Playing by All the Rules


David Sirlin’s Playing to Win series of articles changed the way that I thought about games. Until I read them, I was a scrub.

Now, everyone begins as a scrub—it takes time to learn the game to get to a point where you know what you’re doing. There is the mistaken notion, though, that by merely continuing to play or “learn” the game, that one can become a top player. In reality, the “scrub” has many more mental obstacles to overcome than anything actually going on during the game. The scrub has lost the game even before it starts. He’s lost the game before he’s chosen his character. He’s lost the game even before the decision of which game is to be played has been made. His problem? He does not play to win.

The scrub would take great issue with this statement for he usually believes that he is playing to win, but he is bound up by an intricate construct of fictitious rules that prevent him from ever truly competing. These made up rules vary from game to game, of course, but their character remains constant. In Street Fighter, for example, the scrub labels a wide variety of tactics and situations “cheap.” So-called “cheapness” is truly the mantra of the scrub.

I was a Starcraft scrub. I logged onto Battle.NET and only played “friendly” games marked NO RUSHING and whatnot. Every now and then, some jerk would ruin the game by rushing even though it said NO RUSHING and someone would disconnect in disgust. After months and months of play, I never got any better. It never occurred to me that it would be useful to make more than one Barracks (doing so doubles the speed that you can pump out Marines). I was totally inefficient with my resources. I more or less thought that rushing was unbeatable and totally annoying and game-ruining.

And then someone linked me to the Terran build order. Suddenly, I could defend against an early game rush. I started looking forwards to them. It turned out that most players who joined a NO RUSHING game in order to rush, didn’t have any skills past the first attack – they were relying on the other guy quitting in anger.

I’ve never had the drive to become anything close to a professional player, but Sirlin’s series (now a book) gave me a new understanding of truly competitive play. It taught me not to dismiss any move as “cheap” no matter the game.

There is a certain arrogance that comes from being a scrub. It’s the idea that you know better than the designers whether or not their game is balanced. It’s the lazy assumption that because you can’t figure out a better way, that there is no better way. It’s blinding yourself to whole rich fields of strategy and tactics. It’s weirdly choosing not to play the entire game and then blaming others for failing to make the same mistake.

It is in appreciation of the truly competitive game player, the one who understands in detail how the mechanics work and uses ALL of them, that I present the following, taken from a Snopes article about a truly strange soccer game.

Barbados needed to win the game by two clear goals in order to progress to the next round. Now the trouble was caused by a daft rule in the competition which stated that in the event of a game going to penalty kicks, the winner of the penalty kicks would be awarded a 2-0 victory.

With 5 minutes to go, Barbados were leading 2-1, and going out of the tournament (because they needed to win by 2 clear goals). Then, when they realized they were probably not going to score against Grenada’s massed defence, they turned round, and deliberately scored on their own goal to level the scores and take the game into penalties. Grenada, themselves not being stupid, realized what was going on, and then attempted to score an own goal themselves. However, the Barbados players started defending their opponents goal to prevent this.

In the last five minutes, spectators were treated to the incredible sight of both team’s defending their opponents goal against attackers desperately trying to score an own goal and goalkeepers trying to throw the ball into their own net. The game went to penalties, which Barbados won and so were awarded a 2-0 victory and progressed to the next round.