Playing Fair: A Look at Competition in Gaming

By Mark Newheiser

Queen from Lewis Chessmen

Above: a closeup of a queen from the 12th century Lewis Chessmen set. Below: king, queen, bishop; knight, rook, pawn.

Lewis Chessmen

Unlike the "games" people play in real life to compete for wealth, power, and fame, recreational games are a world where most people expect to find "fairness." Unless they bet large sums of money on the outcome of every game they participate in, most people will probably end up playing video games and tabletop games just to have fun. Since there's no end goal in mind other than the game itself, a person's willingness to play a game depends on whether it's enjoyable for them. Regardless of their background, skill level, or choice of how to play the game, they need to be able to get something out of it.

Fairness and Skill

Your opinion on what fairness means in a game likely depends upon where you are. If you're a beginner, a game is "unfair" if you effectively have no chance at winning against more experienced players. If you're an expert, a game is "unfair" if regardless of how perfectly you play you can't be guaranteed a win; the game could snatch it away from you and the newbie could take it. These two notions are at odds with each other: fairness can either mean that everyone has a chance, or that winning is entirely a result of skill. No one can claim they lost a game of chess because the game was unfair, or that the rules of the card game "war" aren't equally fair to everybody. Yet a skilled chess player will beat a novice every time, and nothing you do in war, aside from cheating, will affect your odds. Both games are "fair" but in very different senses. Apart from the polar extremes of games like chess that are fully determined by skill and games like war that are entirely a result of chance, equivalent to a 10-minute coin flip, most games try to balance the two competing notions of fairness by allowing for both skill and luck. They allow for enough skill that players have a reason to put some effort into strategizing and trying to win, but leave in enough uncertainty that the outcome won't be the same every time between two players. Video games use random power-ups and critical attacks, and cause game events to play out in unpredictable ways to keep experienced players on their toes while giving less skilled players a reason to stick around. The balance between a game being competitive or casual, allowing anyone to win or allowing the best to win, helps define a range of games and the audiences they cater to, a mix of casual and hardcore players.

Even for games that are largely skill-based, a few things can help make the contest interesting for anyone wanting to play. One obvious approach is to manage the opponents players are given, to provide inexperienced players the chance to play with someone at their own level. Online matchmaking systems often try to approximate this by tracking statistics for players. For games that involve competitive team play, the server and players often try to tweak the teams so that winning is feasible for both sides. The basic problem with skill-based games is that experts can easily trounce newbies and discourage them from sticking around. Another method to deal with that problem is to try to change the incentives for the people playing. Chess rankings involve an objective assessment of your skill, and bragging rights don't depend upon how many wins you have but who you played against. Beating up on newbies won't get you anywhere; to be recognized as having any skill, you have to compete with players who are better than you. The incentives change from favoring a choice of weak opponents to favoring a choice of stronger ones who will win you more respect. Online matchmaking systems try to emulate some of these behaviors, though with high player turnover and difficulties in collecting statistics it can still be a challenge to set up fair matches.

Fairness and Balance

A second way the concept of fairness comes into play is the notion of gameplay balance. This is the sense that your circumstances or your chosen means of playing the game are roughly equivalent to everyone else's, in terms of giving you a fair shot at winning. Going back to chess, it's generally accepted that white has a slight edge for having the first move, but only at advanced levels of play does that fact even become relevant. In most board games the first player does have a miniscule edge that evens out over the course of the game, but players aren't typically placed in radically asymmetric or dissimilar positions. There's really no reason to squabble over who gets the top hat or the dog in Monopoly. Not so in video games.

In many first-person shooters, your choice of team determines your weapons. In a real-time strategy game, it is your set of units and abilities that may depend on your faction. Fighting ("beat 'em up") games lend themselves well to having numerous characters with different movesets. Diverse modes of gameplay are all well and good until you sense that your mode, which you picked just for the fun of it, is appallingly weak in comparison to what someone else chose. Regardless of how well you play, you'll always be at a disadvantage. The game is unbalanced. Someone else already worked out what the most effective tactic is, and all the other options are just glitz and glitter to draw in the suckers. Without looking back, you discard your ill-deserved emotional attachment to your initial pick and go where the action is. Before too long, the winning strategy begins to spread virally, and everyone playing the game ends up using the same characters and options all the time, or gets decried as a newbie and soundly beaten. And the vast majority of the game's content goes unused.

This scenario is neither ideal nor rare; even a polished gem of the gaming world like Starcraft, which did a remarkable job of balancing its factions, didn't manage to get it right on the first try. It took years of patches and player feedback to tweak the rules to the point where everyone felt they had a fair chance with any of the widely varying options. And that's where the notion of fairness comes in—not feeling like the option you initially picked and tried to master was just a dead end, and feeling secure that everything in the game is worth trying out and isn't just a trap to sucker newbies.

Fairness and Dominant Strategies

Even for games that place all players in identical starting positions, the notion of balance can still be an issue. If a single tactic or strategy dominates everything else to a ridiculous extent, this situation can seem unfair. It can force everyone to play the game the same way or lose, thus narrowing the range of options for how to enjoy the game competitively, and making gameplay less varied and more predictable. A game in which one strategy clearly dominates is like being dealt a hand of solitaire with all the cards in a row from aces to kings. Sure, it may even be easy to win like that, but ultimately you're not playing to win; you're playing to have fun, and that's not possible without a little challenge and variety.

The challenge of balancing gameplay and ensuring that there's more than just one effective strategy is made even more complicated by the fact that most games offer variant rules and scenarios. Certain elements of a game's configuration can significantly change the nature of the game itself. Simply switching to a different map may force players to rethink a lot of their strategies or else watch as their favorite tactics become useless, or suddenly more effective. Changing gameplay settings may affect everyone equally, but doing so can have disparate impacts on strategies' effectiveness. In casual settings there can be a tension in wanting to avoid a particular setup that favors someone else's play style, and some large-scale multiplayer games have even been accused of constantly patching or changing their configurations just to keep players from getting too complacent in any one strategy.

XFPS 360

Differences in hardware can tip the scales of game balance. Above: a keyboard and mouse, instead of a gamepad, are hooked up to an Xbox 360 via a third-party adapter, the XFPS 360.

On top of discussing internal balance issues that a game may have, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the ways that factors external to the game itself can influence play. Users often adapt their own computer configurations to give them an edge in reflex-intensive games. A faster computer can mean less lag and a better chance to kill and not be killed. Some players go so far as to turn down graphics settings to improve framerates and reduce the effects of other players' camouflage. As with a lot of dominant strategies, most players would probably prefer not to play that way, but in a competitive environment they may feel they have no choice. Some third party enhancements even blur the border of cheating. Third party controllers may help a player fire faster in a first person shooter, automated scripts may ease the challenge of micromanagement in a real-time strategy game, and there are even players who set up mice and keyboards on console first person shooters to take advantage of greater precision than gamepads can offer. Going back to our original definition of fairness, if always losing to a more skilled player is annoying, losing to a player because of something external to the game itself would be even worse: the possibility of winning is even more diminished and further out of your control. But successful strategies in any form are hard to resist.

There's no avoiding some of these issues. All games, except purely random ones, will obviously have some tactics that are more effective than others, and any particular strategy being effective means there's some strategy that's ruled out. A game is enjoyable if there's strategic depth and variety that encourages experimentation, and every new dominant strategy discovered is met with an effective counterstrategy. A game is broken or unbalanced if it becomes clear that spamming a particular move, taking over a particular location, or employing a particular tactic makes everything else in the game irrelevant. If players feel like strategy is an open book rather than a dead end, they're more likely to think of the experience the designers are handing them as a fair one.

One final point on fairness as it relates to the factors under the player's control: some legitimate tactics players employ may be considered unfair simply because they can lead to less interesting consequences of gameplay. Spawn killing and preying on weaker players can seem like poor sportsmanship and depriving players of a fair chance to compete, and camping or avoiding confrontation with the enemy can turn a game into a stalemate in which nothing happens because no one wants to give up a good position. Spawning is a particularly tricky issue. For most games in which players "respawn" or reincarnate in a map, they tend to be in a weaker position than the players who didn't die; they have less awareness of the map and of the other players' positions, and often less access to resources. Spawn killing can take that imbalance to a further extreme. Once a player dies it may be some time before they can effectively get back into the groove of the gameplay. A game may swing wildly to the advantage of one team or another depending upon who died recently. And any game that makes camping, or not engaging the enemy, into the most effective strategy can produce slow matches of out-waiting the other player; if you break the stalemate, the consequences are to your disadvantage.

It's partially for this reason that most games give the advantage to the aggressor and try to make offense more beneficial than pure defense. In Risk, when large armies face off, the attacking dice have a clear advantage. If that situation were reversed and the defending dice held a larger edge, the optimal tactic would be to build up huge armies on your borders and goad the other player into striking you first. But since it's not, the game becomes about trying to effectively strike at the other player first. Most games try to encourage aggressive gameplay in a variety of ways, giving an edge to surprise attacks and first movers. The alternative is to reward players for not interacting—not pushing the game forward.

Fairness and Matthew Effects

So far I've talked about how fairness relates to the factors players have under their control, such as their own strategies and choice of gameplay configurations. The next broad category I'd like to discuss consists of factors influenced by the player's state in the game, apart from the input the player brings at any given moment. The idea of what qualifies as "fair" in this area actually relates to how the term is discussed in economics. Economists talk about "Matthew effects": "To him who hath been given much, more shalt be given." In layman's terms, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In video game terms, once you're ahead, you're likely to stay ahead. One genre that's particularly prone to "rich get richer" effects is real-time strategy games. Because you're investing in an economy over the course of a game, expanding your grasp on resources and technology, if you secure an early advantage it can become magnified over the course of a game. If you lose your first few encounters, the rest of the game is likely to be a grueling exercise in which you're slowly bled dry and beaten down by superior numbers. You can spend the bulk of the game living with regret for your initial poorly planned steps. It's like a race (or a racing game) in which you pull out ahead and there's no one there to touch you. After a certain point, it becomes increasingly hard for anyone else to catch up. First-person shooters are much less prone to this, being generally stateless, though there's still a slight advantage gained from being better oriented and having spawned less recently, and having some control over advantageous territory. Call of Duty 4 takes Matthew effects one step further and adds in "kill bonuses" for players who get large kill streaks, such as being able to call in an air strike on the enemy. Taking advantage of bonuses given to the most successful players can allow a winning team to pull even farther ahead, and cause the advantage to swing radically to one side or another depending upon which team is having a good run.

Mario Kart Wii

A trailing player launches a "Bullet Bill" in Mario Kart Wii. Click to enlarge.

From the opposite school of thought that prefers games in which everyone always has a chance to win, you have what I like to call "poor get richer" or "Mario Kart" effects. In the Mario Kart games, a race can function like a rubber band: the farther ahead you are, the easier it is for other players to smack you with an item from behind and catch up to you; and the farther behind you are, the more amazing power-ups the game throws at you to get you back in the running. To put it simply, the game handicaps successful players and gives players who have fallen behind an extra boost rather than writing them off. It almost doesn't matter who was winning at any point, just who manages to be ahead in the end. The end result can be wacky and frustrating to the racing perfectionist, but fun for casual players who are pretty sure that they can't mess themselves up to the point where they have no chance.

Fairness and Time Investment

Perhaps the biggest difference between a casual player and a hardcore player is that a casual player wants to be able to pick up a game and have fun with it without putting hundreds of hours into it, and a hardcore player wants the hundreds of hours invested into the game to mean something. The more depth of strategy you add on one hand, or the more arbitrariness and unpredictability on the other, the more you risk alienating one of the two groups. To bring in a larger audience, ideally a game should have a gradually sloping learning curve, enabling a player to easily pick up the game and feel reasonably competent without too much effort, but also lending itself to further expertise and mastery for the long-term committed player.

Some modern video games take things one step further and make your ability to succeed not just a function of the skills you bring with you, but a direct function of the amount of time you've invested into the game. In World of Warcraft, you're not just jumping into a stateless game to pick up at the same point as everyone else. You're taking control of a character with abilities and statistics you manage, and the more time you invest in playing that character and gaining loot and levels, the more powerful you will be, so long as you're willing to pay by the month to climb the never-ending Stairmaster of success. Even in Call of Duty 4, a first-person-shooter, a genre generally regarded for its egalitarian standards of play, you have a "character" who levels up between rounds, giving you access to more stat-enhancing perks, guns, and scopes. The game Battlefield: Bad Company took the much decried step of charging players extra money for easy access to a better selection of weapons in online multiplayer mode. Whether you're paying for a subscription or downloadable content, or simply investing large quantities of time, the premise becomes that you can buy your way into being a more skilled player. As reported in a recent article in Wired, the sale of in-game perks between players in games like World of Warcraft is estimated to be an $880 million dollar industry. People will pay to be the best, it seems.

Call of Duty 4

A screenshot from Call of Duty 4, showing class upgrades in the lower right. Click to enlarge.

I don't want to give the impression that I think this is all heartless milking of the gaming public, or anathema to what I consider to be fair play. Games that directly reward you for time and investment have been around since customizable card games. You pay for packs of cards, and trade or purchase your way into building your tailored deck. There are two levels of play: the actual game itself, and the deck you design and bring with you based upon all your investments. The deck-building aspect opens up the opportunity to specialize your style of play and allows for greater strategic complexity than would be possible in a single session. In World of Warcraft you have a number of avenues for customizing your characters and equipment, and in Call of Duty 4, you can create your own classes by selecting weapons and perks to better suit your style of gameplay. It's very different than classic gaming in that it creates a sharp gulf between players depending upon how much effort they've invested in the game already. If you want to play it competitively, you have to be in for the long haul, and once you're that fully invested it might be hard to drop out.

Fairness and Communities

The last point I'd like to make in talking about fairness in gaming is the role communities play in all this. On top of the player's role in forming strategies and the role of the game's system in potentially handicapping players, the social environment for a game determines a lot of things about how it's played. If you play a game with your real-life friends and act as competitively as you can, choosing to spawn camp, or engage in what other people see as cheap tactics, people will probably tell you to stop being such a jerk or just stop playing with you. In real life you're balancing the interests of the people playing to keep them all satisfied, and you can adopt house rules or make a conscious effort to make it interesting for everyone. When playing online, purely cutthroat competitive strategies tend to dominate; since you may never play against the same person twice anyway, you run no risk of alienating anyone. Playing online can even open up gaming to all sorts of odd antisocial behaviors that would probably earn you a beating in real life: players can engage in "griefing"—attacking or distracting their own teammates, or just exploiting the mechanics of the game solely to annoy other people. And everything written so far assumes that the players are all playing under the same rules. If cheating or hacking enters into the picture, then all notions of fair play go out the window; the rules of the game have changed but only for players underhanded enough to exploit that fact.

For gamers who truly take their games seriously, tournaments have sprung up, often with a set of "house rules" to diminish or discourage all the random elements of a game and reduce it to a repeatable exercise in pure skill. Debates often rage as to whether a particular character, class, or feature of gameplay is "broken" and would require an additional rule restricting it, so as to make the rest of the game more interesting. For games that have never seen a revision since release, such as the Pokémon games or Yu-Gi-Oh cards, tournaments have set up a whole system of rules in an attempt to exclude unbalanced elements or unfair tactics, sometimes outlawing characters or game mechanics outright if the judges are convinced there's no way to have a workable game otherwise. Here too, the casual gamers and the hardcore ones are at war, with one side preferring games to be more unpredictable and varied, and the other side favoring more precise mechanics that eschew unbalanced or broken features. You can probably guess which side is easier to sell games to.

Once Upon a Time

I'd like to leave you with a reference to Once Upon a Time, a card game that contained very broken and unbalanced gameplay, a fact that its designer dutifully acknowledged in the instructions. The goal of the game is to use up cards containing fairy tale clichés by introducing them into a story you tell with the help of other players. The designer freely admitted that if your goal is to win the game at all costs, you can do so by spouting out nonsense and using up your words in the most mad libs style you can, realizing that to do so goes against the whole spirit of the game. Trying to win can be a fun exercise, but ultimately games shouldn't be played to beat them. They should be played to have fun, in this case by entering into the spirit of cooperative storytelling in a wholly unenforceable way. Charitable players have been enforcing their own standards of fair play, long before computers were involved to manage the rules of a game and try to keep us from being mean to strangers over the Internet. Making games fun for everyone and exploring their lasting value is a challenge not just for game designers, but for the players as well.


Mark Newheiser (caveatlusor@gmail.com) is a graduate of UCSD with a Master's degree in Computer Science. When he's not designing or dissecting complex systems, he enjoys giving the other half of his brain a workout and enjoying the worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming. His homepage is http://newheiser.googlepages.com and his blog is http://newheiser.blogspot.com.