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.
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