Let’s Fight – In Defense of Competitive Play, Part 1

Let’s Fight – In Defense of Competitive Play, Part 1

Collaboration is in vogue. In Nordic circles and in blockbuster games, non-competitive play is ascendant. Portrayed in contrast to competitive, adversarial games, collaborative games are cast as healthier for participants, arguing for the removal of competition from many games in the name of progress.

You cannot really blame larps for popularizing this idea. Competition has had a bad reputation in Western society as being malignant and encouraging horrible behavior for years. But that reputation ignores the proven benefits of healthy competition and rivalry; while working to stamp out all negative behaviors associated with adversarial gameplay, we misunderstand competition and, in effect, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We also overstate how beneficial collaborative play is and ignore how it can be just as toxic, in its own right, as the worst competitive play.

Yes, I am an Amerijerk

My resistance isn’t knee-jerk, goddammit.

My resistance isn’t knee-jerk, goddammit.

To a European reader, I must look like one of those gun-toting hyper-aggressive individualist American jerks, set in his ways with a characteristic knee-jerk resistance to change.

My resistance isn’t knee-jerk, goddammit.

Maybe I am biased. And maybe that’s a good thing, because I am willing to defend competition without dismissing it out of hand. I look seriously at how people benefit from it, and am willing to question whether getting rid of competitive play is a good idea. I was raised in Texas, a place that values individualism, mavericks, and heretics.

If there’s an opposite of the Law of Jante, it’s Texas.

As most can tell you, Texans like nothing more than a good fight, whether the brawl is intellectual or physical. Crucially, we excel at staying friends after the fight is over.

So, let’s fight – and by that I mean, let’s play games where we compete and struggle against each other. I’m here to tell you why a little quarrelin’ is a good thing.

Let’s do this.

Writing the Good Fight

I said Texans like a “good fight”, but what makes a fight “good”?

There’s good food and bad food. There’s good friends and bad friends. And there’s good and bad competition. More precisely, there’s adaptive and maladaptive competition.

Adaptive competition

Adaptive competition is the kind of competitiveness that is overwhelmingly good for people. It builds confidence, helps conquer fear, drives excellence and makes us more sympathetic. It accepts that improvement takes time, views opponents as a challenge and promotes cooperation. It has the power to make us better, more empathetic people.

What might, at first, seem paradoxical is that competition promotes cooperation and respect. This is because adaptive competition requires that both parties agree to a set of rules, and promise to abide by them reliably. It creates an understanding between all participants that breaking rules is unacceptable, hurts everyone involved and is not viable in the long term. A field combat game is in many ways just as collaborative as your favorite freeform larp.

Adaptive competition crucially provides something that is missing from collaborative play – it gives competitors a sense of their own agency. Agency is grown from making your own choices, not communal ones, accepting fair consequences or benefits from them, without the need to justify your thinking to anyone but yourself. When success or failure depends entirely on your decisions, you learn to own them.

Building agency can be incredibly transformative. It builds resistance to criticism or oppression, creates feelings of empowerment and self-determination, and makes us less vulnerable to judgment or depression. We learn to look inward for answers to difficult questions.

The growth of agency is almost unique to competitive play, and is not to be confused with acceptance or confidence. In a fair competition with room for improvement and reasonable stakes, the benefits of learning that you determine your own fate cannot be understated. Even if those choices were incorrect, they are yours and yours alone, and in making them you must naturally overcome paralyzing indecision.

Maladaptive Competition

Maladaptive competition is the bad side of competitive play we are all familiar with. It encourages cheating, narcissism, and unempathetic behavior. It is associated with insecurity and the inability to accept losing. It is high risk, views opponents as threats to be crushed, and promotes cutthroat, unfettered belligerence. But these adverse side effects are more likely to be the consequences of bad game design, rather than deep flaws in competitive play or the morality of players.

These aren’t idle speculations on my part. More than a century of psychological data[1]Bronson, Po, and Ashley Merryman. 2013. Top dog: the science of winning and losing. New York: Twelve. [2]Garcia S.M., A. Tor, and T.M. Schiff. 2013. “The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science 8, no. 6: 634-50.
studying everyone from cyclists[3]Stone, Mark Robert, Kevin Thomas, Michael Wilkinson, Andrew M. Jones, Alan St. Clair Gibson, and Kevin G. Thompson. “Effects of Deception on Exercise Performance.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 44, no. 3 (2012): 534-41.
to Air Force cadets[4]Air Force Academy Squadrons Test Peer-Effect Assumptions NPR. Accessed January 30, 2017., proves that two distinct sets of competitive situations exist, and we can do specific things to promote the better side of competition. These studies have proven, repeatedly, that adaptive competition is one of the most beneficial and healthy forces we can introduce our players to. It is one of the most compelling and (dare I say) fun things we can put into our games.

Luckily, we have enormous power over the type of competition we create in our games. Specific conditions produce adaptive or maladaptive competitiveness. And we can control them.

Let’s do this.

Let’s do this.

How to Make Everyone Miserable in 4 Easy Steps

No Fighting Chance

Competition is at its best when it is actually a competition. When we are set against someone we have no chance of winning or losing against, things go wrong. Firstly, the winner has expended little effort to succeed, leading to an unearned sense of superiority that can grow into narcissism and a belief about the inferiority of the opponent. Secondly, the loser becomes discouraged and can form feelings of negative self-worth, having put forth excessive effort only to fail, while their opponent has won so easily. In team play, feeling as if you cannot contribute to the team can be just as damaging as defeat itself.

Further, unfair competition can lead to a feeling of systemic injustice which drives good people to unethical behavior, as they believe their situation is already unfair and they are just balancing the scales. Meanwhile, easy success can lead winners to feel entitled to victory, overestimate their abilities, and make them more likely to cheat if they feel threatened by perceived lessers. It can lead to a situation where one small group thinks of themselves as the natural champions, discounting the role or importance of other players.

Rule: Encourage competition between characters of similar ability. Challengers should be of equal power whenever possible. Maintain a culture which encourages people to look for equals when competing and discourages predatory behavior towards weaker or newer players.

A Crowded Field

We are not wired to compete against one hundred people at once[5]Garcia, Steven M. and Avishalom Tor. “The N-Effect More Competitors, Less Competition.” Psychological Science 20, no. 7 (2009): 871-877. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~smgarcia/pubs/n-effect.pdf. The presence of too many competitors makes a competition seem pointless and impersonal. We naturally compare ourselves to small sets of individuals, or single rivals. In a large adversarial game, if a player feels like it is their goal to best every single other player, it encourages insecurity, paranoia, and despair.

When we are given room to choose rivals from a small pool of equals, we stop being discouraged and see our situation as winnable. Rivalries can be healthy, so long as they are balanced and both sides benefit from them.

Rule: Make competition intimate. Make sure competitions are the appropriate scale for participants, giving them room for fair comparison. Have them feel like they are competing with a small group of people, not the entire game.

Winner Takes All

High stakes play encourages maladaptive competition. By creating situations where the only worthwhile outcome is victory, games unwittingly obscure the secondary effects of competition. In the face of a hard and absolute loss, without recognition of effort or skill which might be gained during the struggle for excellence, winning becomes all that matters.

A better model is “winner takes most,” where different levels of success exist; Effort and achievement is recognized on every level. This isn’t an “everyone gets a trophy” model. Rather, it is a recognition of the value and meaning of incremental improvements. And sometimes, being on the board is a meaningful enough achievement on its own. First or last, managing to cross the finish line in a marathon is cause for celebration and pride.

Rule: Avoid crushing victories or absolute defeats. Make partial success count. Make it so all levels of participation are meaningful in some capacity. Avoid giving all the spoils to one side or person.

It Nevers Ends

Healthy competition has a defined start and finish. In games without a clear beginning and end, defeat becomes inevitable and victory is reduced to a useless struggle to temporarily stave off defeat. It drains your proverbial batteries, making feelings of improvement get lost in a fog of anxiety, paranoia, and despair.

The best pattern of competition is marked by distinct periods of preparing, competing, and recuperating. Many games, especially campaign games, do not have this natural pattern. The pressure to play constantly and keep competitive can be overwhelming.

Rule: Have distinct periods of competition and recuperation. The recuperation should far outweigh the competition. Endless online play, between-game actions, and jockeying for position should be limited if not eliminated. It is not the stress of competition but chronic, endless stress that creates maladaptive play.

Why Bother? Just Collaborate!

“All right, Lone Ranger,” you might say, “I get it, competition can be good. But it can be bad in so many ways. Why not stick with collaborative play and steer clear of any problems?”

Unfortunately collaboration, and the absence of all competition, has its own set of problems. The Nordic and freeform larp community already admits this, even if it does not realize it.

We’ve established that competitiveness can be adaptive and maladaptive. Wouldn’t it follow that collaboration has its own adaptive and maladaptive forms? Let’s think about what maladaptive collaboration would look like.

In a situation where all disputes must be collaboratively resolved, those who are most capable of manipulation and building false consensus are liable to push their own egos and agendas onto the community. Alternately, tyranny of the majority may develop where having a unique or discordant opinion is penalized as selfish and destructive, marking you as flawed or leading to ostracization.

This is maladaptive collaboration, and it is extremely resistant to change. It is easy for any effort to correct problems to be seen as the selfish desires of individuals at the expense of the group. Further, in games that emphasize the need for consent to proceed, there’s incentive to pressure those who disagree into quick agreement. Failing to agree can make you look responsible for “ruining everyone else’s experience.” Even through an earnest desire to work together, a good community can become the victim of its own selflessness, descending into groupthink and self-policing, while needing no villains to do so.

Maladaptive competition, the great evil of larping, is rightly accused of teaching narcissism, encouraging cheating, promoting winning at all costs, and breeding feelings of entitlement via unfair victories and perceived competitive ability. But maladaptive collaboration should be recognized as teaching social manipulation, encouraging bullying, promoting submission to the group at all costs, and breeding feelings of entitlement via popularity and social intelligence.

We Have Confronted the Problems with Collaboration

We talked about how healthy competition requires rest and recuperation. Collaborative play is widely regarded as benefiting from guided recuperation — or, as some like to call it, debriefing.

We talked about how adaptive competition is defined by an ability to accept and grow from failure or show humility in success. Many techniques in collaborative play exist to ensure people must accept another person’s limits and not ignore the contributions of others.

We talked about how adaptive competition focuses on putting you into situations you can handle and improve from.Collaborative play features X-cards[6]Stavropoulous, John. “X-Card by John Stavropoulos.” Google Docs. Accessed January 30, 2017. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1SB0jsx34bWHZWbnNIVVuMjhDkrdFGo1_hSC2BWPlI3A/mobilebasic, bow-out techniques, and other methods to make sure the player can handle the content of their game.

These policies and rules are the result of the Nordic and greater collaborative game community recognizing the dangers of what I call maladaptive collaboration, trying to safeguard against them through good policies and rules.

Now We Need to Confront the Problems with Competition

The thing to take away from these comparisons is that on the whole, collaborative games have done a very good job developing the techniques that keep the collaboration healthy. We need to have that same conversation about keeping competition healthy without replacing it entirely.

We can improve competitive play and appreciate competition as competition, without treating it as flawed collaboration. We need to have fights, and make sure they are good fights.

In Part 2, Why We Fight, I will discuss all that competition does for a player and how it can provide a uniquely beneficial and transformative experience.

Cover photo: Larpers from around the world partake in some competetive boffer fighting at Knudepunkt 2015 (photo by Johannes Axner).

References   [ + ]

1. Bronson, Po, and Ashley Merryman. 2013. Top dog: the science of winning and losing. New York: Twelve.
2. Garcia S.M., A. Tor, and T.M. Schiff. 2013. “The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science 8, no. 6: 634-50.
3. Stone, Mark Robert, Kevin Thomas, Michael Wilkinson, Andrew M. Jones, Alan St. Clair Gibson, and Kevin G. Thompson. “Effects of Deception on Exercise Performance.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 44, no. 3 (2012): 534-41.
4. Air Force Academy Squadrons Test Peer-Effect Assumptions NPR. Accessed January 30, 2017.
5. Garcia, Steven M. and Avishalom Tor. “The N-Effect More Competitors, Less Competition.” Psychological Science 20, no. 7 (2009): 871-877. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~smgarcia/pubs/n-effect.pdf
6. Stavropoulous, John. “X-Card by John Stavropoulos.” Google Docs. Accessed January 30, 2017. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1SB0jsx34bWHZWbnNIVVuMjhDkrdFGo1_hSC2BWPlI3A/mobilebasic

Authors

Matthew Webb
Matthew Webb is the creator of Planetfall science fiction larp and owner of its production company, Incognita Limited. As a larpwriter, he has designed a variety of games from blackbox to boffer. A native of Austin, Texas, he has presented on competitive economics and augmented reality in larping. He has strong opinions, some of which might even be correct.
  • Charles Bo Nielsen

    “…promotes cooperation. It has the power to make us better, more empathetic people.”

    Notice how as soon as you mention collaborative elements the strenghts arise from competition?

    What is this adaptive competition anyway? Is it this made up term for making competition sort of collaborative and in the end improve upon it?

    “A field combat game is in many ways just as collaborative as your favorite freeform larp.”

    Yeah, good combat larps use collaborative design to improve, how is this a justification for competition?

    You can make amazing combats in collaborative larp design, use collaborative rules like: “Always spare a pleading man on his knees” or “Incognito” (where the most silly attempt of a disguise is the most effective, making fun scenes, instead of awkward scenes with non acrobatic nerds trying to be “stealthy” to get past the guards).

    Predetermine the victor through chance rather than skill or by player agreement to support a cool Goliath VS David narrative.

    You write as though, combat is exclusively competitive and then vaguely make it sort of good by pointing out the collaborative elements. Typical ignorant AmeriJerking.

    Then you argue that competition gives agency? Agency to whom? The white cis male experienced larper with friends in high places, who gets the stronger character sheet or has the best offgame equipment? Yeah… Nice… How does collaborative play not give agency? When we have to come together everyone to negotiate a scene or just play it out in improv with no rulebook? Speaking of rulebooks and agency? Yeah total agency to those with the most freetime to read 200 pages of nitty gritty rules to feel confident in your competitive fantasy larp – what can be gained giving for a few of the players put out on a website, can be insured to be understood equally by the participants, through open and engaging pre-larp workshops.

    Okay, so you learned not to use hundreds of pages of rules? And replaced it with more simple collaborative guidelines of common understanding and quick break negatiations? Funny how those ideas are collaborative to the core.

    Besides this we can agree that agency is a wonderful thing to encourage for your participants. But we will have to agree to disagree on what creates and develops player agency. I believe extensive rule systems and equipment based competition elements gives agency to the few, not the many – But I guess this is how agency is understood in America with Trump as president. I must just be too far away to really get the picture of Trump – bringer of agency.

    After this you provide extensive… Or as you put it “a century of psygological studies” to point out how maladaptive competition is basically promoting malicious behaviour and with the introduction of: “adaptive competition is one of the most beneficial and healthy forces we can introduce our players to” (Collaborative elements stemming from collaborative design ideals).

    Followed up with a completely unbacked claim that “We can control it”.

    So you back up your claim that collaboration can be toxic with 5 entire academic books, but then just concludes: By the way, we can totally control competitive elements, but the use of “luckily” being able to.

    (Insert picture with a star and a bat)

    Because you are good at knocking people out? Because fighting as part of the Red Army aka collaborative aka communist way is bad? Because??? I don’t get it. I mean it could just have been a link to a cat video for all I care.

    Okay “Let’s do this” – okay now we are taking control?

    “How to make everyone miserable in four easy steps”?!

    Are you gonna dedicate your article to explaining Nordic Larp design philosophy and the entire article was just some provocative clickbait for luring in AmeriJerk to be enlightened? – Now I am intriged!

    “Competition is at its best when it is actually a competition”

    Okay… You managed to make me miserable in just one step… Congratulations, ever considered organizing a black box larp?

    Anyways back to your actual points, apparently it was no cleverly conceived plan to share the fruits from the Ivory Tower of Scandinavia.

    “When we are set against someone we have no chance of winning or losing against, things go wrong.” – agreed, again, agency is highly depending on privilege (yeah this concept, that someone has more than others and might not even be aware of it – just wanted to nordsplain – so you weren’t in doubt). So yeah check your privilege before you go into a competition for it to be more meaningful. Equal kids play best together – and all that rubbish rich parents tell their kids in the suburban, when they actually mean you should just stay away from the colored kids.

    See if you want to engage in meeting each other on more equal footing, just don’t make it a competition. Else the poor: “the winner has expended little effort to succeed, leading to an unearned sense of superiority” – yeah the white cis male had to settle for an “unearned sense of superiority”. I am almost feeling sorry for all this unfulfilled privilege of not getting a proper win.

    As you keep on explaining about how everybody basically loses in competitive larps. How is this better than collaborative larp design again?

    “Rule: Encourage competition between characters of similar ability. “

    Yeah I saw that one coming. Let the men fight the men, and the women fight the women. I mean the world would end if a stronger women would fight an inferior man and completely shatter his ego.

    “Maintain a culture which encourages people to look for equals”

    What about a culture, where we view others as equals? No? Oh that is communism? Oh sorry, my bad. Back to your arguments about how competition is like the be all end all solution to larping and having “fun”!

    “The presence of too many competitors makes a competition seem pointless and impersonal.”

    Clearly you have never been to Conquest of Mythodea, that shit is epic and amazing. And it is even sort of competitive, even though they swing slower due to it looking cooler, hence getting slaughtered by the Nordic Vikings everytime we visit Germany to settle old scores and try out their competitive larp scene.
    It is about 10.000 larpers in one big epic battles with shield walls of hundreds of meters, where you really feel you are part of something bigger – if you can for to seconds forget about your individuality and enjoy being part of something big and amazing. Go there and Be Deutch! (For reference of understanding German Culture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMQkV5cTuoY)

    So basically even your arguments “for” competitive larping is just plain wrong. For reference if you wanna do Capitalism right, also check Germany. But that is another story.

    “Rule: Make competition intimate.”
    Duels are cool and all, but again, check out Krigslive, Krigshjärta and Conquest and Mythodea and more for how to do large scale battles interesting and engaging for all participants, using collaborative elements and being into the idea of the larp being about more than individual characters.

    Winner takes all… Winner takes most… I cannot really see the difference, it still seems like a grasp for a silly excuse for not just making your larp rewarding for everyone but the select few. But it might be a cultural thing, I mean take Trump again, he said he wouldn’t take his salary for being the president of the united states… That kinda makes him a folk hero, a man of the people, a shaker of establishment, because he really follows your ideal of Winner takes most… Even within an confusing election of ?winner? takes all.

    Just a tip. Transparency would really help.

    Moving on.

    ”It Nevers Ends”
    Are we talking about your article? My commentary or just the ignorant support for competitive larping?

    How is this a defence? This is just pointing a flaw that often occurs in the competitive style due to lack of will to surrender or recognize defeat. In collaborative larps you really don’t have this problem?

    “Why not stick with collaborative play and steer clear of any problems?” You are reading my mind!

    Oh wait there is a but?:
    “Unfortunately collaboration, and the absence of all competition, has its own set of problems. The Nordic and freeform larp community already admits this, even if it does not realize it.”

    We admit it? Even though we don’t realize it? How does that even make sense. How can we admit to something we don’t even realize? This is just really hard to respond to and not really any variable argument? Where is the quotes? The examples? The Eirik Fatlands: “How I regret collaborative larping” article reference? And you just end this there. And continue to build up a new argument. As if vaguely assume that “You know you have issues to, even though you don’t admit it! Seriously dude I am telling you, that you also have problems”… Well WHAT PROBLEMS? What is the issues that I went to this article to try and debunk? Clearly I just have to agree with you and move on.
    Yeah Nordic Larp has problems. You know it.
    What kinda Fox News journalism is this anyway? I am really confused.

    Okay, now we start to vaguely identify some problems of the collaborative style:

    “tyranny of the majority may develop” – Tyranny of majority? Ooohhh… Oohh that kinda tyranny of majority where the candidate with the most actual votes wins and election? Ohh… Yeah, that sounds really scary, yeah I totally see why collaboration is a big no-no, it might lead to actual… You know… Majority Rule? The common good? The categorical imperative? – yeah, you got me a serious issue that we don’t realize that we have on the other side of the atlantic.

    “having a unique or discordant opinion is penalized as selfish and destructive, marking you as flawed or leading to ostracization.”

    So most of your article has been about using “Centuries of psychological studies” to back up how bad some forms of competitive elements can be. How it can lead to being narcissistic and egocentric? So are you being collaborative in this outing of the worse sides of competitive nature? I am simple confused. But this is clearly my mission as a collaborative larper, to ostracize the minority – by trying to tell you that competitive larping is problematic from a point of privilege – so yeah in a way I am marking the richest 1% as flawed, because they would just have the best equipment and the most possible resources to prioritize to read hundreds of pages of rulebooks. But I don’t see it as their fault, it is the fault of the system that gives them an inborn advantage. What is so evil by this tyranny of the majority that encourage a more broadly inclusive style of play?

    Oh well but yeah: “Maladaptive competition, the great evil of larping” – I mean, I pointed out some strenght of the German competitive scene, I don’t think that competitive play is evil – I just find it outdated and lacking vision.

    I mean “Further, in games that emphasize the need for consent to proceed, there’s incentive to pressure those who disagree into quick agreement” – larps with no emphasis on consent must clearly be superior to this. This is the famous AmeriJerk idea of Forced Consent that I suddenly met on forums discussing New World Magi Schola, this idea of “How to I get people to consent?” – I think you have really misunderstood the whole idea of consent in America and while consenting to the rule of a majority tyranny can seem frightening, I think it is the better alternative.
    You write about how mal-adaptive collaboration leads to creating a community of self-policing or groupthink. But I mean even the concept: Mal-adaptive Collaboration is to be honest is rather paradoxical. Isn’t collaboration about working together, hence adapting to meet common interest? Again these made up words doesn’t really further your argument as I see it.

    So no I see no reason to warn against this mal-adaptive collaboration. It is a strawman argument you have created and nothing more.

    Going towards the end:
    “Collaborative play is widely regarded as benefiting from guided recuperation — or, as some like to call it, debriefing.” NO NO NO NO NO NO, This is not okay! Debriefing is not about recuperation – it is not just about having some guided meditation and a nice dinner to forget about your difficult play you had to overcome. Debriefing is about giving the experience a resolution and making an agreement on how to move on from the larp, it is about engaging in the conversation on how it made you feel and how it might have effected you as a person and maybe changed you, even if just for a little while. This is done to create a more healthy and informed transition out of the magic circle and back to your everyday life. You use a debrief, not just to recuperate, but to negotiate what happend and share your emotional overload with co-players so you can collaborate on securing a safe return. While I after a debriefing encourage actual recuperation, guided or unguided, a debriefing is something entirely else and much more important.

    And for how many times to I have to explain it. We are a larp community, not a game community. Help make larp a accepted and known phenomena, by specifying what kinda game you are talking about. Be informative and proud of the word larp, without capital letters, normalize it – make it a beloved part of the tyranny of the majority.

    Now I give you that, great effort can be put into modernizing competitive play and making it a bit more inclusive and visionary. Not just a tool for an uninformed mass, giving by a select few in fear of real change and progress. Don’t make larp great again. Just make it better!

    /Your Nordsplaining from the other side of the atlantic pond.

    • David Haldenwang

      Wow. You’re a huge jerk.

  • Travis Galvan

    I’ve always wondered about the attraction to an almost purely cooperative style “adventure” game. To me, a LARP has always been the opportunity to make your literary fantasies come true. If you’re a fan of LOTR, or an old school D&D player, play a fantasy LARP. If you’re a Sci-Fi fan, play a Sci-Fi LARP.

    All of the good stories have one very critical thing in common … no one just plays nice the whole time. There’s ALWAYS some sort of individual competitive adversity, and it’s overcoming that adversity which brings the greatest rewards. Where’s the sense of accomplishment in just playing nice? “What did you do this game?” … “Oh, I played real nice. Everyone helped. We didn’t really have to try hard or anything. It was great!” How boring is that?!

    Do you know why there’s never been a blockbuster movie about six friends who planted a garden in the spring, harvested in the fall, and never had an argument the whole time? BECAUSE IT WOULD BE BORING AS F#(&.

    I don’t know about you, but my literary dreams aren’t about just sitting around and playing nice. That’s not an adventure.

    Do you know why there are no sports in which opposing teams DON’T try to beat each other? Because such a sport wouldn’t be any fun to play or to watch. Competition IS the fun!

    If I’m going to live out my literary fantasy, I need a goal. I need a rich character history of conflict which shaped me into the person I am today. I need an obstacle to overcome. I need an opponent to vanquish. I need something to make my existence mean something.

    If I’m just one cog in a machine … my life is MEANINGLESS. Meaningless is not fun.

    • Francesco Pregliasco

      I fear you are grossly misunderstanding the concept of “collaborative play”.
      Larps with little or no competition are NOT larps where nothing happens, nor where characters lack motives and goals, nor where everyone just “sits around and plays nice”.

    • Matthew Webb

      In defense of collaborative play, it’s not that you are just a cog in the machine. In fact, most collaborative game elements make it so everyone has a great deal of influence on the outcome. A good example of a mostly collaborative game is Fiasco ( http://bullypulpitgames.com/games/fiasco/ ), which is an American tabletop game, but it is still very interesting because the game is built around an amusing premise (Cohen Brothers style comedy of errors) and has great interaction mechanics, and each person has their chance to add to the story.

      Given, maladaptive collaboration, which I call out, can result in everyone just being a ‘cog’, but you can’t judge a mode of play by bad implementations.

  • Francesco Pregliasco

    Insightful and well-written, I think there is a terrible shortage of well-thought reflections about competitive gameplay, and articles like this are much needed.

    Some people see the issue through a political lense (e.g. if you favor competition you must be some ruthless corporate bastard, if you favor cooperation you must be a fan of the North Koreans), I think that’s silly… both competition and collaboration can be useful tools in larp design.

    In my experience, though (having ran several larps with both approaches) is that competition is inherently more risky, and more difficult to manage properly. I can think of many more examples of “dysfunctional competition” in larps than of dysfunctional collaboration.

    • Matthew Webb

      Dysfunctional or maladaptive competition arises more easily but I feel is corrected more easily. Dysfunctional or maladaptive collaboration is more sinister, harder to recognize and harder to correct – but I’ve heard several members of collaborative communities talk about the feeling of ostracism and sidelining they’ve felt because they haven’t “gone along” with a “good story”, and they are mostly European players. So that type of play certainly exists.

      • Francesco Pregliasco

        Some social ostracism will always exist, no matter the game system… it’s human nature

        • Matthew Webb

          Bad things will always happen. You can take steps and act intelligently to make sure less bad things happen. To just accept things as they are because it will never be perfect, I don’t think is a good way to approach these things.

          I’m hoping to improve competitive play, and perhaps open people up to discussing similar steps in collaborative play, even though as I pointed out, a lot has already been done in collaborative play to at least recognize social design matters.

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