Random thought of the day: is competitive play compatible with empathy?

If yes, what does it look like?

If no, what does play teach us?

@gamesbymanuel But isn't competition literally seeing another player as an obstacle to crush? Isn't that how computer games work?

I think the social aspect you mention is independent of competition and more about the social setting we choose to be competitive in.

@Georgios @gamesbymanuel
I don't want to play a game in a setting where the other players are seen simply as obstacles to crush. I want to play in social settings where we win, lose, celebrate, commiserate together and it isn't about asserting dominance. For me a game is a combination of its competitive aspects and the social element. While you may see them as orthogonal, I choose not to separate them.

@harperrob @gamesbymanuel

I think they're parallel, or more accurately, I see a tension between the social and the competitive in practice. I agree with you that I prefer sharing an experience, but my experience suggests that this desire to share is not inherently tied (and sometimes at odds) with playing competetively.

@Georgios @gamesbymanuel
Agreed that it's not inherently tied, and yes, sometimes at odds, but sometimes having competition within a group that we agree "doesn't matter" is where the awesome lies. That's the gaming I enjoy.

@harperrob @gamesbymanuel I think those experiences are possible, absolutely. But I think they rely heavily on socially competent players working towards creating such an evironment an IMO despite the constraints that competition places on us.

@Georgios @gamesbymanuel
Isn't that what most people do when they are playing with their friends?

@harperrob @gamesbymanuel I think most friend groups have an established social script between each other, which isn't quite the same thing.

@Georgios @harperrob @gamesbymanuel concur. My group is absolutely vicious to each other in game, but it stays in game. We do have a few in the distributed group that dislike the competition and we play "optimize & compare" (multiplayer solitaire) euros or coops when they join us.

That's a social dynamic though and you're right, it isn't the same thing. I think the nuance is "do I have empathy for your player position?" VS "do I have empathy for you as a person?"

@gpage @harperrob @gamesbymanuel yeah, that makes sense. But I don't know if we can assume that players will make that distinction without prompting.

@Georgios @harperrob @gamesbymanuel I can't remember when I learned the "what happens in game stays in game" principle. I do know it was before I played games with any of my current group/city. It may be something that some of us learned as children and have created a dominant culture within our group regarding that. Dunno...

@gpage @harperrob @gamesbymanuel But is keeping events within the game from affecting relationships outside the game the same as distinguishing between player and position?

Also, doesn't this seem at odds with the idea that we engage in supportive and empathetic behavior outside of the game, and are therefore combining empathy with competition?

@Georgios @harperrob @gamesbymanuel I can be unsympathetic to you taking two loans and running out of cash in Container (which is basically player elimination before the game ends) and still do everything I can to help you as a person after we pack up the game and go to dinner. One of those is empathy with your position in a game, the other is you as a person. Does that help explain my remark?

@gpage @harperrob @gamesbymanuel sure. One is part of the game and the other is not. But my original question wasn't if we can nice to each other outside of competitive play, but within it.

@Georgios @gpage @gamesbymanuel
Your original question was "Is competitive play compatible with empathy?" You may have meant specifically within the game mechanics, but I would say it is more meaningful within the play group or magic circle.

@harperrob @gpage @gamesbymanuel I think you're right that the question people read wasn't the one I intended to ask. Behaving friendly outside of the game should generally remain unaffected from the type of game we're playing.

That said, I think we all have had experiences where things got a little uncomfortable outside of the game, because of events within the game. But that's a different conversation.

@harperrob @Georgios @gpage @gamesbymanuel

I believe that empathy is required for "play" to be present... If it is absent, then you are engaging in a contest, not playing a game. It's the difference between sparring during MMA class and fighting in the UFC.

It reminds me of the endless debate about stopping "alpha players" in co-op games using rules. Rules cannot govern social dynamics in any meaningful way. Alpha players are best addressed via the magic circle not rules. This seems the same.

@BeardedRogue @harperrob @gpage @gamesbymanuel That's an interesting distinction. Distinguishing between 'contest' and 'competitive play' on the basis of the social dynamics that play rests on, is definitely worth exploring. Thank you.

@Georgios @harperrob @gpage @gamesbymanuel I think that most groups will end up self-selecting games that match their magic circle and clashing with those that do not.

As I have told my son many times, if you do not have the consent of both parties, then boxing is just assault.

Competition feels the same to me. When I "played" Netrunner, I was trying new things and learning with friends, but at a tourney, I was competing. The magic circle dictated what the appropriate stance to take was.

@Georgios @BeardedRogue @harperrob @gamesbymanuel concur, I there is a conceptual definition difference between the two. What attributes are missing (or present) from each other...

@Georgios @harperrob @gamesbymanuel and your comment about the social script is where I think it ends up. Your alternative is game/rule systems that discourage interaction (effectively MPS games). Some people like that, some don't, but everyone *could* adopt the social construct of "don't do strategically beneficial moves that occur at the expense of other people's positions or emotions" if that's what they're after.

@gpage @harperrob @gamesbymanuel Maybe, yeah. I think you're right that a lot of groups eventually find their own style/social script and lean towards designs that are compatible with that, i.e. designers whose assumptions about player behaviour meshes with their preferred vibe at the table.

@gamesbymanuel @Georgios
Yeah, I really dislike tournament play other than as a really informal structure between friends. It has been many years since I have taken part in a public tournament in anything, and I plan to keep it that way. Just not for me.

@Georgios play teaches us of exploring possibilities, it trains us. Competitive play is good for that notion - to learn. It shouldn't be used for any gains over someone, or for that goal at all. With that, you can show compassion over competition.

@savl I agree with a tangible goal being helpful with learning. But I'm not sure "learning" is the driving force in competition.

@Georgios are you not learning testing your mental capabilities while playing chess? Testing your limits, and inventing techniques outrunning others? Fighting cubs at youth learn to use their bodies for hunt and defense. That if we go for play. // Then there are different kinds of survival. When learned skills are used for gaining fame/resources. I guess that's another topic.

@savl I think learning is often linked to play, sure. I am just not sure that we play competitively in order to learn, but the other way around. And even that is optional.

@Georgios What do you mean by empathy, in this context? And also, what kind of competitive play do you mean?

I've got thoughts about this, but I'd like to make sure we're on the same page!

@James_M_Hewitt By empathy I mean this acknowledgement of shared humanity, and the reflex to mirror another person's emotional state (arguably a type of projection, but that's beside the point IMO).

Whereas I think of competition as a kind of antagonistic play that aims to establish a hierarchical order among players, i.e. one winner vs one or more losers.

@Georgios I think the question might be too black-and-white. I certainly don't think they're incompatible.

I've known a lot of people who compete in wargames tournaments over the years, and there's a palpable sense of community. I've witnessed countless games where people get excited by their opponent's successes, and commiserate with their failures. Where people enjoy the act of play, while also doing their best to make the "right" decisions and win the game.

@Georgios Personally, I think a more nuanced question to ask would be "does competitive play *discourage* empathy?"

And even then, I think you'd have to drill down on the meaning of competitive play - which types of games, which styles of competitive play, etc. There's a big difference between a casual competitive league between friends, and a high-stakes tournament between, say, Chess Grandmasters.

@James_M_Hewitt I don't disagree that the question benefits from more nuance. It was just a random thought, because I do think there is an inherent tension between competition and empathy that we need to consciously resolve to enjoy these games. When we do, the experience is elevated for all. When we fail, it can be awkward or sometimes downright toxic.

But I am curious how and if game design can help steer things in one direction or another.

@Georgios I can definitely think of some examples. Magic the Gathering is generally a very competitive game but the 4-player Commander format is a social format that puts everyone having fun above all else. The banlist includes a lot of cards that destroy or withhold resources. You tend to not crush the player who is easiest to crush because eliminating the weakest player doesn't help you win, it only helps the one in the lead accumulate power.

@Georgios Besides, I believe that if people refuse to read the table and behave overly vicious or rude, others might not want to play with them again. I have definitely noticed that kind of thing in my board game club. If you know someone will do their best to make the game enjoyable for everyone, you will be more likely to ask them to play.

@drbillbongo I think it's interesting that a few people have now pointed at the social dynamics outside the game as an example of combining empathy with competitive play.

@Georgios Yes, I believe it is. The fact that the struggle to win is common should elicit empathy- that's why you should be able to appreciate a good play, or feel bad for someone when they make a big mistake.

Empathy and competition have a nuanced relationship, but not necessarily an opposing one.

@oz I do vaguely remember some mid- to heavy euros I played with a friend and we were both similarly overwhelmed by the game's complexity at the time. The competition felt perfunctory, though, and not really at the heart of the experience.

While we were technically trying to score better than the other, we mostly bonded over our inability to figure out how to play cleverly.

I am unsure if the competitive drive, i.e. establishing hierarchy, meshes easily with empathy and equality, though.

@Georgios I think competition pits our selfish natures against ourselves. We all like winning and feeling superior, but board games channel that drive into an ultimately communal experience. You put yourself in a competitor's place to understand how they think and what their plans are, for example.

@oz so... instrumentalizing empathy for our personal benefit?

@Georgios The joy is not in the winning. The joy is in utilizing empathy. For me, at least.

@Georgios Empathy can give you a competitive advantage. Anticipate your opponents and then crush them beneath your bootheel. :devious_horns:

But also like, if you want to play again, be nice to your fellow players lol. Honestly not too sad one of my boardgaming groups fell apart because of this.

@Georgios Yes. While competitive play (at higher levels) explicitly depends on (~maliciously?) exploiting opponents, it also intimately depends on sympathetically understanding the opponent, their position, and how they see, understand and conceive of their own position (and of your position) -- all of which are also requirements for (and generally lead to) empathy.

@jcl I agree in principle although I am hesitant to say that understanding generally leads to empathy. A lot of manipulative behaviour is basically understanding without empathy.

@Georgios I would say they encourage hostile empathy, the kind where you use an understanding of your opponent's emotional state to take advantage of them, like making them feel bad to give you an edge or agree to a bad deal.

Meta concerns can teach compassion to ensure you still have friends to play with, but when the win condition is out performing your friends, then you generally aren't engaging with the game if you're extending empathetic compassion mid competition.

@Georgios This is why I want to see more multi-victor games, that don't actively encourage defeating your friends, but rather trying to win within the same space they're trying to win within. Hopefully experiences that encourage people to see the value in helping each other. It's funny I was just talking about this on the Building the Game podcast earlier this week.

@XoeAllred that is very close to my own thinking. Both in how understanding another player is not quite the same as having empathy with them, as well as wanting to see more multiple-winner designs that explore different interaction dynamics.

@Georgios the first time I played Power grid, two of the other players were experienced and crushed me - the fact that I didn't understand the mechanics as well was an advantage for them, not a responsibility to help me learn. One of them rarely exhibited any sort of empathy (as I see it) while playing games at our mutual friend's social night - he was there to win, and while I'm sure it was fun for him, I quickly realized I didn't enjoy playing the types of games he preferred.

@Badger This reads to me like a very clear example of a lack of empathy both within and outside the game. I think in most cases showing empathy outside the game is important to make the experience worthwhile to all players involved. But I've also had situations where particularly competitive players had a hard time signalling empathy outside the game, or if they could it was only through humour, but not actual sympathy or empathy.

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