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"Playing to Win"

14 Post author: CronoDAS 09 April 2009 03:45PM

John F. Rizzo is an expert on losing. However, if you want to win, you would do better to seek advice from an expert on winning.

David Sirlin is such an expert, a renowned Street Fighter player and game designer. He wrote a series of articles with the title "Playing to Win", about playing competitive games at a high level, which were so popular that he expanded them into a book. You can either read it for free online (donations are appreciated) or purchase a dead tree edition.

Any further summary would simply be redundant when you could simply read Sirlin's own words, so here is the link:

http://www.sirlin.net/ptw

Comments (16)

Comment author: gaffa 10 April 2009 08:37:11PM *  5 points [-]

I used to play a competitive multiplayer game at a fairly high level, and in the community "play to win" was the standard dogma to throw at "scrubs" who complained about what they felt were unfair tactics or exploitation of bugs or unbalanced strategies. In this particular community, this attitude reached a somewhat unpleasant magnitude and many potentially constructive concerns or reflections upon player behaviour or game balance was met with hostility. The "play to win" doctrine to some extent hampered discussion in the community and fostered a cold, hostile environment where any sign of non-competitiveness was looked down on by default.

I don't mean to extrapolate this to a larger picture, I just thought I'd share my experience with the "play to win" concept. One should keep in mind that the utility function in a computer game is extremely simple - "win" in a game actually means to win in the game. Indeed, Sirlin's point is that in a competitive game, there is only one utility. In real life, your utility function is of course going to be more complex, and might include for example other people's feelings.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 July 2009 05:37:11PM 0 points [-]

In real life, your utility function is of course going to be more complex, and might include for example other people's feelings.

Which is just 'playing to win' at a somewhat higher level. 'Feelings' are far more ruthlessly competitive than most humans mange explicitly.

Comment author: whpearson 09 April 2009 08:04:19PM 3 points [-]

I would prefer to see more about people who win in ill defined situations and when they are trying to do something for society, not just win a status contest.

I am a game player, but I generally play to have a laugh and test my brain a bit, the actual winning is not so important.

Concentrating too much on competitive game skews the mind sets we develop.

Comment author: loqi 09 April 2009 09:14:48PM 3 points [-]

Concentrating too much on competitive game skews the mind sets we develop.

This statement seems a lot easier to assert than defend.

Comment author: whpearson 09 April 2009 09:46:21PM *  -2 points [-]

How so? If we only learn about how to win competitive games, then we have fewer tools for dealing with cooperative situations.

The situations that we are least good at are cooperative situations, e.g. figuring our whether there is something to global warming and if there is what should be done.

Comment author: loqi 09 April 2009 10:03:48PM 0 points [-]

If we only learn about how to win competitive games, then we have fewer tools for dealing with cooperative situations.

Really? I tend to see competitive ability as a necessary foundation for productive cooperation. This is getting pretty vague, though.

The situations that we are least good at are cooperative situations

This seems difficult to conclude. Can you explain why you think this is true?

e.g. figuring our whether there is something to global warming and if there is what should be done.

I would assert there are many competitive elements to this issue.

Comment author: whpearson 10 April 2009 12:23:45AM 0 points [-]

Really? I tend to see competitive ability as a necessary foundation for productive cooperation. This is getting pretty vague, though.

What do you mean by competitive ability? The things he is talking about in the book is bluffing and psychological warfare. Are these useful skills when trying get something done cooperatively or do they harm the process if used?

The situations that we are least good at are cooperative situations

This seems difficult to conclude. Can you explain why you think this is true?

Possibly we mean different things by cooperative situations. I'm talking about situations where people have to work together to win, you can't just wipe out or ignore everyone else. This means balancing your goals with others, Competitive situations, especially the types of games talked about here, you know what needs to be done, This makes them simpler and easier to deal with.

I would assert there are many competitive elements to this issue.

You can treat solving global warming as having competitive elements, but then you will be less efficient at actually solving the problem by having to spend resources on competing, which could have been used for solving the problem.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 July 2009 05:41:52PM 0 points [-]

What do you mean by competitive ability? The things he is talking about in the book is bluffing and psychological warfare. Are these useful skills when trying get something done cooperatively or do they harm the process if used?

You need to be extremely good at the game to be able to not play it. ie. Have the ability to detect and punish defection if necessary while conveying both a credible threat and the preference to leave the threats idle.

Once you've learned to groin kick and eye gouge you are perfectly equipped to master hugs and back claps.

Comment author: loqi 10 April 2009 03:53:03AM *  0 points [-]

The things he is talking about in the book is bluffing and psychological warfare.

That may be, but you said:

If we only learn about how to win competitive games, then we have fewer tools for dealing with cooperative situations

Which, to me, is about more than just bluffing and psychological warfare.

Are these useful skills when trying get something done cooperatively or do they harm the process if used?

I don't know. I could easily imagine the answer being both, depending on circumstance, thus making as simple a characterization of them as you seem to implying pretty difficult.

Possibly we mean different things by cooperative situations. I'm talking about situations where people have to work together to win, you can't just wipe out or ignore everyone else. This means balancing your goals with others

This makes the point that cooperative scenarios are harder than purely competitive scenarios, not that we're particularly bad at them. "Balancing your goals with others" is in the end just another way of saying that your goals positively correlate with theirs. Most big problems (and yes, even Magic) contain agents with goals both positively and negatively correlated with yours, so "cooperative or competitive" is not, in general, a binary proposition. Do you think we're particularly bad at planning in the presence of others with positively correlated goals?

You can treat solving global warming as having competitive elements, but then you will be less efficient at actually solving the problem by having to spend resources on competing, which could have been used for solving the problem.

If it has competitive elements, then I certainly want to treat it as though it has competitive elements, regardless of my final strategy. But you also seem to be suggesting that approaching an objective competitively is inherently less efficient than approaching it cooperatively. Surely you don't mean that.

Comment author: whpearson 10 April 2009 07:29:30AM *  0 points [-]

If we only learn about how to win competitive games, then we have fewer tools for dealing with cooperative situations

Which, to me, is about more than just bluffing and psychological warfare.

Take my comments in light of the context.

I don't know. I could easily imagine the answer being both, depending on circumstance, thus making as simple a characterization of them as you seem to implying pretty difficult.

I can't really get a handle on where you are coming from. Are you saying that it is often useful to bluff the people you are cooperating with, or would it be a once in the blue moon kind of situation? Give an example of it helping?

But you also seem to be suggesting that approaching an objective competitively is inherently less efficient than approaching it cooperatively. Surely you don't mean that.

Only if you have total knowledge of the situation... Consider the human body, the places where competition help it to achieve objectives, (the brain possibly and the immune system) are the portions trying to gain knowledge about the outside world. Can you tell me how competition would help the human body apart from in these situations?

Comment author: loqi 10 April 2009 03:55:53PM 0 points [-]

Are you saying that it is often useful to bluff the people you are cooperating with, or would it be a once in the blue moon kind of situation? Give an example of it helping?

Drivers often slow down or stop far ahead of time for pedestrians, wasting more of their time to do so than it costs the pedestrian to wait for the car. When I'm on foot and anticipate this, I often bluff the driver by looking away or pretending to change direction. It's minor, but effective and quite frequent.

Only if you have total knowledge of the situation

What about perfect knowledge of a prisoner's dilemma involving non-cooperative agents?

Comment author: whpearson 12 April 2009 10:43:56PM 0 points [-]

Drivers often slow down or stop far ahead of time for pedestrians, wasting more of their time to do so than it costs the pedestrian to wait for the car. When I'm on foot and anticipate this, I often bluff the driver by looking away or pretending to change direction. It's minor, but effective and quite frequent.

Could you do it by signaling openly?

What about perfect knowledge of a prisoner's dilemma involving non-cooperative agents?

What do you mean by non-cooperative agents, that they always defect, or don't communicate? And do the agents have perfect knowledge or is there a third party?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 01:11:33PM 0 points [-]

...why look, it's a master of the Competitive Conspiracy.

Comment author: MrHen 09 April 2009 10:41:52PM *  1 point [-]

FYI, the John F. Rizzo reference points to Stuck in the Middle with Bruce.

Comment author: MrHen 09 April 2009 10:40:47PM 0 points [-]

If losing is the perfect opposite of winning, studying how not to lose is roughly equivalent to studying how to win. My personal experience dictates that if I am losing a lot and do not know why I will learn more from studying my losses. Once I know what the problems are I can study how other people win in those circumstances.

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 10 April 2009 08:07:29PM 0 points [-]

Except that Rizzo was focusing on some kind of psychological "need to lose". When I go back and study my winning and losing backgammon games, my psychology isn't the focus. I look for situations where, in retrospect, a better choice could have been made and then look to see if there was enough information in context to have enabled me to take that choice. I also sometimes catch situations where I wasn't paying enough attention, and missed a move that I think I would have chosen if I had noticed it.