Does Theorycrafting Take the Magic Out of the Game?

I could never get into competitive RTS play because it seemed to amount to a speed-clicking competition. The “strategies” became so pre-baked and scripted that it never felt like I was really a commander of a force, but rather that I was an accountant who had researched and crunched the numbers. So much of the fun of games is finding creative solutions to surprising challenges. Predictability is the enemy of this endeavor, and nothing indicates predictability like “optimal strategy.”

The term “optimal strategy” is used in both video games and game theory (the study of decision making, discussed often in economics and philosophy), but I think there is an important (if subtle) distinction between their usages in these areas. In game theory, an optimal strategy is the one which yields the best outcome given the values selected. In a video game, an optimal strategy is the mathematically calculated best combination of skills and gear to produce the highest ratings of armor, DPS, or some other selected trait.  The important difference is that the game prescribes and directs the nature of the optimal strategy in a way that a game theory scenario does not.

For game theory, an optimal strategy depends on what you value as an outcome. For a scenario involving distribution of ice cream among 3 children, one person might value equality of distribution while another might value giving the children the illusion of equality (to keep them happy), while a 3rd might value teaching a lesson about the unfairness of life (and so distribute it unequally). That’s a terrible example because it’s not really about game theory, but it’s quicker than a proper game theory scenario would be, and you get the idea: in this type of “game,” you can value almost anything.

Most video games don’t have this kind of value flexibility, in that they only reward specific outcomes or achievements (“winning”). Therefore, the optimal strategy is always directed toward winning (in the sense defined by the game, not the player). An optimal strategy (in a game theory sense), could involve collecting pretty flowers in a video game because that makes me happy. However, the optimal strategy in the video game sense is not interested in my happiness, only in achieving the goal designed by the developer (who has proudly assumed this goal will bring me happiness).

Theorycrafting—the practice of finding the optimal strategy for a video game—is a great way to mathematically calculate a path to doing what the developer tells you to do: win. However, for those of us who play games to play them (not win them), theorycrafting can feel misguided, even undermining the point. Winning feels good, but so does playing. And somehow, a victory never feels as good if it came from someone else’s script rather than my own intuition or as a result of my own experience. Perhaps your feelings toward theorycrafting are a direct result of why you play games: to WIN, or to PLAY.

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3 responses to “Does Theorycrafting Take the Magic Out of the Game?

  1. Many people think gamers treat the video games as a mean to escape to the world of much broader possibilities than those of the real life, in which we are constantly being binded by the whole set of social restrictions. Yet it’s the virtual worlds constructed solely by the developers which come out as the really restrictive ones due to their solid set of rules and very limited players’ possibilities to interact with them. The theorycrafting in my opinion indicates that what really proves appealing to most of the players is the actual predictability of the effects of any of their activities itself. The constant rules of the game therefore provide a safe shelter against the uncertainty of the real world. That’s what the gamers volountarily agree to give up own freedom and subdue to the predominant vision of the designers for.

  2. Well, sure there are restrictions, but “Kill people and take their stuff” isn’t one of them like in real life. But you’re right in that when you play a game, or read a book, or watch a movie, you’re being told a story that someone else created; a video game just lets you take a more active part in that story, even though there’s usually not a lot you can do to change the plot most of the time. That’s what’s appeals to me about those forms of entertainment, after a long day of thinking they let someone else do the thinking for you.

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