Video Games' Obsession With Winning Is Killing Them

Two years ago, I left a job at Rock, Paper, Shotgun to start a board game site. But that's not the strange part. What's odd is that I've never looked back. I'm getting more out of table games these days than video games, and the biggest reason is that somewhere along the line, video games became obsessed with winning, and it’s killing them.

Forget achievements. Do you ever think about how many bruises you’ve collected, as a video gamer? Every evening you went online and got stomped by strangers. Every towering boss that kicked in your teeth. Every bad call you wincingly made, every time you had your entertainment taken away for not being good enough. You’re a failure! How about that?

I remember a colleague taking a five-minute break, away from the jittery job of reviewing Battlefield 2. “It’s fun when you win,” he said, exhausted. “And boring when you lose. Haven’t we moved past that yet?”

No, we haven’t. For a medium that’s evolved from play, video games have an overwhelmingly binary view of success and failure, one so crippling that if we settle into a single player game and make no progress, or lose every multiplayer match in one night, our lives will have been worsened. And we never ask why games are like this. After all, how else could it be?

For a medium that’s evolved from play, video games have an overwhelmingly binary view of success and failure.

Board games have the answer. They speak it so noisily that it’s unbelievable it hasn’t penetrated the Video Games Bunker, but there’s a whole world of analogue games that are dedicated to ensuring people simply have fun, all the time.

Let me give you just three examples, and let’s start with Twilight Imperium.

Everyone reading this will know how space strategy games work. They’re interstellar knife fights where everyone is working unfathomably hard to take everything away from everyone else; to inflict the worst possible time on everyone else.

Now, let’s look at Twilight Imperium. A space strategy board game with the same pattern of claiming star systems, researching technology and engaging in wars, but where units simply aren’t disposable. Wars in Twilight Imperium are dread things. Which means players simply... talk to one another. The furious struggle of video games is replaced with more sedate manoeuvring and politics. Better yet, politics where players inevitably end up roleplaying their race, because the prospect of an apocalyptic computer virus negotiating with space turtles is too entertaining not to do.

The end result is a strategy game that isn’t about chasing victory, and where losing isn’t painful.

The end result is a strategy game that isn’t about chasing victory, and where losing isn’t painful. Video games often deign to give you a happy victory. Like many board games, Twilight Imperium wants to give you moments, and stories, and that doesn’t just give your matches a better chance of being fun. It makes all of gaming more accessible.

Next, let’s look at Agricola. A game of being a 17th century German farmer. I know! Calm down.

But Agricola holds a dark secret. It belongs to the clandestine sect of “Eurogames,” which are a field of board games that let players compete, without anything as unimaginative as letting you actually fight.

So, Agricola is a game where the best farm wins. You’ll want vegetables, and animals, and a family, which means you’ll be scratching together fields, fences and home improvement, and for that you’ll be scrounging peat, wood, clay and still more depressing basics. It’s like a hungover mathematics professor designed Harvest Moon.

Where it gets interesting is that you get all these things from a central board. You can dispatch any family member you like to a space that gets you a certain thing, but where you go? Nobody else can go. And that’s your game. Everyone always gets something in Agricola. Everybody’s always winning, always building, which is satisfying. At the same time, everyone is always losing, feeding your family is always a terrifying prospect, and you all bond over this shared struggle. At the end, someone will have built the best farm, but here’s the thing about eurogames, their victory in the world of play: nobody will care.

Which brings us to party games. If Twilight Imperium shows how the pressure of competition can be eased, and Agricola shows how it can be avoided entirely, Party Games show how ferocious competition can be kept, but players can be rendered immune to that damage. Let’s look at Bang!.

Bang! is a team-based, Wild West shootout. On your turn you can shoot a player sitting next to you, upgrade your weapon, drink whiskey for health, or deploy any one of dozens of surprises hidden in the game’s deck of cards.

Roles are dealt in secret. One player reveals himself as the sheriff. Hidden around the table are the outlaws who want to kill him, the deputies who want to keep him alive, and the renegade who’s doomed. The renegade has to be the last man standing with the sheriff, and then has to kill him, and so muddies the waters to the point that people inevitably end up killing their own teammates.

Bang! is ferociously competitive, AND it features player elimination, and yet it’s incredibly easy going because it’s funny, and it heavily employs random chance, that dirty second skin that competitive video games tore off long ago. Reasons randomness isn’t actually a bad thing? Not only does it encourage unusual play states and reward the ability to adapt (rather than plan), but it also removes the pressure to win, the sting of losing.

Not only does it encourage unusual play states and reward the ability to adapt (rather than plan), but it also removes the pressure to win, the sting of losing.

None of which is to say that strict competition doesn’t have its place. But I can’t help but feel games are more exciting every single time they peek outside of it. I remember being thrilled by every single fight in the Shenmue series, because once in a while the game would continue if you lost a fight. That fight would just become a permanent failure in Ryo Hazuki’s story. And wasn’t the best chapter in the Mass Effect series the suicide mission, where characters you’d come to love could be taken away, forever?

I want you to do something. I want you to buy Damian Sommer and Emily Carroll’s The Yawhg. Out just last week, it's an excellent storytelling video game about preparing for a terrible tragedy, for anywhere from one to four players. See how its stories become that much more tender for being tinted with failure? See how boring winning is?

I have a feeling video games are only working with half a palette. Losing will set us free.

Quintin Smith is a games columnist able to identify different board game manufacturers by their scent. He is not proud of this. He's part of a team working to make a home for play in Shut Up & Sit Down, and @quinns108 on Twitter.


    Great article! Really like the look of Bang! Seems like it'd be a good party game. The Game of Thrones Board Game is pretty fantastic, but so damn complex!

    If I find a video game not fun I try a different one.
    Not bagging board games, but I don't see why I should abandon video games when I know there are alternative video games out there.
    There's so many different genres available these days.

      The article is about things that video games can (and should) be learning from some example board games.

      I agree however Quint my boy, why is it always seen as an indie dev's job to innovate and build fun in a game? where the hell are the AAAs?

    Tribalism, Complacent Gaming Syndrome, Tryhards, Negative attitude in online gaming, what the majority of people percieve MLG to be about, what MLG has proving to be true at times, and many more that contribute to this Baseless Pride of always having to win, always having to win big and doing everything you can to make sure the other player doesn't want to play the game anymore.

    Or as Burnie from Roosterteeth puts it, "The only enjoyment a competitive gamer gets is from someone on their own level that they had just beaten".

    Seriously, try posting a thread during the days of Halo 2 or 3 with excessive proof over how the BR makes the game stale and repetitive and you'll get lynched. Then teabagged. Then someone will dox your information, call your mobile to insult you.
    ...that last one is true, that actually happened to me.

    These players begged for the 50 rank system to return, at the same time completely ignoring all negative behaviours that came from it. Even if someone at rank 48 beat someone at rank 50, that 49 will still insult and put him down because of a higher rank he was (then stop playing once he gets 50 despite claiming it's the reason people play the game).

    It also sucks that because of Tribalism that everybody else starts following this trend, thinking it's part of the norm. Even defending it with, "That's just how you play this game". Or ignore it, proving its true that, "negative behaviour is accepted when you walk past it".

    Although not all people are bad. Once in Reach most of the other team quit except for one, and I managed to convince everyone to just put the controller down and let the clock run out rather then gang up, spawnkill and teabag the poor guy.

    At the end, someone will have built the best farm, but here’s the thing about eurogames, their victory in the world of play: nobody will care.
    Unless it is a 1 point victory. You can damn well care then ;)
    Thinking about how it relates to vidya games I guess that could be one of the reasons I like Planetside 2 when it comes to online shooters. Sure you can lose a base but you always have a chance to retake it. You are on the offensive as often as you are the defensive and nobody ever wins, there is just perpetual war. Sure being warp gated can suck but that doesn't last long and then you are on the offensive again.

    I think this is why board games and other tabletop gaming has surged recently. Online multiplayer just isn't fun anymore, unless you're the best at it. I'm not, I admit that.

    I am hoping Respawn's Titanfall will change that, but I am increasingly looking for co-op experiences like Gears of War's Horde Mode, Mass Effect 3's operations, what I hope will be a positive experience in Destiny.

    Even in board games, I want to play games where we collaborate on an interesting outcome rather than competing. Hell, when I'm playing tabletop with friends I don't even care if I win or not. That's a magic I haven't felt in online gaming since the early days of Halo 3.

    I lost interest in collectible card games like Magic: the Gathering in high school because it became so focused on winning that no one wanted to play with the one kid who had the money to go to the card shop and buy the exact cards needed to assemble a winning tournament deck he saw in Scrye magazine. Online gaming feels like it's gone down that same road.

      I feel the same way, i have so much more fun when im with a group of mates and we are just playing the game for the sake of playing and no one even remembers who won or lost you just remember the stupidly funny things everyone did.

      Even had the same thing happen with Magic, it became way to easy to pay to win and took all the fun out of it

      It's because competitive video games are closer to sport than they are to, well, competitive games, these days. It's all about e-sports now; who's the best at LoL, who's the best at Counterstrike, etc. etc.

      I don't feel like there is anything wrong with that, as a guy who has grown up playing sport all his life, I can see the appeal, but I would like to see what Smith is talking about, as I'm not the best competitive player either.

        I got kicked out of a CS game the other day because I was unfamiliar with the map. I was like faaar out you dudes take this way too seriously!

          It's like raiding in WoW. Can't get into a group without knowing the raid, can't know the raid without getting into a group.

    ...or you can evolve as a player and learn that the words "you win" or "you lose" (or their equivalent) appearing on-screen aren't the be-all to end-all of video gaming.

    I lose constantly while playing Street Fighter; my population has suffered horribly time and again in Dwarf Fortress; and with maybe a dozen games under my belt I'm in Silver League in Starcraft 2. I "lose" all the time, but I don't care because I don't play a game in order to "win". I play because the game itself is fun. If I've enjoyed the hours I've spent playing a game, that's recreation-time well spent and therefore a "win" in my life.

    The same is true of board games, tabletop games and sports. I suck at bowling and lawn bowls; I'm not that great at chess; and my success at WH40K has a lot more to do with luck than strategy. But I have a great time playing these games.

    Basically, while I agree that a singular focus on "winning" can ruin videogames, I would say it can equally ruin any other game. But focussing on winning or losing is something that players do, not games.

    Last edited 26/06/13 3:55 pm

      I understand what you are saying and that mindset can make a huge difference to enjoyment. I can do the same thing for some but in many cases the enjoyment can be ruined by either the games or the other players focus on victory.
      Have people yell, bitch and complain because you aren't as good as them (or as good as they think they are) can suck the fun out of things.

      Then again your final sentence rings very, very true. I have had board games that I really haven't enjoyed because the people around the table have taken them far to seriously. It is less common when people are there in person rather than being a keyboard warrior but it does happen.

      I see that, it's not the victory, it's the thrill of the challenge. The victory is just icing on the cake.

      This is why I LOVE permadeath. That feeling when you actually have something significant to lose just makes everything harder and more exciting; when you're challenged, I feel like you're apart of whats happening. When you're constantly getting victory fed to you, it just gets stale, and I don't really feel like the devs are taking you seriously.

        You just gave me an epiphany.

        I have been hating on every call of duty since #2 when the 360 first came out, I've been hating all the changes to gears of war, I've never liked halo and have been of the opinion multiplayer is dying.
        While I know why i dont like the changes, but i never could think of the underlying issue and you've just shown it.

        "That feeling when you actually have something significant to lose just makes everything harder and more exciting; when you're challenged".

        In call of duty 2, it was pure skill, snipers were (even the karok with no scope my go to weapon) 9/10 an instant kill. There was no constant noises of shit blowing up or guns that were far too loud. You could hear someone who decided to "sprint" instead of crouch by the noise they made.You couldn't run around spraying and praying like every damn shooting in existence now, that would get you killed.

        It was a game of cat and mouse. You had to be quick, you had to be accurate and you had to slip away before anyone came looking once you fired your first shot. Even better was the mode where you had 1 life, search and destroy. You could legitimately hide and protect a point because there were so many spots to wait and ambush, you could actually dodge grenades lobbed at you from across the map. Where it was you against 5 people and you hid bobbed and weaved a mesmerizing dance as you plotted schemed and ambushed your way along whittling the opposition down, with each kill giving tremendous satisfaction. This feeling is gone, i've tried to recreate it and have always failed.

        But i believe this is now the problem in most multiplayer games:
        Even in a shit game where i play like a drunker dog with 3 legs i still get plenty of kills. I can just lob grenades spam noob tubes or dirty un-avoidable mines run around with a machine gun spray and praying. There is no challenge or reward, no satisfaction. There has been a significant effort to "get everyone kills all the time" and it has completely removed any and all challenge for getting them, it has made kills worthless and in doing so has removed all satisfaction of playing in the first place and this is what is killing online multiplayer, at least to me.

          Some people just play to win, and if they don't win, they spit the dummy and stop playing. It's not just multiplayer, it's single player too.

          Dark Souls is considered hard, when there was a time when Dark Souls would have been considered ordinary. You never used to be expected to finish games, only to see how far you can get. Finishing a game meant you were an expert at it, but finishing games now just makes you average. I get that there is a lot more story now, but I'm finding myself finishing games only dying three or four times, and half of those times were accidental or me being stupid.

          Last edited 27/06/13 1:28 am

    Let me start by saying I think the level of competition within console and computer games has reached such an exciting level and I really hope developers keep producing quality games that are focused on competing and pushing people to the highest level they can achieve!

    Now that we've got that out of the way I think you have some good points within the article, however, for people who love competition yes, we do play to win, but we also enjoy our losses as much as our victories. Losses in any game (or anything in life) are what help you grow and learn and help you become better, so for many such as myself taking a terrible beating can still be very enjoyable and not only that but it helps you improve!

    I think at the end of the day it boils down to how you approach your losses and whether or not you accept that your opponent played well, learn as much as you can from it and move on. Alternatively you can get upset, blame the game or the balance or anything else you can think of and end up carrying that frustration into your next game or even real world activities.

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