Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fair Play

Every time Jenn Frank publishes a new piece, she proves why she continues to be my favorite games writer. Aside from being the most skilled personal essayist in this space, she also has an uncanny knack for teasing broader themes out of details. She's done it again, dammit, in her latest blog post, "On games of chance and 'cheating.'" Please go read it now, if you haven't already, since this post is in response to Jenn's. Incidentally, so is this image:

Context(?)

[Quick aside: I almost didn't write this post because Jenn is one of those writers I affectionately call "hamstringers"—writers whose stuff is so good, you feel hamstrung even thinking about writing anything yourself. In retrospect, that vaguely porcine nickname is probably not very flattering to anyone. Sorry, Jenn. Here's another Gosling.]


Anyway, I won't bother recapping Jenn's article here because you really should've read it already. But I do want to respond to one idea that clicked with me. I apologize if this is a little rambling, but here goes.

The theme of "fairness" in gaming is endlessly interesting to me. That's probably because, as Jenn implies, how we judge the "justness" of players' various approaches to the rules of games—which are microcosms, after all—can say a lot about our beliefs about much larger issues in life.

Jenn relates the story of Jeopardy! contestant (not Super Bowl-winning running back) Roger Craig, whose intense preparation, including statistical analysis of most likely question topics, helped him become earn the highest total single-day winnings in the show's long history. Jenn wonders if Craig's obsessive study of the game crossed the boundaries of "fair play." She decides it didn't, but does arrive at this thought: "we socially dictate such a fine line between ‘knowing the real rules’ and ‘cheating.'"

That story reminded me of this fascinating piece from Esquire on Terry Kniess, the first contestant on The Price Is Right to win both Showcases with a perfect bid. A former weatherman, Kniess took a job as a security employee for a casino. Studying patrons, he became an expert in reading the ways they would exploit the games to their advantage—not by "cheating," necessarily, but by identifying and capitalizing on opportunities and weaknesses (e.g., counting cards). He became an expert at pattern recognition. Kniess eventually moved to the other side of the blackjack table, teaching himself to count cards—the quintessential example of an exploit that's as close to cheating as you can get without actually cheating.

In 2008, Kniess and his wife turned their attention to The Price Is Right, obsessively studying past shows to memorize the retail prices of common items. When he finally appeared as a contestant, he pulled off an incredible victory:



That winning bid was incredible in the truest sense of the word: it defied credibility. Especially given the preponderance of winning contestants on this particular episode, host Drew Carey and the crew were convinced the fix was in. From the Esquire article, here's Carey's reaction:
"Everybody thought someone had cheated. We'd just fired Roger Dobkowitz, and all the fan groups were upset about it. I thought, Fuck, they just fucking fucked us over. Somebody fucked us over. I remember asking, 'Are we ever going to air this?' And nobody could see how we could. So I thought the show was never going to air. I thought somebody had cheated us, and I thought the whole show was over. I thought they were going to shut us down, and I thought I was going to be out of a job."

And just over there, just on the other side of that curtain, was twice-perfect Terry Kniess, still dancing to the music. "I was like, Fuck this guy," Carey says. "When it came time to announce the winner, I thought, It's not airing anyway. So fuck him."
But the episode did air, and Carey's lackluster reaction to the perfect bid made more headlines than the bid itself. Carey suspected Kniess was colluding with another obsessive The Price Is Right fan, former contestant Ted Slauson, who happened to have been seated with Kniess in the audience. But former host Bob Barker would have crowned Kniess king of the game, the article says, for this "studio magic."  In this view Kniess wasn't a charlatan, but "only...a disciplined man, a weatherman who had spent a lifetime being accurate, and who had also been a little bit lucky, and who had won a game that was made to be broken."

That's my emphasis there. A game that was made to be broken: is that what most games are, really? The Price Is Right, like all game shows (and most videogames), is a power fantasy. We root for the contestants to win because on some level we place ourselves in their shoes. We want them to break the game, if "breaking" means exploiting the rules to their advantage. We like to believe that the game can be beaten, that with determination, effort, and intelligence, we can overcome. It's Man against the System. With guts and smarts, you can make something of yourself, no matter who you are or where you come from. You make your own luck. That's the American Dream.

Terry Kniess and Roger Craig, are men who made their own luck. Through their intense preparation, these players exploited patterns in the game's system to reduce its advantage over them. Yet while we admire their hard work, we also tend to be suspicious of this kind of player. They've ruined the real fantasy, which is that we can win without obsessive preparation or superior talent. We can simply get lucky. If people didn't believe that, they'd never watch game shows. No wonder Drew Carey was pissed.

Jenn discusses players like Kniess and Craig who seek out and master the "secret rules" the rest of us don't consider, those patterns that are invisible to most of us, but once recognized, can be exploited to great advantage. Is it ethical to do so? Back to Jenn's point: there's a fine line between "mastery" and "cheating." It's hard to argue either Kniess or Craig was "cheating": their regimens were self-directed, required persistence and intelligence, and were intensely focused on the games' victory conditions. No outside manipulation of the rules or content of the games was necessary. It's easy to see them as heroes in their narratives.

That's why the case of self-proclaimed Survivor "villain" Jon Dalton, a.k.a. Jonny Fairplay, is so interesting here. I haven't seen much Survivor myself, but from what I gather contestants are encouraged, even expected, to make deceit a major tactic. Although he never won the game, Dalton became notorious for his psychological manipulation of the other contestants. Most egregiously, he lied about his grandmother dying to gain sympathy votes. Is this morally ugly? Probably. But it's certainly much closer to mastery than to cheating. Through study of previous seasons of the show, Dalton perceived an opportunity to exploit a weakness, and he capitalized on it. That weakness just happened to be a quality we value, empathy.

The irony of Dalton's self-appointed nickname was not lost on the audience and pop culture at large. He was a compelling player precisely because he appeared to straddle that fine line between mastery and cheating. To him, certainly, his tactics exemplified "fair play": he stayed within the rules of the game, but manipulated the odds in his favor, as any good player should. From what I know of him, which is blessedly little, Dalton seems to be a pretty repellent person on a personal level, and it's not surprising he's played up his "villain" image to extend his brief moment in the spotlight. Some of the vilification is no doubt attributable to him actually being a douchebag. But what's relevant to Jenn's discussion is how problematic his exploitation of the game was compared to Kniess's or Craig's. Dalton manipulated people, and even though that was well within the rules of the game, he was vilified for it. Kniess and Craig merely mastered the rules of an inanimate system. A system, in both cases, that features prominent sponsorships from faceless corporations hawking retail goods, entities no one feels guilty about cheating.

So back to Jenn's thought: "we socially dictate such a fine line between ‘knowing the real rules’ and ‘cheating.'" It's the social part of it that gums up the works, right? As children we're taught that cheating is wrong, that playing fair is the moral choice. So naturally, we immediately turn our energy to figuring out how to work the system to our advantage within the confines of "fair play." We seek out ways to bend the unspoken understandings that inform games. You'll get thrown out of a casino for counting cards not because it violates a rule of Blackjack, but because it violates a convention of play. It dispels the illusion of luck, of randomness, that makes the game enticing. It also pisses off the house, which is the only entity that is allowed to fleece anyone in this setting, dammit.

The perception of "fairness" is the key here. A child who loses a game will often cry "No fair!", as if the act of losing itself were an injustice. His notion of fairness is tied to his desired outcome. It is a transparently and often hilariously subjective thing.

Yet as we mature, we learn how to temper our, um, tempers. We gain a broader understanding of both the letter and the spirit of the rules games set forth. We realize the necessity of a level playing field in which rules are clearly defined and not subject to change based on our mood or recent sugar intake. We accept that playing games isn't always about winning, but about sharing a fun experience. In order for a game to be fun, we believe, it must strive for balance. And players have an obligation to approach that in good faith. When we perceive that they don't—even if they in fact have—we get upset. A contract has been broken.

Consider "spawn camping" in FPSes. It's dickish to camp out near a spawn point and waste other players as soon as they appear, but for years this behavior was perfectly within the confines of games' rules. Modern FPSes often have code in place to prevent it, and rightly so—it's more fun for everyone that way. But if the game allows you to do something, even something as dickish as spawn camping or lying about your grandma's death to get sympathy votes, is it really cheating? After all, the game is made to be broken.

That's why good QA testers are some of the most valuable employees a videogame studio has. They stretch the limits of the game not only on a technical level, but also in terms of which behaviors it should and should not allow. They break the game and break it again until the opportunities for exploitation, or at least exploitation that's not fun, are minimized. Players still find ways to manipulate the systems, of course. But how much of that is "breaking the game," and how much of it is strategy and skill? I wouldn't accuse StarCraft of being broken just because Boxer could trounce me.

Instead, I think when we call a game "broken" we mean that some facet of its ruleset is unbalanced. The level of challenge is out of whack. Something feels biased one way or the other, so much so that exploiting the imbalance feels closer to cheating than to mastery. In games, as in life, we crave that ideal level playing field. Even if we know it's often a myth.