Monday, September 12, 2011

Hardcore Scrabble

I tend toward perfectionism, I admit, and toward completionism.  These are (especially together) nearly as often failings as they are virtues.  Still, we all have our own issues and despite my drive toward achievement I tend to shy away from competitive games; I don't like to get into contests that I have no chance of winning.

It's not that I need to win all the time; rather, it's an awareness of my weaknesses.  I'm an overweight asthmatic with a bad knee; I wouldn't enter footrace unless I planned for some reason to place last.  I do enter trivia contests, because at least there I have a chance to rise or fall on my own merits.

This means there's a genre of gaming I tend not to tackle.  I stick to single-player games, whether narrative or competitive, or occasionally to cooperative multiplayer games.  I don't want to put myself in an us-vs-them situation either on my own merits or as the weakest link of a team.  Competition is, of course, easiest with the gaming partner who lives with you, but I'm particularly adverse to competing against my spouse.  It's a level of marital discord that I simply don't need.

But speaking of my spouse, thanks to deals on sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, we manage to get away once or twice a year on little, inexpensive-but-lovely B&B trips in the region.  (There are rather a lot of picturesque country getaways within a 3-hour drive of Washington, DC.)  We take these trips as a time to unplug, but sometimes find ourselves with some quiet afternoon or evening time to fill.

As it turns out, nearly every B&B on Earth seems to have a Scrabble set somewhere.

Not a euphemism: we play Scrabble on vacation.

 Here's the thing I like about playing Scrabble with my husband: we're both terrible at it.

I'm great at thinking of words, but without the right tiles in hand or the right spaces on the board on which to put them, it doesn't matter.  Meanwhile, his strategic sense is better than mine, but I have an unerring ability to steal exactly the letter he was going to build from on his next turn.

We're both awful.  And we're matched 2-2-1 over the last year's worth of trips, from Labor Day weekend 2010 to Labor Day weekend 2011.  And we both stay awful, and thus the games, while competitive, remain fun and not hostile.

Here's the thing about gaming: we really are all designed to overlearn the system.  It's just how games and players work: we look at a system and then we dismantle and master it.  And it's something each of us does methodically (though methods vary), up until the point where the pleasure wears off.

That "splort" is so damn satisfying.
When the pleasure wears off, some of us quit.  I don't tend to play Fruit Ninja much on my phone anymore, because I reached a mastery plateau: incremental increases in high score take far too much play time, and suck the fun out of the attempt, making it instead a grim, pulp-covered death march to the next "correct" move.  Others double down and find a new pleasure, in the competition itself.  When you've mastered the game, you no longer derive joy from your own high scores -- pssh, of course you're awesome! -- but from knowing your score beats others.

When the going gets tough, some of us go for a walk outside and some of us plan to become national champion.  It takes all sorts.

When we talk about "casual" gamers vs "core gamers," I don't actually think we mean the type of game each camp enjoys.  There are Boggle and Scrabble players who will absolutely school you, and who make it their mission to do so.  Somewhere out there, there's someone who's gotten a 100% and an Ace on every level of Peggle and Peggle Nights.  In EQ2, there are folks out there who are so hardcore into the crafting system (and just the crafting system) that they know more about it than the dev team does.  And no matter who you are, someone out there is way more into (and better at) Wii Tennis than you.  Meanwhile, there are folks who play Call of Duty once or twice a month for fun, gamers who pop into World of Warcraft occasionally just to chat with buddies, and players who don't care about their KTD ratio in Halo or Counter-Strike.

When we collectively talk about gamers and gaming, though, we tend to separate the "casual" and "core" gamers by their preferred genre.  There's a definite dismissive attitude ingrained in the culture: "Mom's not a real gamer, she just plays Facebook games."  And yet, what if she plays them consistantly, constantly, to a point of true mastery?  And of course, even a competitive PvP game isn't really good sport if girls are winning.

From my point of view, I think one of the biggest challenges we have in talking about gaming and gamer populations comes from our whole really being made of two halves.  This is where the constant (and somewhat exhasting) ludonarrative debate comes from, among critics and writers.  In short: when we talk about games, are we talking about their rules and forms of mastery, or about the stories they tell?  Both, or neither?

Seriously, more time on animation than on fighting.
On the one hand, we have a physical challenge, one that can be mastered and set aside.  But in our biggest games, the skill or reflex mastery comes paired with a narrative that has to run its course regardless of the player's level of accomplishment.  For the first half of Divinity II, the fights are too challenging; for the last third, they're far too easy.  When starting a Japanese-style party-based RPG like Chrono Cross, fights begin as an elaborate process that you can have difficulty learning -- but then, aside from bosses, descend into farce, taking up your time with repetitive intro and outro animations and fanfares.

A film director can and does control the pacing and delivery of the entirety of his product.  A game designer has more trouble with the pacing.  If a game is strictly, 100% linear with no deviations, it's a niche product: an interactive novel, or the game-film.  The tautness, delivery, and coherence of Heavy Rain varies depending how you play it.  One way it's a thriller; another way, it's slightly disconnected; a third way, it's a drama.  In the end, though, there are a total of four characters and 12 endings, and so David Cage and Quantic Dream are able to shape it to their whims.

There's only one way to play Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and only one way to play Uncharted.  But there are a dozen ways to play Mass Effect.  Can BioWare forsee that I'm going to go search every planet and complete every side quest in the galaxy?  Can they predict which one I will finally skip?

For me, of course, the answer is back up there in the first sentence: I tend toward completionism, and will perform, and try to master, every skill a game sets before me.  Now if you'll excuse me, I have to start a New Game Plus in Bastion.  It has these proving grounds, you see...


  1. Scrabble and Fruit Ninja in one post! I love them both. I read you often so I don't embarrass myself with the gamers in my life. I rarely comment because I'm not a sophisticated gamer. I still play bejeweled and solitaire (sometimes with actual cards!). I will sit and watch my husband and boys play their games but I'm squeamish and my "Fight/throw down the joystick and run for my life" reflex is very strong.

    I tend to play games over and over even after finishing it or plateauing in score. I'd be interested what you think of Shape Shift HD, It's my new game, I'm totally addicted.

  2. Looks to be iOS only with no Droid version, alas. :(

  3. I think that's a good tack to take in defining the hardcore: Is this game a sport or a diversion to you?

    If something is a sport, practically by definition winning is important. Major League Baseball is a sport, but the actual game of baseball is a diversion to a lot of people who just enjoy playing it. Some people enjoy cooking, others want to be on Iron Chef.

  4. I'm far less of a completionist than I used to be, I think, though not so much because I don't want to be but because I feel like there are simply so many games I want to play that if I take the time to collect everything or play through the game in a different way, I will not have the time to play though other great games even once.  I'd love to put in more play-throughs of the Mass Effect series, The Witcher 2, Deus Ex, and all sorts of other games with multiple paths and endings but there just isn't enough time! (Somewhat paradoxically though, that isn't a call for shorter games, I generally like longer games) 

    I agree that the hardcore/casual debate is something of a misnomer or a least a detrimental distraction. As you say, there are all kinds of people and all kinds of games and anybody can enjoy whatever they want. That said, given the choice, I prefer what's usually considered 'hardcore' games, or at least, in-depth games with lots of options and systems. Stuff like Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds are great for bus rides, the bathroom (c'mon, eveyone does this, right?), etc... but when I'm at my computer or TV give me all the depth you've got. 

    My wife and I are pretty similarly skilled at Scrabble/Words With Friends but she has me totally beat when it come to Boggle. We have a running tally of our games over the years and I think the score is something like 2-1 in her favor at this point. On the other hand, my sister-in-law said that when the rest of our extended family was playing The Game of Things lately, the category was 'Things You Can't Beat', her answer was ' at boardgames' , so apparently I have something of a reputation in our family. 

  5. Yeah, I've had to learn to let things go sometimes.  That "mastery threshold" I mentioned has become a good way for me to feel when I need to walk away.  I might go back and finish up some of the Fable III achievements that I was close to when I completed the campaign (damn gnomes) but I'm not going to try to find every last thing in that entire Albion; I know I need to walk away because the pleasure's mostly gone.  Even that sort of fierce and joyless competitive pleasure.

  6. Kate, have you read Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun for Game Design"?   What you describe about mastery fits with his thesis.

  7. I've read about it, and I've read summaries, though I haven't actually read the book myself.

    I mean, it's not that I'm writing anything groundbreaking here; anyone who's observed gaming or gamers at length starts to see the same patterns over time.  I'm just more frustrated with straddling the line: I see great work coming from great critics around a whole mess of games, but I also see the biggest studios pushing hard to a "core gamer" that I don't think exists (in no small part because he's always male and stupid).