Categories
game participant

Playing Urban Nightmare: A live-action thirty-player semi-co-op zombie-outbreak simulation game

“So let me get this straight, chief,” I said, 5 minutes in to my first day as the Chief of Staff at the State Police, “you’ve had no formal training and have only been in the job for a month; and the only reason you hired me and the deputy is because nobody with any real experience actually applied.”

“That’s about right. But things are pretty quiet round here! We’ll have plenty of time to pick things up as we go along.”

Little did they realise that in nearby Romero City, a zombie outbreak was already beginning…

***

This was no ordinary game. This was Urban Nightmare, a Megagame with 30 odd players representing 8 key organisations, simulating a realistic official response to a zombie outbreak over 6 hours, representing 3 days of time in the game. It was intense, challenging, and eye-opening in so many ways.

At the time of writing, another run of this game is planned for Leeds on Saturday 17th November 2012 – you can read about it and sign up here (although you’ll need to do so pretty quickly). I’ll give an overview of what Megagames are, and write up my experience of Urban Nightmare below – keeping spoilers to a minimum.

What are Megagames?

The strapline of the Megagame Makers website calls them ‘multi-team multi-player wargames’. The closest similar game I’ve seen is Diplomacy, but megagames investigate the mechanics of conflict and co-operation at a much deeper level. They are large (20-50 players), and long (lasting one or two days).

I first came across the idea through a friend-of-a-friend, who described a megagame he’d designed to recreate the key factions and power mechanics of a certain period of Anglo-French history. He was particularly excited that at one point some players tried to stage a coup, but it failed – and this was exactly what happened in the actual historical period!

Obviously, I found that idea very exciting.

Megagames explore a whole area of gameplay I’ve never seen before: a very large number of players making a lot of tactical and strategic decisions, over a long period of time.

It seems like a way to gain genuine understanding of how organisations and society work. If a historically accurate failed coup can naturally arise with the right starting conditions and game mechanics, this seems like a genuinely powerful way to simulate and understand such systems.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a new idea: it’s part of the spectrum of military simulations which have been tried in one form or another for as long as humans have been making war.

On the downside, it superficially sounds a bit dry and difficult for the players. The introductory leaflet I received upon registration listed some of the key things players enjoy about these games:

  • There’s no score, which is great for players that are averse to highly competitive games
  • To a large extent you set your own goals – you may want to try to do outdo your historical counterpart, or just find out what happens if you stick to a particular strategy that you’re curious about
  • You feel like you’re part of momentous events, in a way that smaller scale games with momentous event themes (like Pandemic) can’t achieve.

***

“Was that someone from the city police? What did he want?”

“They had a few trouble-makers this morning, sounds like they were high on something. Took a surprising amount of effort to contain them, apparently.”

“Why are they telling us this?”

“No idea.”

***

How is Urban Nightmare different?

This particular Megagame, being concerned with a zombie outbreak, does not in fact directly reflect an actual historical event. The designer, Jim Wallman, observed that in most zombie fiction, the focus is on individuals, and the government seems largely useless – until towards the end, when the military usually comes in. He wanted to know: how does that happen exactly?

Brilliantly, he used as a starting point a megagame he’d made earlier that dealt with a similar issue (in terms of official response to an unexpectedly large scale civic problem), although I won’t reveal what it is because I think it’s best for players to be as unprepared as possible. However, there were quite a few key changes, and the version I attended (Saturday 17th March 2012) was the first time it had been run.

Urban Nightmare in brief

Players could select from one of the following teams: the City Police, State Police or National Guard; the Emergency Services, City Hall (Democrat) or State Governor’s Office (Republican); The Press, or an intriguing corporation with a major research office in the city called Necrotech. There was also a fairly large Control team, who ensure the smooth running of the game.

Brilliantly, through a mix of self-selection and active choice on the part of the designer working with the regular players, many of the roles were extremely well cast. In this case, the state governor and city mayor roles were taken on by people that seemed like they could have legitimately held those jobs in real life (as opposed to twenty-somethings with an abnormally large sense of entitlement), and three key roles at Necrotech were taken up by a trio of players notorious within the Megagame player base as being somewhat shifty and traitorous, who all turned up wearing suits and suitably sinister shades.

The game was planned to take place over 6 hours, with each ‘turn’ (in which each team collects information and makes decisions) taking 20 minutes of real time and representing 4 hours of in-game time. In total, 18 turns would represent the first 3 days of the outbreak.

My experience: briefing

After registering, I received a comprehensive briefing pack in the post consisting of:

  • Cover letter
  • Maps
  • Newbie Guide
  • Overview of Urban Nightmare
  • Team Briefing (state police)
  • Attendee/Cast List

I diligently read through all this material, and was only slightly alarmed by the repeated reminders in the newbie guide that it was only a game and some people might come across as surprisingly abrasive while playing, but this isn’t personal and in reality everyone is definitely really friendly.

I wasn’t too worried as I’d signed up with a friend (albeit one who hadn’t played a megagame before either), and we chose junior roles in the State Police, a team we anticipated wouldn’t be as critical to the co-operative zombie-fighting effort as most of the others.

The instructions also said that although we knew going in that the game was about ‘zombies’, we should try not to use this unnatural precognition in our initial choices in the game, and in particular we shouldn’t make any assumptions about the nature of the infection (if it was an infection) or how it was transmitted (if it was transmitted). I was very happy to do that, because I was really interested in the premise of the game: realistically, how would a zombie invasion play out? Quite obviously, in the initial stages, there would be a big barrier of disbelief. How does that barrier eventually get overcome?

My experience: On the day

I got to Anerley Town Hall at 9am, and relatively few others had arrived. I was welcomed by Jim Wallman, the game’s designer, I bought myself an all-day tea subscription from the service hatch, and started to put some faces to the names I’d already seen on the roles sheet that came with the welcome pack.

It wasn’t long before we had our whole State Police team together: myself as Chief of Staff, my friend as the Deputy, and a guy who had played one megagame before as the Chief – a quite significantly inexperienced team. Our table was set up with a state map, a city map, and and an overwhelming stack of counters representing our units.

***

“That was the city police again – er, apparently their HQ is under seige and they’ve lost several units.”

“Lost? As in killed?”

“Yep”

“What on earth is going on?”

“I have no idea. But we should probably send in a few units to see if we can assist. Not too many though, we’ve got a state to look after here.”

***

The first few turns played out much as I’ve described in the fictionalised interludes so far. The game then began to switch gear (for us), and it felt like we were receiving new information, discussing plans, writing out orders, liaising, and most exhaustingly making decisions just about constantly after that. Occasionally there would be a brief lull, during which time I could take advantage of my tea subscription.

Brilliantly, one of the ways we became aware of developments was through the media – a one-page ‘newspaper’ was distributed every hour, and occasionally press conferences were held in which key figures put out their official story (to some heckling).

I remembered that the instructions had warned: “The game can get very complex, try to remember that it’s just as tough for everyone” – and that was a useful idea to cling on to when it started to feel overwhelming.

If you want to attend the upcoming run and avoid any spoilers, you should probably stop reading now, but in any case I won’t reveal much more other than my favourite moment, when my friend said…

***

“If what we’re hearing is right, the City Police have lost half their units in the last 24 hours.”

“That’s… very serious.”

“I’m taking this straight to the governor.”

***

My Observations

Maps Maps Maps
I remember once reading somewhere “the map is not the territory,” which sounded like good general advice, but through my experience of video games where the map really is the territory, I didn’t internalise it. Here, the map only updates when you yourself update it, and you have partial or even incorrect information on how to do that. This was a fascinating problem, made slightly more difficult by the fact that our city map really wasn’t big enough to arrange the counters on it clearly.

Pacing
Once things took hold, it was incredibly hectic – more hectic, Jim later revealed, than he had anticipated. This created its own problems: the Control team had a hard time keeping up, and as a result turns began to start later and later, but with no big public announcement of when they were, so we had to frequently find someone to tell us what turn we were in right now. It seems like turns could be more efficiently communicated – if nothing else with a big flip chart with the current turn number indicated at one end of the hall (and ideally someone ringing a giant gong to announce the end of a turn).

A second problem is that I think you’re generally supposed to hear back from Control what happened to your units as a result of the instructions you issued. But they had such a hard time keeping up with everything that very often we’d hear nothing back, making it much harder to understand what was happening. Eventually I found I would more reliably get some feedback if I livened the instructions up a bit with phrases like “for the love of God” and “try to do [x]… if that fails, pray.”

Scale
Due to the above issues, it felt like the game was at the limit of its scale, but if they could be addressed (and if players could be found) it could get even bigger. In particular, just from the cast list and arrangement of the hall, we knew the game couldn’t really accommodate a major outbreak in another city within the State. But because we were interested in a realistic simulation, we as the State Police considered that a real possibility, and held units in reserve just in case. (That did come in handy later for another reason, but probably wasn’t a good strategic decision).

I really liked the idea of introducing a surprise element of the game though – a secret part of the hall we were playing in being revealed to have players and a map representing another city at the moment it starts to get zombied up – or maybe towards the end when/if our containment attempts have failed, a bunch of people in zombie makeup run into the hall and start trashing the place. But that’s probably just me.

Conclusion

I had read before about decision fatigue, in which it becomes hard to make decisions if you have recently made a bunch of other (not necessarily related) choices. This aspect of the game was so intense and so prolonged (near-constant decision making for around 6 hours) that I found myself unable to cope with most decisions for the next two days, which was a bit inconvenient, but also, fascinating!

If you have an interest in large-scale games, human-based simulations, or a very practical approach to zombies, I would highly recommend taking part. As I mentioned at the start, another run of the game is due to take place in Leeds this Saturday 17th November. You can find out more about other upcoming megagames, or megagames in general, at their site.

UPDATE! (13th April 2014)
I didn’t realise this at the time, but James Kemp commented on the progress of the outbreak from his perspective with the emergency services team in real time. So if you want to get an idea of how the outbreak played out, you should check that out! Follow that up with his post-script in which he switched to a Federal role and had a very different set of concerns.

Tim Mannveille, of Octopus Fruitbat

Categories
game

Competitive Sandwich Making at the Weekender

We came up with Competitive Sandwich Making for a Hide&Seek Sandpit event back in August 2011, and ran it a few more times with friends later. We were keen to develop the game further, so were delighted when Hide&Seek invited us to run the game as part of their 2012 Weekender event (which at the time of posting still has Sunday to go).

In particular, based on previous runs, we knew that the piece design could be improved. There were a few pieces that were almost never chosen by players, so they were made slightly more appealing. We also thought there were a few too many small pieces, as we noticed that games could drag out at the end while players filled in their last few gaps with no real effect on their relative scores; also, whenever a player tried the strategy of grabbing all the small pieces early, this took them far too many turns, ultimately leaving them in too weak a position to be in with a chance of winning.

We also wanted to improve the permanence of the ranking system, so we upgraded the Earl of Sandwich stickers to badges:

Finally, the original run of the game didn’t have a very high player throughput: it took about 15 minutes for 4 players to be briefed, play a practice game, then a real game, meaning we could reach at the most 16 players per hour.

One quick fix for this was to run two instances of the game side by side – and we roped in a couple of friends to help us with the additional supervision needed (big thanks to Deb and Phil, standing in the pic below, which also features the key phrase players have to utter if they wish to exchange a piece).

Secondly, as noted last time, the game took as long to explain as it did to play, which isn’t great. Effectively using the dimensions of this problem against itself, we incorporated the player briefing into the players’ first playthrough of the game.

With both of these improvements in place, players could learn and then play the game within about 12 minutes, giving us a maximum throughput of 40 players per hour – much better!

As an added bonus, Hide&Seek provided us with a volunteer to help us run the game for the whole evening, which meant we could rotate supervision and get to play some of the other amazing games on offer. Thanks guys!

So, how did it go?

The in-game briefing part worked well (once we learned where to put the emphasis and which parts needed repeating), and we were pretty consistently busy, so we ultimately had 108 players take part (with 4 winners returning for a Big Cheese match, the winner receiving the first Earl of Sandwich badge), which gave us 32 an hour – excellent!

The improved piece design also had the desired effect – no pieces were systematically ignored, play rarely stalled in the endgame, and one player took the small pieces early and won as a result. We also got a lot of positive feedback on the game from a wide demographic mix of players. Hooray!

Where next for Competitive Sandwich Making?

We’ll continue to find opportunities to run the game (mostly just to get enough Earls of Sandwich that can ultimately face one another to achieve the still-secret ultimate ranking), but more satisfyingly, the piece design is now at a point where we can look at upping the production quality, most likely using a 3D-printer to create much more robust playing pieces, and perhaps one day even putting the game in a box and selling it. Stay tuned!

-Tim and Clare, aka Octopus Fruitbat

Categories
game

You’re In A Room

What’s this all about then?

Fruitbat (that’s us – Tim Mannveille and Clare Huxley) ran a game called You’re In A Room at the recent(ish) first of Hide & Seek’s “Games with Audiences” Sandpit series, on Friday 25th May.

We’re particularly pleased with how it turned out, since it involved players creating challenges for each other (uh-oh…) but the nature of the format meant that players pretty much always completed those challenges by the skin of their teeth! (Hooray!)

This is the story of how that came about!

And why do you need me?

The game involves a small team guiding one blind-folded player through a virtual dungeon, with that player generally asking a bunch of questions. We’re having form reflect content by you playing that role.

Where am I?

You’re In A Room! This was the repeated-and-therefore-magical phrase that was invoked whenever a player advanced in the late 80s/early 90s kid’s TV show Knightmare, in which a player in a bucket-like sight-blocking helmet was blue-screen-comped into a matt-painted / CG dungeon populated with actors, props, and virtual peril, there to be guided by their team-mates watching over them through a television, thereby creating a game perfectly designed to make you want to shout at the screen. You can get an idea of the show very quickly by watching this clip:

So where does your version fit in?

One day at work, Tim discovered a desk-side bin hidden inside another desk-side bin, with a piece of paper taped to it featuring an upside-down face and the word ‘Friday’:

Clearly, the previous occupants of the office would wear this bucket on their heads on Fridays in some kind of ritual, the purpose of which we can only guess at.

On hearing this, Clare was reminded of an impulse from long ago to make some kind of “bucket head” game, using the sighted-players-guide-player-with-bucket-on-head device so familiar from Knightmare.

A few days later, Hide & Seek announced the dates of their summer 2012 sandpits, starting with one themed around “Sports and Game Shows,” and even though this was only four weeks away and all we really had as an idea was “Bucket Head”, we figured this was the perfect opportunity to do it.

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
Leonard Bernstein

Clearly, we didn’t quite have enough time. So all we needed now was a plan.

What’s in this room I’m in anyway?

What? Er, a computer. Anyway, the plan was to very quickly come up with a workable idea, playtest it once, tweak it, and run it.

After quickly veering away from an ambitious idea involving multiple simultaneous players guided by walkie-talkies (which we may may well come back to), we were ultimately drawn to a more literal idea of creating a kind of mini, Sweded version of Knightmare, the hope being that some of the back-seat-player audience involvement engendered by the original show would carry across.

"You're in a room, it looks like there's a locked door at the far end..."

Clare suggested one key twist: that the players should have the opportunity to come up with dungeons themselves, thereby solving the problem that the original Knightmare had more people running the game than actually playing it. But could it work?

We distilled what we thought were the key elements from Knightmare (a character, a puzzle, a reward, a physical challenge, an obstacle that could only be passed with the right item or spell), created three-room templates, rustled up some friends, and just gave it a go.

"Where am I?" "You're in a room!" "Is this fun?"

So did it work?

The optimistic vision was that a game might take 5 minutes, and Tim in particular was drawn to the idea of a constantly rolling drop-in format in which one could rapidly move up a sort of engagement ladder:

From passive audience member, to…
> Back-seat-player
> Player
> Dungeon designer
> Dungeon operator.

The test very quickly revealed a problem with this idea: people naturally tended to design complex dungeons that took more like 15-30 minutes to play, and some of their rooms would take longer to set up than to play – not ideal.

On the positive side, it had one particularly outstanding feature: dungeon-designers wanted the players to experience everything they had made, so when playing the part of monsters/hazards/obstacles, they would tend to tweak things on the fly such that a player would succeed – but only just. This is great, because we’ve seen before that the moments that players enjoy the most are those in which they feel they succeeded by the narrowest of margins. We had stumbled upon a game format that pretty much generates these moments by default. Wow!

So how did you tweak it? And does this computer have internet access?

Er, yes it does. First we revised the instructions (and briefing) so that, with some guidance from us, a team could hopefully invent a dungeon in 15 minutes that would itself take 15 minutes to play.

Second, we had another look at the logistics, and were drawn to the idea of a structured rolling format with two tracks of players – dungeon-designers, and dungeon-players – hoping that this would create exactly the opportunity for progressive involvement (from audience member on upwards) mentioned at the start.

Finally, we realised that riddles were a fun feature of the genre, but it was tough to come up with them on demand, so we prepared a random selection that players could draw from if they got stuck.

On liaising with Hide & Seek, we were advised that this 15-minute version probably wouldn’t schedule well with other games (which tend to have defined 30-to-45-minute slots); a better format would be to have defined 1-hour slots in which 3 teams could first design their dungeons, then rotate through the roles of audience/dungeon-operators/players over three 15-minute slots. Although this removed the possibility of allowing spectators to become players and then performers, it seemed the most practical way to try the game out in this context – and in particular, to see if we really could have people stick to that 15-minute time limit.

What happened?

What happened was this: for the first group of players, we actively pushed to have dungeons designed and run as quickly as possible – and ended up finishing the hour slot with just under 10 minutes to spare. We let things follow a more natural pace for the remaining two hour-long slots, and amazingly they worked just about perfectly.

The other nice feature was that in the absence of specific theming, people came up with a huge range of dungeon types. Here’s a quick overview of what was produced:

7pm-8pm, Team A: North Korea Dungeon. Great use of one of our hat props for that authentic single-party-state feel.

7pm-8pm, Team B: Fun House Dungeon (a kids gameshow from the same era and channel as Knightmare). We particularly liked the use of the whiteboards as story-board-like captions, for example, the guy playing Pat Sharp holding a sign that says “PAT SHARP APPEARS” as he appears:

7pm-8pm, Team C: The Mirror Dungeon. The players find a map with mirror writing showing that the left exit from the room is deadly. Which way do they go?

8pm-9pm, Team A: A somewhat adult-themed dungeon we later realised was probably called the Knightclub dungeon. Notable for use of the spell ‘B-E-E-R-G-O-G-G-L-E-S’.

8pm-9pm, Team B: The Jelly Dungeon, featuring an extra challenging variant on the form: with the entire dungeon made of jelly, the blindfolded player could only ever stand on one leg. Tricky, but as it turns out, doable – hooray!

8pm-9pm, Team C: The Classical Dungeon, in which a player had to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on a paper flute to put Cerberus to sleep. Most notable for this exchange:

One of Cerebus’s heads: That’s not how it goes at all!
Player: I’m doing the intro!

9pm-10pm, Team A: Robot Science dungeon. An amazing use of the form in which the player first discovers that they are actually a robot, before solving the final room by discovering the human within themselves. Not bad for 15 minutes.

9pm-10pm, Team B: The Not-At-All-Based-On-Indiana-Jones Dungeon, most memorable for the entire dungeon-operating team stamping their feet just behind the player to simulate the approach of a giant boulder.

9pm-10pm, Team C: The Pirate Dungeon, featuring some great pirate acting and buried treasure recovered seconds before the Sandpit event came to an end. Hooray!

I write a blog post about You’re In A Room. So what would you change for next time?

A lot depends on the setting. If the venue was suitable, we’d love to try some version in which the game is ‘rolling’ – probably with some volunteers on hand to do the dungeon-operating part by default, but who could step aside if people want to come up with a dungeon themselves. This means players get to see how the game works before designing a dungeon (a major challenge in this first run of the game), and also brings back the possibility of bystanders graduating from back-seat players to actual players.

Another setting-dependent issue is the noise level. With two other games making use of amplified sound nearby, and the general hubbub, it was tough for the dungeoneers to hear their directions. As a quick fix, teams simply stepped into the room themselves, which made things a bit surreal, but did work. Unfortunately, this also meant that any bystanders / audience members would struggle to follow what was happening unless they too got right up close to the action. In a similar situation, some kind of amplification may be called for.

The most important change would be to further distill the instructions. The set we used worked – players were indeed able to come up with suitable dungeons within the time limit – but they did look quite intimidating. If players also get to see a dungeon in action first, this also becomes much easier.

Finally, we’re also thinking about adding more hats, because hats are where it all began, and because everyone loves hats.

Okay, I publish the post.

-Tim & Clare, now known as Octopus Fruitbat

Categories
analysis game

Learning to Cheat Without Breaking the Rules, Part 2: Frameworks for Cheating

For the same reason as in Part 1, these posts are illustrated using the Hand of Fate: Comic Strip Playing Cards by Karen Rubins.

In the first part I explained how a sequence of games taught me to become comfortable with bluffing and even lying outright, from a position of not being able to do either. That’s simple. The harder question is this: what kind of games can teach you to bend or break rules?

To tackle that, we should probably step back and ask how games teach us anything. And to tackle that, we should probably make sure we have a working definition for a game.

Here’s one provided by Greg Costikyan (emphasis added):

A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.

Yes, something like that. From there it seems clear that playing with decisions in a game is how we learn. So the question becomes instead: what kind of game could let us play with the decision of whether or not to break rules?

Form or Content?

I don’t know of one, but I imagine you could make a game about cheating (in the rule-breaking sense, not just bluffing or lying). Perhaps players take the role of political factions within a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with in-game costs and benefits for following or breaking in-game rules. Or it’s Moon colonists with competing sets of societal rules, struggling for domination while following or breaking the rule sets of the competing factions. Or, I wonder, do football simulations these days give you the option of going for a risky tackle, knowing that you risk a red card if it goes badly? I don’t know, but they certainly could.

But in the process of abstracting away the costs and benefits of cheating, it feels as if something gets lost. Just as making decisions in poker has a very different feel when real money is on the table, a game with a cheating theme seems far removed from the potential power of a game that is about cheating the very rules of the game itself.

So we want a game whose rules somehow give players interesting decisions to make regarding whether or not to follow those rules, which sounds like an almost Gödelian paradox. So let’s take a step to one side and look at exactly what it is that drives whether or not rules are followed in a game.

Game frameworks for cheating

There are two key dimensions to consider here, I think:

1) Do people play the game to win, or do they play it for fun? Perhaps more accurately, does the pleasure come from winning – or striving to do so – or just from taking part? There’s a spectrum here, of course, and players of the same game could be at different points along it. For the sake of simplicity we’ll assume it’s binary.

2) How are the rules enforced in the game?

  • By design. In video games this is simple: the game should only let you do what you are allowed to do. Other kinds of games can also facilitate enforcement by their design – for example, playing a piece in Connect 4 makes a distinctive noise, so it’s hard to secretly take an extra turn if your opponent is briefly distracted.
  • By the other players. In most well-defined tabletop or party games, it’s understood that the players are watching each other to ensure they all play by the rules.
  • By a moderator. Generally speaking, if a game can’t work with either of the above approaches, it resorts to some kind of moderator who enforces the rules.

Let’s take a look at how cheating works across the 6 kinds of game this framework implies, and in particular whether choosing to bend or break rules is an interesting* choice for the players to make.

I should probably define ‘interesting’ here. Let’s say that an interesting choice is somewhat balanced (one choice is not obviously better than another), not damaging to longer-term goals, and is fun. And then let’s not try to define ‘fun’ or we’ll be here all day.


Games Played to Win

Play to Win, Design enforced (e.g. PvP video games)
The rules are enforced by the design of the game. As a corollary, anything you can do ought to be allowed, since cheating is theoretically impossible. In reality, it’s not that simple.

A reasonably notorious example is ‘snaking’ in Mario Kart DS. By performing a particular manoeuvre when cornering you get a speed boost. For certain karts, you could perform this manoeuvre almost continuously, alternating left and right – ‘snaking’ – and you could gain more from those speed boosts than you lost by taking a wiggling route. This takes some skill and practice, which makes the benefit seem fair. And since it’s possible in the game, it should be permissible, even if it’s not clear it was the designers’ original intent.

In practice, however, snaking gives such a big advantage that a player that does it will almost always beat a player that doesn’t, no matter how skilled. People are playing to win – that’s what usually makes a race fun – but if even one player is snaking, anyone that can’t snake can’t win, and so, implicitly, can’t have fun. For that reason, the London DS meetup group I played with had a no-snaking rule, and I see on the internet that other groups did as well. Snaking was considered a kind of cheating, and nobody would want to play with you. So no-snaking becomes an informal rule, and this becomes effectively the same as Player Enforced Play to Win.

(You can dive much further into this topic with Sirlin’s “Playing to win” archives)

Play to Win, Player enforced (e.g. Chess or Go)
As noted by Kirk Battle in this Kill Screen article, players can apply a certain level of flexibility to how rules are enforced in a game like Magic: The Gathering, and get a better game as a result. But this is not a situation in which such ‘cheating’ represents an interesting choice.

In it’s more blatant form, cheating in these games will always be considered bad form, and if discovered can have bad social and future gaming consequences. Chess or Go (when played without an audience) fall into this category. A player would only choose to cheat if they thought the short-term advantage would outweigh the risk of long-term negative consequences if they were found out. That’s not a very interesting choice either, according to the criteria above.

Play to Win, Moderator enforced (e.g. Football, Tennis)
Cheating outside of the moderator’s sight gives an advantage, and can’t be stopped in this system. You’re playing to win, and if you don’t exploit this fact, maybe the other guys will.

We see this in competitive sports like football or tennis, and it seems to be (I say this as an outsider) a key part of the entertainment: arguing about whether something counts as a foul, which side of the line the ball bounced on, and in general whether or not the moderator’s decisions are accurate.

Does this mean there’s some scope here for a game that could teach us about cheating? It seems close, but if people are playing to win, it gets dangerous – some degree of violence attempted outside of the moderator’s views seems likely, so I’m going to disqualify this on the grounds of encouraging non-fun behaviour.

Games Played for Fun

Play for Fun, Design enforced (e.g. Endless MMOs)
If you (and everyone else) is playing for fun, things change. If something is possible, and makes for more fun, few can blame you. If you were (somehow) playing Mario Kart just for fun, and through a streak of bad luck found yourself in dead last by some margin, perhaps it would be okay to snake your way to 7th place – that would be more fun for all concerned.

In Kingdom of Loathing, a kind-of MMO in which fun is primarily derived from exploration, an ‘exploit’ was discovered to generate more meat (the game’s currency). Who could resist such an exploit? Why resist it? Could you really begrudge those that used it?

In the case of online games like this, the rules are enforced by design, but there’s also some moderation in the form of game updates and code changes in response to things like this. In this particular case, the exploit effectively crashed the game’s economy, which impacts everyone’s ability to have fun. (Brilliantly, this was fixed with the addition of some entertaining currency sinks, rather than some kind of hard rollback).

So cheating is kind of interesting here, but again becomes more about player- and moderator-enforcement, so strictly speaking this category is ruled out.

Play for Fun, Player enforced (e.g. Mornington Crescent, DDR)
At this point, what constitutes ‘cheating’ is massively dependent on the players: having fun is more important than the rules. We’re right on the edge of what constitutes a game here and it’s an area I think most adults struggle to give themselves permission to enter. The most well-known example I can think of in this category is Mornington Crescent.

Less directly, this arises in Dance Dance Revolution (aka Dancing Stage), in which (for the benefit of the one person reading this that doesn’t know) players must step on specific directional arrows in time to the music. On the arcade machines, a raised bar is supplied behind the player, ostensibly to prevent anyone from falling off the dancing platform backwards. At a high level of gameplay, working out how to shift your bodyweight between feet while meeting a high-speed series of instructions is part of the challenge. However, some players realised they could lean their weight back on the bar and tap away with their feet without worrying about this issue; this also uses less energy. Is this cheating? As could be expected, that depends on who is playing.

In both of these cases, the decision of whether or not to cheat tends to have very little riding on it, so is unlikely to be interesting.

Play for Fun, Moderator enforced (e.g. Schooner or Later)
The Moderator’s role is to ensure people have fun, arguably as a higher priority than ensuring that people follow the rules. In this context, you might ‘cheat’ but do so with the moderator’s implicit or explicit blessing; or you might try to cheat by hiding your action from or misleading the moderator, and since people are only playing for fun this shouldn’t lead to anything particularly harmful. With the right set of incentives and approach by the moderator(s), this could well provide a framework in which a decision to cheat is actually interesting.

In conclusion, returning to our grid of possible games, here’s what the options for learning to cheat look like in each:

This final category is where The Haberdashery’s Schooner or Later comes in, the game that led me to cheat in a manner that could only be described as brazen, and shocked me into this whole line of thinking. I’ll describe how exactly that came about in the third and final part of this series.

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and has previously not cheated in order to earn stickers he made up at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.