any others involved) take things less seriously. "It's just a game" is, as such, best used afterwards as consolation rather than in a game where it becomes a way of ignoring the central and defining nature of games: competition.

To use another PE lesson, the following year, we were also playing basketball (I don't like the game much actually). Like the previous anecdote it wasn't necessarily played following all the proper rules (teamwork tends to be the main lesson), but it had enough of them. Essentially, there were four teams of which two played at a time. The team who scored first stayed on and played one of the teams on the benches. My team had a very simple strategy. I stood near our net, received the ball from someone else on our team and then threw it to one of our other team members who, then, invariably, put it in the net. After we'd spent a bit too long doing this and winning our PE teacher stopped the game and called everyone in. He then explained what we were doing and how to stop it. Why?  Because it's a competition. Games aren't meant to consist of one player or group of players just stomping everyone into the ground (whether literally or figuratively) because that's not really a competition. At the same time, it wasn't our obligation to ensure that the game was competitive. We're put on the court and we're there with two purposes: to win and to not lose. In theory, this means that one has no real incentive to, say, keep going until 160 odd to 2. However, a game is also meant to be fun. You're not there to mill around and do nothing. With something like basketball basically all you can do is either cheat and give the ball to the other team deliberately or you can take shots at the net.

Okay, so what about games where a large degree of what happens is based on luck? Say, for instance, Scum/President. Some people say that the game exists to make a moral point: those on the top stay on the top. To that end, they use "broken" rules that basically make sure that the random dealing of cards always benefits the same people (the presidents). That's bull. It's not fun to always win and it's not fun to always not win. As a consequence, most people who play the game use rules like eight below (when an eight is played you must play under), sixty-nine (always gets a snigger out of immature little pricks... when a six is played and a nine is played on top of it, every player must play two face cards) and with jokers only being able to be played when there are the same number of them as what they're being played on (i.e. two twos cannot be beaten by one joker. even though a two is lower than a joker). There are other ways of having competitive rules and the lesson is still made. Those on the bottom of the heap do (as in reality) get punished and when the game is played again they're at something of a disadvantage having had their best cards replaced by worse ones from the President's hand. Like in reality, this is recoverable... it's just that in the game, it's easier to get everything to come together in the ways that enable this. What's really interesting here, though, is that President shows that games work best when they've got rules that make them more competitive.

President also shows something else: games can be used to model the real world. People often use chess to try and make real world points. However, it, like President, has some severe limitations. Chess even forces players to play and the inability to play according to its rules leads to draws (admittedly, that's a realistic outcome). Something which is both competitive and co-operative is much better at explaining something. Game theory, which basically uses things that we might understand as games (it doesn't, for instance, use specific games but, rather, takes some real world situation and makes it resemble a game and then uses mathematics to have a look at that) is something of an extension of this. You can, in fact, use other games to try and explain how to approach a particular game. Again, with President, one should think of a stage in the Tour De France. Sometimes a few cyclists will break away from the pack and they will try and head for the finish. Some, among that group, will then start to sprint at some point. In each cyclist's mind is the same thought, "If I sprint too soon I will be caught and I will be lost". President is the same. With good rules any hand can win, but if you try to win too soon you risk losing.

Before I finish up, one more PE lesson anecdote. In year ten my PE class consisted of the same people with whom I did my core subjects (i.e. maths, English, social studies and science). We were an advanced class and, as that might suggest, there were some quite definitely not sporty people in there. However, that shouldn't excuse the absolutely terrible game intelligence of my peers. For instance, when we played touch they would a) pass away from space b) run sideways and backwards and c) run out of space. This adds up to very little actual attacking and a lot of what a soccer player might call high defensive lines and a pressing game. It's not enough, though, to play the game. You do have to be aware of how the game is played. With touch, you generally want to either attack down the wings or draw play towards the wing (i.e. take people out of position) and score in the centre. To avoid this, you will keep your team spread along the line (i.e. the width of the field). You will, if enough people play, have someone who hangs back a little in case your line is broken... they'll try and chase. The skills that win games are speed, passing and catching. These can't be used to any useful effect without game intelligence. To take things wider than just games and bring it back to the point. Games are never just what you're doing. they are also why you're doing it. In this sense, it's usually not "just a game".

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