Sunday, October 30, 2011

What Games Are: Chess

When I was young I would often play Chess with my father when he came home from work. He had a beer and we started a match. I usually lost, but I loved it. At some point my father started to tell me that he didn't want to play right now and somehow we stopped playing altogether. Years later I talked with him about it [..]

Quote from “What Games Are”:
Games consist of
  • a simulation
  • rules
  • and goals
The rules generate the journeys towards the goals by constraining the player. Rules carve journeys out of the possibility space.
Just like many very old games, Chess only has a very weak underlying simulation left: a battle between two forces. Chess has only one goal: to capture the opponent's king (simplified). And Chess also has a few rules. Without the rules, you could capture the opponent's king by using your hand. Or by paying another person. Or by bribing your opponent. Or by building a giant robot specialized on capturing kings in Chess ...

There are virtually infinite amounts of ways to capture that king. I call that the possibility space. The rules tell you what part of the possibility space is forbidden; what you are not allowed to do to reach the goal. Since the possibility space is extremely large, the rules are written down in the form of ”nothing is allowed, except for ...“.
It is important to understand that the rules constrain the player. Out of the vast amount of ways to capture the enemy king, only a tiny, tiny proportion is allowed; the rest is forbidden.

As we know, this tiny number of possible ways still generates an almost infinite amount of possible journeys. A journey is what a player does to capture the king, to reach the goal. In Chess the journey can easily be written down by using the algebraic notation.

What is interesting is exploring how the goal in Chess is worth the journey, how Chess can be frustrating, and how Chess keeps the player's mind busy.

Quote from “What Games Are”:
For a game to be fun
  • the goals have to be worth the journeys
  • the journeys must not be frustrating
  • the journeys need to keep the player's mind busy
A frustrating journey is a journey the player doesn't think he should have to make. Frustration is experienced when the player believes that things are not like they should be; it automatically sets in the more a player thinks about the design of a game. Important tools to fight frustration are expectation management and immersion.
A goal that is worth the journey is probably the weakest spot of Chess. Most people don't know a lot of people who like Chess, and winning against your friends at Chess only improves your social standing in very few groups. But more importantly, like the vast majority of non-computer games, Chess is PvP and every victory shames the loser. The potential loss makes players consider the journey not worth enough to even try to reach the goal.

When I was young I would often play Chess with my father when he came home from work. He had a beer and we started a match. I usually lost, but I loved it. At some point my father started to tell me that he didn't want to play Chess right now and somehow we stopped playing altogether. Years later I talked with him about it and he told me that I had started to win all the time and that's why he stopped playing. He added that he didn't want to give up the after-work beer.

I had expected myself to lose; I was young. But my father had expected himself to win. Losing repeatedly reduced his fun a lot. His reaction was only natural: Losing frustrated him - just like, nowadays, losing to him repeatedly would frustrate me.

For most people losing at Chess is much more terrible than winning is good. It's good old loss aversion.
We know from computer PvP-games that the shame of losing makes players not play them. It is the explanation of the current rise of games: only with the emergence of computers can humans finally play games without the fear of shame. And only with the emergence of social games (MMOs) can humans finally play together with other people without fear of shame.

There is another source of frustration in Chess: The giant potential time sink in form of your opponent. A lot of players hate waiting for his moves. Especially if they feel unsure about winning and ”want to get it over with”. Waiting for your opponent to make a move can be frustrating. You think that you shouldn't have to wait so long.

It is interesting to note that an unpredictable opponent is not frustrating in Chess. This is interesting, because unpredictable opponents in PvE computer games are usually frustrating. Players feel like the computer shouldn't be so smart. They feel frustrated if, while fighting one group of enemies, the computer spawns another one right behind them. They even feel frustrated if they can't exactly predict at which range a mob 'aggros'. Some people go so far to call this fairness. They state that the playbrain considers all games bad that aren't fair, and computers that are unpredictably smart feel almost always unfair.

I'd like to add: it depends on the player's expectations. If he expects the opponent to be smart and unpredictable it can even add to his enjoyment. That's why all commercial Chess computers are smart enough to beat all but the world's best players. Nobody wanted to buy a Chess computer that always loses and praises him with achievements. Not yet, anyway.

Keeping the player's mind busy
Chess excels at keeping the player's mind busy.

Quote from “What Games Are”:
  • Information gathering (learning, exploring, ..)
  • Comprehension
  • Pattern matching
  • Educated guesses
  • Recalling general strategies
  • Coming up with courses of actions
  • Thinking through a course of action
  • Decisions, choices (efficiency, optimization)
At first you look at the board, you gather information. You comprehend the situation and try to identify familiar patterns. Next, you conduct educated guesses about what your opponent feels and thinks. This is where humans beat computers. You recall general strategies, like that pieces in the center are generally more effective. Then you come up with many possible courses of action and think them through. Based on the results of this process you conduct educated guesses about which course of action is probably most beneficial to you in the long-term. Finally you make a choice.

Obviously, Chess is is very good at keeping the logical part of the human brain busy. Our minds are just not made for this kind of activity. But Chess is also very good at emotions.

Quote from “What Games Are”:
  • Tension (Relaxation, climaxes, adrenaline)
  • Gain and loss (Rewards, penalties)
  • Anticipation of learning, gaining, losing (Curiosity, greed, hope, fear, …)
  • Decisions, choices (incomparables)
There is obviously gain and loss in Chess. Gain would be capturing an opponent's piece. You also anticipate these events while you see your plan unfolding - or being upset by the opponent. There is tension, because you try to guess what your opponent is going to do. And there are even some decisions about style. For example, some people prefer a specific opening for purely stylistic reasons.

Since Chess is PvP, it is inherently social. You can earn fame in Chess. You can deceive your opponent by deliberately looking at the wrong part of the board. You can humiliate your opponent by beating him especially fast. Pride is very important in Chess, obviously, and yet most people play Chess with good friends. They enjoy spending time together and, generally, the shared experience is very important to them.

The Execution
Even though most Chess players would be disgusted by the thought of it, Chess might arguably be improved by introducing a more challenging execution. Right now even Blitz Chess's execution isn't fast enough to keep your mind busy :).
On the other hand Chess doesn't seem to have any problem at keeping the player's mind busy. As we have seen, the main problems are frustration and a goal that isn't always worth the journey.


  1. Interesting start, but I'm waiting to see where this series ultimately goes.

    One thing to add: Chess appeals to a very specific demographic of people. That includes those who don't play the "games" many of us do who read these kinds of blogs. I think its clear that video games are supposed to be intellectually stimulating. That's why video gamers are usually nerds. On the other hand, athletes call their games Sports, which is why (at least stereotypically) we don't expect those kinds of people to necessarily love video games. One is a game primarily for the mind, the other a game primarily for the body. That's not the suggest in any way that both don't use both. It's just a way of saying that the different kinds of games appeal to different kinds of people based on the kinds of stimulation they like.

    Games as simulations ...maybe you can do another piece on this? I read one you posted a while back, but I think this is worth reconsidering. I think simulation gaming is a genre but that not all games need a compelling simulation. I'm not sure though.

  2. I think simulation gaming is a genre but that not all games need a compelling simulation. I'm not sure though.

    I agree with this. I don't think I said anywhere that all good games have a strong simulation. That would not true at all.

    However, almost all games have some kind of simulation background. Even Tetris profits from the fact that it makes sense to us that blocks stop going down when they hit something.

    Hell, even Poker has a tiny simulation background left when you look at the cards and which cards are best.

  3. This is an interesting series of posts, but I'm not quite getting the goal/journey part of this one.

    The entire point of chess is that it's fun to play. I.e., the "journey" is supposed to be enjoyable. And if chess is fun, then why does it matter whether it increases your social standing?

    Also, there's no shame in losing a game of chess. And even if there were, then every game played with other people has the same issue. How is that a flaw?

    On the simulation issue, I agree with Doone. Some games simulate something, but not all do (abstract strategy games don't, for example). So I don't think simulation is an essential element of a game like rules and goals are.

    Great series of posts, by the way.

  4. I do not see chess as social; it is a zero-sum PvP game.

    For example, take bridge. You are bonding with your partner. In fact, better bridge players are trying to, within the rules work better together . Whereas if I am so frustrated/angry/ashamed I lost to my opponent is going to spend 20 hours polishing my Caro-Kann or Smith-Morra , I see that more as competitive than social.

    I.e., I can not see wanting to play chess on a first date with someone I "wanted to get to know better"

  5. Hagu, when I say 'social' I mean interaction with other players. In this context cheating or deceiving someone is social.

    Whether the social experience is an enjoyable one certainly depends on the player. The are people who like to play chess against each other. They enjoy the company even if eventually one of them loses.

    Not everybody has a big problem with losing ;)