when winning doesn't matter

Game Design / Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

When trying to define what a game is, one of the more common answers is that games require “winning” and “losing” states.  This is one of the distinctions between games and puzzles, and interactive media.  However, in some games, designing and balancing for winning and losing can be the wrong move.  In fact, there are games where winning is a side effect rather than the ultimate goal.

To understand this concept, I found myself turning to game shows.  A good example is the television series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, which features a collection of improvisational games played by actors in front of a live audience.  In its initial run, host Drew Carey summed up the show perfectly in his trademark opening statement:

Welcome to ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’, the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.” – Drew Carey

While one might argue that there are no winners or losers in the games from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, then why even include the points in the first place?  This brings me to my first conclusion about games where winning doesn’t matter:

1. Friendly competition is fun to watch.

"Whose Line Is It Anyway" features improvisational games being played in front of a live audience.
“Whose Line Is It Anyway?” features improvisational games being played in front of a live audience.

Removing the points from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” would just make it a series of random events rather than mini games, and I think this would be less interesting to watch.  As a stage and television show, “Whose Line” is designed to be fun to watch, and success is thus determined by the level of enjoyment of its audience (measured in laughter, or television ratings, etc.).  Although it needs the point structure to drive interactions, the game does not derive its meaning from the points.  The show is about placing actors in weird situations, and we enjoy the comedy of watching actors in trouble.  At the end of the show, Drew even arbitrarily selects a “winner”, who gets to read the credits.  This is not really a reward, as everyone joins in, but it adds interest to the show by making it more game-like.

Another game show I enjoy is the British comedy panel game quiz show “QI” (which stands for Quite Interesting).  “QI” exemplifies a game-like model of having right and wrong answers, awarding points, and designating two teams, and yet at the end of the show, it doesn’t matter who wins.  Thinking back over episodes I’ve watched, I remember the discussions, comedy and knowledge shared but not which team won a particular episode, which brings me to my next claim:

2. Interaction is more intoxicating than winning.

The panel quiz show “QI”, hosted by Stephen Fry, tests players’ knowledge on obscure topics and interesting facts.

In “QI”, viewers and players enjoy various forms of interaction: banter, comedy, chitchat, and the powerful exchange of thoughts and ideas through the sharing of knowledge.  Because it is a quiz game, learning obscure facts takes centre stage, and the comedian and actor personalities playing make it, again, all the more enjoyable to watch.  This show highlights the value of other qualities, like knowledge and curiosity, over a win or lose situation, and is designed to play to these strengths rather than focus on the collection of points – there aren’t even visible tallies of the points.

But how about games that aren’t game shows, meant to be played by their target audience rather than watched by them?  Recently, I have been developing a social party card game where the goal is to score points by guessing other players’ preferences.  It turned out that the game wanted to be about the social interaction rather than collecting points, and my players, while wanting to win a point each turn as spurred on by the goal, never put much stock in who won the whole game, and wanted to keep playing even if they could not catch up to the winner.  Moreover, it struck me how different each playthrough was depending on who was playing – friends, acquaintances, strangers, etc.  My experience creating this game taught me an important lesson:

3. Social games are defined by the players.

As game designers, it often seems like we should be defining the experience of the whole game, and that’s why we rely on mechanics like points to help control the game flow.  In this case, I realised that in designing a game where it doesn’t matter who wins, I only needed to provide the structure for socialisation, engagement and humour amongst friends.  Defining the experience is left up to the players.

In all three examples, I’ve found experiences that go beyond the game and tug on emotions – awkwardness, cleverness, friendship, trust, self-expression, and the list goes on.  I strive to bring about these feelings in any game I create, but I’ve found that focusing on winning and losing as the desirable end game outcome can get in the way.  In creating our games, we must not lose sight of each game’s true purpose, what it is trying most to do:

Game Purpose
Whose Line Is It Anyway? Be humorous and fun to watch
QI Promote curiosity and knowledge in an engaging manner
Social party games (Charades, Apples to Apples, etc.) Provide structures for enjoyment with, and getting to know your friends

All these games play to their strengths by placing less emphasis on scoring points and winning, and more on their true purpose.  While points exist to frame the game and provide goals, they are not the main focus.  It is notable that these games are all fun to watch, and I think it’s because we enjoy watching people having fun.

Thinking less about mechanics (points, balance, winning, losing) seems counter-intuitive, but it’s necessary because we are not creating the whole experience, only making a framework within which players can shape their own experience and that of their friends.  Approaching game design from the question “What experience do I want my players to have playing my game?” rather than “What game do I want my players to play?” gives clarity about the game’s purpose and helps with building frameworks rather than dictating rules.

And so…

Game design is only the creation of frameworks, not full experiences.

The experience of a game is not in the layers of mechanical and level complexity, nor in the cards or board or console controller.  Any game only really exists in the minds and hearts of the players, because it requires that level of player buy-in, which is expressed through emotional reactions that we should seek in our playtests above and beyond players understanding what the game is about or where to go in a level.  When watching our games being played, we should be looking for humour, joy, frustration and ultimately satisfaction, brought about not by winning but by the social, interactive or emotional experience enabled by the game.

It seems that Drew Carey, without meaning to, already gave us a pretty great definition for what a game should be, “where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”

2 Replies to “when winning doesn't matter”

  1. This was a very interesting read about game design, and I agree with your point about designing the experience rather than the game. Games that are designed around winning and losing inherently punish players that enter the lose state. Though having a lose state might make winning feel really good by contrast, why not just throw out the lose state and make the entire game feel good to play?

    On your point about game shows, I think that this is more relevant than ever, now that Twitch is starting to become a popular platform for games. Twitch games have a lot in common with game shows: there’s a streamer who plays the game, and there are a bunch of viewers who are watching the streamer play the game. So designing good game shows and designing Twitch games will definitely have a lot of similarities.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post! I don’t know if it’s because I love those kind of shows and I also love your social card game a lot lol. When I was playing your card game, what I enjoyed the most was really the experience itself. Although I did want to get more points, it didn’t really bother me who was going to win. Personalization might be one of the reasons why this kind of games are fun, since the experience differs every time, as you concluded in the post, social games are defined by the players. While reading your blog post, I was thinking of myself and the games that I like. I used to play Werewolves and Avalon with my friends a lot. I enjoyed playing this games with friends or even some strangers (friends of friends) sometimes because although winning still kind of matters, the interaction with people makes the experience more interesting and unique. The “note system” in the board game we created last time was for the same purpose – to make every experience unique every time for everyone, depending on who you are playing with, your strategy, etc.. I wouldn’t say that winning totally doesn’t matter, because for some people it does matter and it always supports the goal in the game, but I totally agree that game designers should leave room for players to create their own experiences.

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