I’ve never enjoyed tournaments.
If you only know me through my impact on competitive Netrunner, this might surprise you. There are things about competitive events that I enjoy (clearly, or else I would not attend), but overall I probably find the experience less enjoyable than maybe any other competitive player. I’ve been stewing for a very long time about why this is. Eventually my brainstorming got less personal as I started to notice commonalities in complaints that people had about tournament play. I was encouraged by some other players to write these thoughts down and put them up for discussion. It might be a little late, but I think there’s definitely something here worth thinking about.
This is not meant to be a rigorous argument. It’s more of a think-piece or analogy. I can’t really back up any of these claims (I’m not sure how one would), so I leave it up to you to make up your own mind.
The Parallel Paradigm
When very small children are learning to play with others, the first method of play they engage in is “parallel play”. Parallel play typically consists of 2 children playing separately, but in proximity to each other, sometimes with intermittent interest taken in what the other child is up to. Parallel play allows children to gradually ease into social interaction. They can learn norms by paying attention to others but are also not under any pressure to conform. As they mature, they engage in social and cooperative play, mediating their engagement with implicit norms, rules, and common goals. (For simplicity, I’ll refer broadly to all methods of socializing more sophisticated than parallel play as “social play”.) Parallel play never goes away, but it becomes less and less common with age.
But what about competitive play? It turns out that competition is an outgrowth of social play. Think about two people playing 1-on-1 basketball, an activity that would seem purely competitive. However, they both must cooperate to play together in the first place. Both agree to dribble the ball, stay in bounds, and not bring a Hockey stick. Only once the cooperative prerequisites are met, can the competition begin. Participants who fail to demonstrate that they can play by the rules quickly find themselves without playmates.
Additionally, there are other implicit rules to the game that you won’t find in the Rules of Basketball. You don’t cry when the other player scores. You don’t make fun of them when you win. You don’t lie and cover your tracks when caught cheating. Learning these rules is just as important as (if not more important than) learning the explicit rules. We tend to call following these rules “being a good sport”.
Implicit rules go quite deep. Consider the player who never dribbles and immediately shoots the ball (often poorly) the moment it is in his hands, regardless of where he is on the court. It is difficult to keep playmates this way, perhaps because of the implicit rule “take the game seriously and try to win”. Maybe we could even generalize a pattern across most implicit rules: “Be fun to play with”.
Children learn these rules through the tools of inclusion and exclusion. A child who is fun to play with will be invited to play. Whether she wins 90% of the time or 5% of the time, if her peers enjoy having her around, she will be invited. When children learn games they aren’t only building skills in that particular game. They are learning something far more important: How one should play so to be invited to play again reliably in the future.
Now imagine a poorly socialized child, Hugo. We won’t worry about how Hugo ended up the way he did, but he is not playing properly with others. He hogs the ball, yelling “look at me!” while showing off his technique (even more obnoxious if he wins). No one wants to play with him, so no one does. He is forced to sit on the sidelines and watch. With some luck he will one day get a second chance, and hopefully watching and being out of the spotlight will have helped him see how to play properly.
Imagine a “benevolent” adult happens to see this poor, excluded child pouting on the sidelines. Often the properly-playing children receive a lecture and are forced to include Hugo.
…Everyone has a right to be included, after all. Hugo isn’t hurting anyone. He’s just got a unique personality. He’s just different!
Hugo doesn’t learn his lesson this way. Enough poor reinforcement like this, and he may never learn. The other kids get a bad deal too. Many of them will decide that they’d just rather find something else to do.
Hugo does learn a few things here. He learns that he is entitled to play however he wants. He learns that he entitled to someone to play with. In many cases, he learns that the only things that matter are playing his way and winning. For Hugo, play does not properly develop into a compromise that is negotiated, but into an opportunity to be exploited.
So what happens to adults who act like Hugo? It’s hard for them to find engagement voluntarily, so they seek out environments where the other participant can’t afford to say no. They go somewhere where getting up and walking away is too costly for the other party, an environment where consent to all play-pairings is given universally and blindly.
They go to Tournaments.
However, this is not the end of a Hugo’s problems. Being poorly socialized, he isn’t prepared to engage with another person in social play, even when provided with a captive playmate. So, he retreats to the comfort zone of parallel play. He plays non-interactive combos, prison strategies, and solitaire decks. Anything to reduce the complexity and relevance of the other player’s actions.
Just like when Hugo failed to play properly as a child, his playmates don’t really have a great time. Win or lose, Hugo just isn’t that fun to play with. Many of them decide that maybe the fun of going to tournaments just isn’t worth the hassle of dealing with him. This time, the competitive tournament structure is serving the role of the “benevolent” adult, forcing everyone to be included.
Hugo should be able to play however he wants. Who are you to say how the game is ‘supposed’ to be played. He’s not hurting anyone…
Just as before, without the option of relegating Hugo to bench-warmer duty until he learns proper social play, the players start to leave. Keep in mind, Hugo may behave entirely inoffensively outside the game, but strategy-selection is a social behavior just like any other. Playing a deck that most people hate is not much different from acting rudely.
Over time the density of Hugos grows higher and higher, until the whole environment reeks of this immature approach to the game. You can’t really blame the Hugos. They are just responding to structural incentive. I call this the Parallel Paradigm.
If you want a thriving and welcoming organized play scene, you should immediately recognize the Parallel Paradigm as a threat. It’s a threat that I think should be addressed.
The Social Paradigm
Just as small children develop from parallel play to social play, we need to develop from The Parallel Paradigm to The Social Paradigm. This means promoting events that eliminate the features of organized play that attract and enable Hugos:
- Get rid of forced pairing. Make it socially acceptable for people to decline to play against whoever/whatever they don’t feel like dealing with. If you don’t want to play against Clan Vengeance, Hunter Seeker, Museum of History, or Gang Sign, there should be no shame in saying so and seeking out an opponent who is amenable. If you’ve brought a deck that no one wants to play against, you’ll have to play something else. Have decks that have a proven track record of fun and engagement ready on-hand for anyone who needs one. Model proper play.
- Remove the emphasis on winning. It’s ok to try to win. In fact it’s highly desirable (recall the child who takes too many silly basketball shots). But identifying the winningest player shouldn’t be the sole objective of the event. Actively promote those who are a pleasure to play with, whose decks and play lead to great stories and exciting interactions. Hold them up as equals to the player who went 10-0. Purely competitive events can still exist, but they should not be central focus of Organized Play.
- As an individual attending an event, bond with others while you play. Don’t just go about your business, shake hands, fill out a match slip, and part ways. Talk about the experience you’re sharing. Replay an exciting match-up. Make memories.
Structures that promote the Parallel Paradigm are inherently toxic. Until we realize this and move towards a Social Paradigm, we’ll keep wondering why so many players seem to “lose interest” in competitive play. We’re all contributors to this. Are your decks fun to play against? Do you actively engage with your opponent’s unique style? Are you more interested in showing off and expressing yourself than in bonding over an experience? How much Hugo is in you? If you see tournaments as environments where playing a fun game is ultimately less important than winning, you might want to reconsider your approach.
This is something we used to be great at! It was at the core of our community and somewhere along the way it got lost. Let’s fix this.
Keep things fun,
NOTE: This article was written on the above date, and only edited for style afterwards. It is in no way a response to the events of Gencon 2018 (of which I have very limited knowledge). Please read it as a general critique, not one targeted at any particular player(s). The Hugo is not an external problem. The Hugo is in all of us.
For people who missed the point:
You could probably TLDR this article as:
1. People respond to incentive
2. Games encourage pro-social choices through the incentives of inclusion/exclusion
3. Tournaments remove this incentive and replace it with another (winning)
4. Our organized play is essentially only tournaments.
5. Therefore, anti-social choices are inevitable in our organized play.
I believe addressing #4 is where we should direct our work. I think a lot of people read the article and thought I was addressing #3, which I am not. I did a lot of explaining about why #3 is the case, but that doesn’t mean it’s where we should direct our effort. There are also some others who don’t think #5 is even a problem, which is an opinion they are certainly free to hold.
Additionally I speculate that we should look to #2 for guidance on creating our new OP structures that can exist alongside tournaments.