28 September 2018 | Designer Journal

"I Play to Win" Is a Lie

A Designer Journal from Nate French


Are games meant to be won? If not, why do we play games that have strong competitive scenes? In today's Designer Journal, designer Nate French takes a look at the nature of competition and suggests some alternative ways of thinking about winning. 

It is helpful from time to time for those of us in the competitive gaming community to reflect on our own relationships with gaming and competition. What can we do to ensure that our hobby of competing with one another through gaming brings out the best in our selves, rather than the worst?

This designer journal is one of my own recent attempts to wrestle with such a question.

The statement “I play to win” has been used to rationalize and justify a fair bit of behavior that runs the gamut from off-putting to questionable to unethical and downright evil. As a competitive gamer who’s had some success in various arenas in the past, such a mindset has never been one that I have been completely at peace with.

“Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”

This overused quote and idea is often attributed to Vince Lombardi, but it is believed the original speaker was UCLA Bruins coach Red Sanders. Regardless of where it originated, it is frequently embraced by high-level competitors to focus on the supposed ultimate goal (winning) and to motivate them to do what they need to do in order to win.

It shouldn’t be difficult to see how such a belief is unhealthy, and leads to many evils, great and small, in the world of competition. Unfortunately, such an idea is deeply engrained in our culture, and countless competitors find strength and reassurance in an “I play to win” approach to their sport or game.

I should know, I’ve been there myself. Winning is seductive, and easy to fall in love with. As you win more, it feeds back into your identity as a so-called “winner.” Losers, on the other hand, are often derided: the very term is frequently used as an insult. But seeing winning as “the only thing”—the point, the end that justifies all means in any type of competition—is a mistake, a dire mistake that we must continually guard ourselves against believing. This task, I feel, is one of our deepest imperatives as competitive gamers.

Making the task somewhat easier, I’ve found, is this: while the “play to win” attitude cloaks itself in the guise of strength, when you really dig in to the idea you begin to realize that it comes from a place of weakness.

The Trap

The biggest self-defeating trap in the “play to win” mentality is this: winning is a result, and we don’t get better at games by following results-oriented thinking. This is a concept I came across while studying poker, but the idea can transfer to any form of competition.

What is results-oriented thinking? Basically, it’s judging the quality of your decisions (and your decision-making process) based on outcomes rather than judging the quality of those decisions on logic or objective analysis.

Why is this type of thinking a bad thing? Ultimately, it’s because competitors don’t truly have any control over the outcome—the only thing we competitors can control is the quality of our decisions, and the outcomes take care of themselves.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few examples from different types of games.

It’s easiest to see this in perfect information games, as they do the least to hide the connection between our decisions and our results. Consider a simple game like Tic-Tac-Toe. If both players play perfectly, the game inevitably ends in a draw. Put another way, you can only win a game of Tic-Tac-Toe if your opponent makes a mistake. As there is nothing (within the rules) that a player can do to “force” their opponent to make a mistake, winning this game is entirely reliant on a factor that I, as a competitor, have no control over. I can only play perfectly, and hope my opponent messes up.

“But Tic-Tac-Toe is a simple game with a known solution. What about a more complex, unsolved game, such as Chess?” you might ask. While it is true that—as of this writing—Chess remains an unsolved game, this does not grant a competitor any additional agency in forcing a desired result. If both sides play perfectly, the outcome (currently unknown, but it will either be a draw, a win for black, or a win for white) is inevitable, and it is only through imperfect play by one player or the other that other outcomes can be achieved.

Let’s now move our consideration to other types of games with variance and hidden information. In a broad sense, each of these devices serves to disguise the ways in which player error determines a game’s outcome.

Variance is easiest to see. Imagine you make a play that, 99 times out of 100, is going to win you the game… and then the fated dice roll the one result that defeats you, throwing the win away. Curses! Even in such extreme cases, a truly results-oriented player would believe they made the wrong decision or, if they were on the other side of the improbable roll, believe they played the game perfectly. And either of these conclusions would be an obvious impediment to their development as a player.

Hidden information (such as the hole cards in Texas Hold’em, or a player’s hand in a customizable card game) also serves to disguise the concept of “perfect” play, in that it demands competitors evaluate and analyze their play against all possible (or likely) holdings, and then choose optimal lines against the various possibilities an opponent could be sitting on.

With such games, it’s very possible to make a correct play (correct against the possible range of cards the opponent could have) that in a particular instance turns out to lose the game (because they happen to have, against the odds, the one card in their deck that could beat your play). It’s also possible to blunder (make a play which would be wrong against their likely holding the vast majority of the time) that turns out in this particular instance to win the game because your opponent didn’t happen to have any of the dozens of likely outs that could have defeated your play. Such outcomes are not examples of superior or inferior play, they’re simply another case of running up against the wrong (or right) side of variance.

Once variance and hidden information enter the picture, it’s possible to make terrible decisions and still win, and it’s also possible to make good decisions and still lose. Or, as co-host Andrew Brokos of the Thinking Poker podcast once suggested, “the end result of you winning the pot does not change the fact that the way you played the hand was a complete disaster.”

What are our takeaways from these considerations of various types of games? Essentially, we as competitors don’t have as much control over our results as we’d initially believe. If a game is not decided by bad (or good!) luck, it was decided by a mistake (or series of mistakes) made by one of the competitors. Just as we cannot control luck, we cannot control whether or not our opponents make mistakes. All we can do then, as competitors, is eliminate as many mistakes as possible from our own play, and be prepared to capitalize on the mistakes our opponents do make. 

A more profound way of thinking about this is the realization that at the heart of all competitive gaming—in which we strive to control the sole thing we have any control over, by eliminating mistakes from our own play—we are only competing against ourselves.

This casts our opponents in a completely different light—they are no longer our enemies or adversaries that we must defeat and crush and overcome at any cost, but rather our allies, a mirror against which we can measure ourselves in our effort to grow and improve at our chosen game. And this realization, more than anything else, might change the way we treat those opponents—in victory and defeat.

Nate French is the longest-tenured member in the card game department, and serves as a mentor and coach for the team. More often than not, he’s working on a project he can’t say anything about… yet! In his spare time he is an avid poker player and enjoys reading, writing, sports, (older) heavy metal, and talking about LeBron.

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