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Book Excerpt - Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion
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Book Excerpt - Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion

September 7, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next


I am here to teach you to win.

Playing to win is the most important and most widely misunderstood concept in all of competitive games. The sad irony is that those who do not already understand the implications I will spell out will probably not believe them to be true at all. In fact, if I were to send this book back in time to my earlier self, even I would have trouble with it. Apparently, these concepts are something one must come to learn through experience, though I hope at least some of you will take my word for it.

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
—Douglas Adams,
Last Chance to See

Why Win at Games?

The great thing about competitive, zero-sum games is that they offer an objective measure of your progress. When you walk the path of continuous self-improvement that a champion must walk, you have a guide. If you are able to win more (that is, more consistently defeat highly skilled players), then you are improving. If not, then not. Imagine trying to measure your success in other forms of life such as your personal life or career. Are you improving or not? To answer that, you have to know exactly what is included within the scope of the “game” and what is not. What are all the factors that go into your professional life? It’s very hard to answer. Even if you did have an answer and created a measure of your progress, others would not agree on your standards. Not to say that the opinion of others is important in your measure of success, but the opinion of others does “keep you honest.” Left to your own definitions, you could (and perhaps subconsciously would) define the scope of your game in a contrived way so as to appear to be doing well at it (or poorly at it). It would just be an exercise in determining whether you are an optimistic or a pessimistic person.

Games are different. The very nature of a game is that it is a collection of rules agreed upon by all players. If players don’t agree on the rules, then they are not even playing the same game. The rules define exactly what is inside the game and what is outside. The rules define which moves are legal and which moves are not. The rules define what constitutes winning, what constitutes losing, and what constitutes a draw. There’s no weaseling out of defeat by redefining what the game is. The game should need no redefining, and a loss is a loss.

In pursing the path of winning, you are likely to learn that concentrating merely on beating the opponent is not enough. In the long run, you will have to improve yourself always, or you will be surpassed. The actual conflict appears to be between you and the opponents, but the best way to win is to bring to the table a mastery of playing to win and a mastery of the game at hand. These things are developed within you and are revealed to others only during conflict.

You never truly know a man . . . until you fight him.
—Seraph, The Matrix: Reloaded

[And now from much later in the book…]

Introduction to The Art of War

Up to this point, I have told you almost nothing about how to actually play. I have so far covered mainly the mindset you need to take into a game, not the tactics and strategies employed during a game. On this delicate subject, I will not even pretend to have unique authority, for it has been covered many times before me by more distinguished authors. Perhaps no author has ever explained it better than the military general, Sun Tzu.

Twenty-five centuries ago in China, Sun Tzu wrote a little manual called The Art of War. In the 2,500 years since that time, countless authors have tackled the subject of war, and wars unnumbered have been waged, yet still Sun Tzu’s words have unnerving relevance. Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book of strategic and tactical doctrine was a nearly word-for-word recounting of The Art of War. It’s rumored that Napoleon’s secret weapon during his conquest of Europe was none other than Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Even David Sirlin’s manual of competitive gaming Playing to Win is said to draw heavily from The Art of War.

The chapters that follow in this book are my retelling and interpretation of that great work. I have condensed his thirteen chapters to seven, joined together similar material, omitted some topics, and added two chapters of my own. I explore how his tactics of military conduct apply to playing competitive games today, and provide examples from several games. I have taken great liberties on a few subjects such as the use of spies, but overall, the application of his concepts is quite direct.

Take, for example, Sun Tzu’s five essentials for victory:

  • He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
  • He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.
  • He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
  • He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.
  • He will win who has military capacity, and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

Now consider the application to competitive games of today. First we have “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” If, in a game, you are temporarily at a disadvantage, then you should stall until you can change the situation. Capcom vs. SNK 2 is a fighting game that allows players to store resources in a “super meter” and then activate this meter. Once activated, the resources give that player a big advantage, but only until his meter ticks down to zero over time. The opponent is well advised to avoid all fighting until the opponent’s advantage fades away. In a real-time strategy game such as Warcraft or StarCraft, opponents often gain momentary advantages of terrain, or concentration of troops, or even of the day/night cycle of the game. Don’t engage the enemy in fighting if delaying will allow you to find more favorable terrain, or gather your troops, or wait until a different point in the day/night cycle. Run away from a fight if you can simply wait for your disadvantages to fade.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

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