February 27, 2005

The Evaporation Problem

One ugly difficulty facing game designers and organizers is what I call the Evaporation Problem: the miserable fact that, sometimes, players leave before the game is complete. When this forces the game to an untimely end, I call this evaporation.

Evaporation is obviously unpleasant: outcomes of partial games are not decisive. The untimely end is a general disappointment to players and, especially, the game's organizer, who may feel like a social failure for being unable to provide for her players a full game.

Causes of evaporation

Evaporation happens for a number of reasons, but most commonly:
  1. Some players don't like the game, and see no cause to finish it. (Dissipation)
  2. A player, or (more often) someone from without, suggests a different game or activity, which supplants the original game. Of course, to do this is seriously uncool. (Gamejacking)
  3. Someone must leave on account of an emergency or personal commitment, and play cannot continue (or is significantly altered) with fewer people. (Exigent departure)
  4. Someone leaves for "soft", negotiable personal reasons-- a favorite TV show, a head start on homework. (Nonexigent departure)
To a designer-organizer, dissipation is obviously the most hurtful. Even with great games, though, it will happen. There's also nothing the organizer can do; players vote with their feet. To minimize the risk of this occupational hazard, designer-organizers should try new, invented variants only with trusted players who will (a) be open-minded enough to play the game to completion, even if it seems complicated or difficult at first, (b) be candid if the game is just bad, and (c) provide insightful reasons behind their opinions (positive or negative) about the game.

Gamejacking is a special case of dissipation, but often has nothing to do with the quality of the game itself. A designer-organizer, in order to be able to play and test her games regularly, needs to maintain ties to diverse social circles, and also be willing to play with near-strangers. Realistically, the organizer probably doesn't have the social energy to maintain strong, influential, ties to all potential players. The gamejacker is usually a person with more social influence within the group, and probably unaware of the boorishness of his behavior. (This is no excuse, however. Gamejacking is a no-no and there are people I still don't talk to, because of this offense.)

As for exigent departure, there's also nothing the designer-organizer can do. All good things run the risk of interruption by more pressing matters, such as exams, scheduled meetings, and appendectomies.

Nonexigent departure as "spoiling" activity

Nonexigent departure, on the other hand, is preventable. In my opinion (and I recognize this as potentially controversial) nonexigent departure is a serious breach of the "magic circle", akin to spoilsport behavior. Even the threat of nonexigent departure can rupture a game.

Consider this scenario. It's eleven o'clock at night, one hour into a four-player board game, one player yawns and says, "if this game isn't over in half an hour, I'm going to bed." The game cannot function after his departure. He becomes the fidgety player who, by threat of leaving, exhibits an unfair "metagame" influence over other players. He might encourage others to play faster, becoming more prone to mistakes, while making his moves at normal speed. He will often, without conscious ill intent, tend to disrupt particular players (usually leading) with his threats.

The game's organizer is also placed at further disadvantage: she has an especial social investment in the game. Emotionally, she will likely feel like a failure if her game evaporates before completion, as if she were responsible for the disappointment of her player clientele. This emotional upset also disrupt her play, compromising the integrity of game outcomes.

In subjective terms, when the social and aesthetic value of games are considered, games are usually positive-sum. Winning is still better than losing, but the real payoff, in terms of emotional value, might be +3 for a win, +1 for a loss. When the game ends early by evaporation, however, the real payoff is strongly negative, even to leading players, and especially for the game's organizer (say, -10). Therefore, the fidgety player has a powerful weapon not provided by the game's rules. This is why fidgety behavior, comprised of nonexigent departure and the threat thereof, is extremely detrimental to games.

"Time stops in a game"

This is an informal rule of any game I organize, but one I take very seriously. Of course, there's nothing I can do about exigent departure: if the person must leave, that is non-negotiable and does not reflect boorish behavior on the player's part. By "time stops", I mean to exclude nonexigent departures and fidgety behavior, as I consider them a serious affront to the "magic circle" that games create. The paper not due for three days, an impromptu cell call from a significant other, or another nonrequired social activity do not represent valid reasons to breach it.

Of course, in practice there is no way to "enforce" this rule; if players leave, they do. But nonexigent departures often represent cause not to invite a person to future gaming sessions.

I expect the "time stops" rule to be controversial among some: it represents an effort to control others' time, to restrict their ability to leave a game at will. I agree. It does, but games' rules exist to restrict players' freedoms. A Bridge player surrenders the right to pass notes to his partner, a Soccer (Football, outside US) player rescinds the right to control the ball using her hands.

Likewise, I believe that all social games should include an implicit rule against nonexigent departure, and that such a rule is reasonable. Of course, an obvious exception occurs when a games takes inordinately long in comparison to the expected duration. To limit this as much as possible, organizers should quote accurate time estimates. Even this is, however, difficult: Ambition generally takes about 45 minutes per game, but among more advanced Carleton players, who tend to be deliberate, a single game can exceed two-and-a-half hours.

In practice, it is probably best for all players to agree, beforehand, on a "rain check" time after which, if the game is not complete, they may suspend the game and resume it later. After all, sometimes games just end up being much longer than expected.


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