I Lose

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Comments: 8   (latest September 17, 2010)

Tagged: memes, game design, minimal games, losing

Writer Peg Kerr, who does not know me, has lost the game. But she dragged me down with her, as her daughter dragged her down:

"See, the point of the Game is to get as many people playing it as possible."

"How do you win it?"

"You don't. There is no way to win the Game. You can only lose the Game. Whenever you think of it, you say aloud, 'I've lost the Game.' And that reminds everyone around you of the Game, and then they've lost the Game, too. And then everyone has a half hour in which they try to forget all about. And that's it -- until the next time you remember it." She smiled at me.

Now I'm writing this post, so I lose the Game again.

I'll never win, but I can console myself by getting more people to lose. Many losing players react that way, it seems. One vengeful soul sets up a wiki; some are running it as a social networking site.

The Game is of course a meme, a tidy and efficient one. It contains nothing but its own imperative to reproduce. But how does that work? Religions, the archetypical examples of memes, have all sorts of baggage surrounding the notion of "Teach me to others." Ethics, stories, rituals, art... You can't just walk up to someone and say "Repeat this sentence to everyone you meet!" and expect that to spread around the world. (I mean, are you as tempted to blog about that sentence as you are about the Game? Be honest. This is for posterity.)

The Game is a minimal meme, but it spreads. (The sites I link to above show tens of thousands of players.) Why? Well, it's a game, and games are fun. But it's a minimal game, too. It contains nothing but losing! What's going on here?

The Game clearly plays off two elements of human psychology: "don't think of a pink hippopotamus", and "ha ha gotcha". But I'll argue for a third, less obvious factor: "I am not powerless."

The Pink Hippo factor is what makes the Game fun. It's hard; it's a challenge, of a slippery sort. You can't not think about a pink hippo now (unless you're the mutant offspring of Kimball Kinnison and Granny Weatherwax), but you might be able to not think about a pink hippo tomorrow. (Good luck with that. Hey, maybe the pink hippo will distract you from losing the Game again.) Perhaps we should classify the Game as a sport instead? Like hopscotch, the point is not to fall...

In the winter, after the snowballs and the snow forts, after the sleds and the toboggans, there was the crusty snow, and there was the (what to call it? Not a game, not a sport, not even a contest) -- there was the thing of seeing if you could walk on the crust without breaking through. There was ice-skating, and a kind of primitive hockey, and we made slides on the sidewalk and damn near broke our necks, and then some grownup came out and spread ashes on it, and we grumbled. But there was also just the thing of standing on a frozen place on land and breaking the ice delicately by teetering, or even better than that, just rocking there and watching the air bubble slide back and forth under the ice.

(from "Where did you go?" "Out" "What did you do?" "Nothing" by Robert Paul Smith)

A thing is a self-generated rationale in your head: you do it in order to do it. A game is a competitive thing. Two people walking on the ice are not playing a game, until one of them says -- or thinks -- "First one to break through is the loser!"

The first person to invent the Game was not playing a game until he told someone else, who then lost.

(I've just failed to account for solitaire, D&D, and Zork. Sorry! The Grand Unified Theory of Gaming is not yet completely unified. I guess I see those games as you competing with yourself, or -- for D&D and Knizia's "Lord of the Rings" -- the group competing with the limitations of setting, story, and resource. There is still an element of challenge and a notion of failure. Walking on thin ice can be a solo sport -- if you care whether you succeed.)

You can't succeed at the Game, but you can do better than the next guy. And teaching someone the Game forces them to lose. Gotcha! It's a joke, because it subverts the notion of learning to be a weakness instead of an advantage. And it's a prank, which is fun for the trickster. (Trust me -- I just did it to you!)

And that brings us to the third factor, which is that it's still fun if you lose. The fun of losing is a slithery but essential notion in games. If you get into a bad situation, is there something enjoyable you can do next?

Note that I don't say "something you can do to get out of it." In some games, you can invent a brilliant strategy to recover your loss. In others, you can learn from your mistakes and invent a brilliant strategy for next time. In some games, you can mess with the winners. Some games let you go out for a sandwich while the survivors fight over the throne. And in some games, you can enjoy the sublime cleverness -- or gonzo absurdity -- of your downfall.

(Different players rate these pleasures differently, which is why Fluxx provokes such wild disbelief at how Those Idiots can love/hate such an idiotic/charming little game.)

In the Game, when you lose, you say "I just lost the Game" -- out loud. Which leads directly to the fun parts. It doesn't leave you wallowing in failure; you've immediately got a positive action to take, namely, making other people lose. That's sharp design.

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