What Games Are: The Win Imperative

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Many readers will be familiar with the idea that games and reward go together like two peas in a pod. Click a button, hear a satisfying ding. Kill the monster, get a magic sword. Make the longest word, earn a badge. These ideas have been with us for a long time and even seep over into the real world in the form of exercise apps, diet trackers and many other gamified applications.

But reward by itself isn’t that rewarding. You can develop badges and stars as far as the eye can see, but the playing public often finds them boring. Conversely, many games do not dole out loot and upgrades for good behavior, yet they are highly engaging. Many games even leave all activity up to the player with little or no signposting of what to expect, and some of those are firm audience favorites.

The reason is that it’s not the reward that’s interesting, it’s what it signifies: satisfaction of a job well done, a stroke of luck, a problem solved, a situation overcome, an enemy defeated. In short, it’s about winning. All games are played to win.

But let’s be clear for a moment. I do not mean that players secretly play Minecraft in order to defeat one another. Nor that they play The Walking Dead in order to gain high scores. Winning frequently gets an undeserved bad rap because it’s associated with what Po Bronson calls “maladaptive competitiveness“. It seems narrow (others have suggested “success”, “achievement” or “progression” for these reasons) but is actually very broad. In the context of game design, to win means to accomplish something significant, to purposefully overcome a testing situation and make a mark. It’s to positively alter the state of the game and know that you did.

What Winning Looks Like

Winning is often not ultimate. Space Invaders cannot be ultimately won. There is no final state to that game where the invaders take the hint and go invade another planet. The player only has a few lives whereas the invaders are endless, so one way or another he will eventually lose. Equally, Sim City also has no defined end state, but it’s almost the exact opposite of Space Invaders. The player can’t really lose and feels no sense of threat. He exists in a kind of equilibrium.

However these games are still full of wins and losses. That sneaky shot you pull off in Space Invaders that gets the last enemy before it gets you is a win. That little project you developed in your city to reroute the water supply toward your factories is also a win. Winning is experienced both at micro as well as macro, indeed it needs to be. Without little wins a game can feel pretty hopeless, which disincentivizes play.

Winning is also often self-directed. While most games have formal systems that define win and loss states, some (like Minecraft) don’t. Players explore, craft and avoid hazards, and over time engage in projects to construct whole worlds. Roleplaying games often have a considerable breadth of side quests and exploration opportunities for the player. These have little to do with the formal main line of the game, but big deal. They feel highly win-ful.

Finally, winning needs to feel authentic. Slot machines don’t seem like the sort of game that fits with winning. Objectively speaking they are stacked luck engines that sap money over time. Yet, in the subjective eyes of the person actually playing, this is not true. A slots player plays to win, hoping to attain big prizes. He believes that he has enough agency to make it happen, and so he grinds the game for a while to build up to a win. His belief in his own skill is objectively false, but that sense of faux-skill is enough. The win, if it comes, feels real.

No Wins, No Play

When wins become routine, a game turns boring. A lack of challenge, of anything meaningful to do or a sense that all you’re doing in the game is biding time tends to undermine wins. So does the sense that the game is making you wait, or that you are simply wandering around.

The main reason narrative-led games struggle to engage players toward the end of their story is usually to do with this tension. Although the tale may be interesting, the wins tap out somewhere in the middle, leading to a sensation of performing rote activity just to get to the finish. Depending on the player and the length of the game, that can be asking a lot.

It’s also why many a cheap social or app game fails. There’s a common attitude among developers that all they have to do is provide a basic game dynamic seen in hundreds of previous games, then add rewards and somehow dominate the market. What happens is that the first game of this type that the player encounters is the one that they find fun, but not others. This is why most of the activity in the social and app spaces boils down to who has the best marketing.

Sometimes fall-off is unavoidable because of a game’s design. Draw Something, for example, struggles to provide a challenge to players because of how the game is structured. Recent hit Dots looks to be going a similar way because, although it’s beautiful and elegant, its core dynamic is not as intrinsically fascinating as Tetris. And there’s little scope for content extension in that Angry Birds way.

Winning Is Good

One secret to game design, then, is not to worry about reward layers. Instead it’s to worry about whether the game’s dynamic is fascinating, fair and enticing so that the player wants to win. Less early attention on the trinkets and badges, more on the robustness of the mechanics (also known as “finding the fun“, or “the hard part”, of making games). And add rewards later.

As players we love our dopamine rushes but we often don’t consider ourselves to be win-motivated. It makes us sound callous and feeds into the idea that we waste time in games when we could be doing better things. Winning has an image problem. Yet sometimes what we need is the brain-stimulating activity of matching fruit and progressing on a map, building a character, growing a city or shooting aliens. We need to win, and it’s imperative that we do so.

We need to feel that what we do matters, even if only virtually. Games allow us to escape from the chaos of life into states of order. In games we get to do and be and cause change. We become heroic in our own eyes in contrast to the modern world of office jobs, mortgages and health insurance. The game of life is, for most of us, badly designed and full of frustration. A great game, by contrast, is full of win.