Now imagine that you chose to do it of your own free will.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we’re playing games. And the single word “chose” is the difference between fun and toiling under a sadistic taskmaster.
The rest is the same: the rules, the limitations, the work and the stress. But when we choose to do it it’s not bad stress, it’s good stress.
Good and Bad Stress
The scientific distinction between types of stress is Stress and Eustress. Eustress is stress with the greek prefix eu- added to it. Eu means “good” or “well” so eustress means, literally, “good stress”.
Eustress isn’t about what we feel, since the body’s physical reactions are identical in both cases, but rather how we interpret it. It’s a question of threat (stress) vs challenge (eustress). In both instances the physical symptoms are the same, with a rush of hormones (adrenaline mostly but also others) and elevated physical reactions (like heart rate). But stress leads to negative results: anxiety, withdrawal, depression. Eustress leads to positive results: flow, enhanced mental and physical function, feelings of anticipation and joy.
That’s what we feel when we’re playing engaging games.
That’s what we want our players to feel: good stress.
So how do we do that?
The same way that stress happens in real life: promise them things they care about and then threaten to remove those things.
It can be giving them the means of building a long connection in Ticket to Ride while at the same time threatening to let another player build it first. It can be showing them good cards in Through the Ages while giving the other players the means to take them first. It can mean giving them an overwhelming advantage in the Barbarossa scenario in :Eurofront: while at the same time giving them the next-to-impossible task of trying to take Moscow.
We can express this in a different way: give them the power to act coupled with the risk of acting wrongly.
So in TTR we’re giving them the power of taking cards that they’ll need later but balancing it with the risk of not building that link when they should. In TTA we give them the power of acting in multiple directions at once balanced by the risk of acting in the wrong direction. In Eurofront we give them the power of strong units coupled with the risk of under- or over-using those units. Either way it’s a power coupled with a risk and that risk will create stress.
But we can’t make the risks too large, the tension too high. If the risks are too high either the players won’t take them (risk reduction behavior) or they won’t care any more (defaitist behavior). In either case the tension they feel will be lessened, and their immersion and enjoyment of the game will be too. And we can’t let the stress become too low or they won’t care about the game at all.
Creating Flow through Stress
Thus we ride the dragon of flow, trying to stay on top, trying to keep our players engaged at the top of their abilities. To borrow from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: we want the challenge to match their abilities at every point. Too little challenge and they’re bored, too much and they suffer from anxiety.
So we try to get them into the flow, the channel of eustress. Which is hard to do since our games are static artifacts while players are dynamic actors. In other words: they learn.
That learning is what makes our games fun, what motivates players to sit down to impossible challenges in order to find the solution, the way to beat the system, the opponents, the game. And for a while they struggle, but then they learn the ropes, figure out the tricks. At that point the game no longer generates eustress for them. The challenge lies not in overcoming the game but in overcoming the opponents. And if those opponents are as skilled then the challenge falls to who makes the first mistake (in games like Antike or Chess) or who gets the shaft from Lady Luck (in luck based games like Risk).
But there’s another way, the way of the impossible game. That’s what Pandemic plays at: making the challenge so hard that the players are kept at their toes in every game. One slip and they’re gone. The flip side is that there are games where players can play perfectly and still lose due to poor distribution of events (poor as in “bad draw”, not “badly randomized”). And if players are skilled enough, which they will become if the game is good enough to keep them engaged, they’ll come to a point after which it’s pointless to play since they know the outcome of the game.
That’s why master Chess players will yield while the game is still in play: they see the likely outcome. Novice players will keep playing to the bitter end.
Balancing and Flow
So we’ve got a set of dilemmas: we need to create a game that’s hard enough to keep experienced players engaged while being easy enough to offer solutions to novices. And we need a game that’s learnable while keeping players from mastering it.
One way to do this is the Magic the Gathering and Dominion way: endless variety. If you don’t know all the combinations you won’t know all the possible outcomes. There will always be some measure of uncertainty, some measure of risk, that will generate eustress. But this brings up two problems: One, there will always be the über-geeks, the players that will memorize all the combinations, that will get all the variables just right. And when casual or even advanced players run into them they’ll get creamed.
That’s all right. Losing is part of learning and a good, flow and eustress filled, loss is still fun. But once you’ve gone up against your first Mr. Suitcase in Magic (that’s a player who has ALL the cards because they spent an obscene amount of money on the game) and felt the feeling of being completely outmatched, especially if it’s because of external limitations such as economy, you won’t want to play the game again. The game devolves to an arena for the pundits. Legend of the Five Rings, which I admit I haven’t played, seems to solve this quite nicely by rebooting every few expansions. But for an ordinary board game that’s just not an option.
Some games, like golf, Go or the upcoming Nations, balance this out with handicaps. If you’re a noob you get more resources which gives you a shot against more experienced opponents. Of course, if you’re a complete noob you won’t stand a chance against the pros. But you might stand a chance against advanced players. And, if done correctly, the handicap allows you to play around with the system. You have enough resources so that the learning experience becomes (pardon the pun) a game.
Eustress and Mastery
Speaking of Go: it’s a great example of an unmasterable game. While you can predict the outcome of any particular small scale situation there are dozens of them on the board at any given time. Known not only how they interact but also where to play creates a complexity that goes straight for the intuition – you can’t calculate it stone by stone. At the same time the rules for Go are exceedingly simple as there are only about 10 (varying slightly depending on who writes them down and what version is played).
Thus Go is a game able to generate eustress for both novice and experienced players. Novices will learn the rules and be faced with difficult decisions on the small scale. Experienced players will look at the small scale problems and be forced to take difficult decisions on the large scale, connecting all the small scale problems together. The game works, being able to offer solutions that even novices may see while offering challenge to experienced players (assuming they’ve got decent competition).
Of course, if you’d run a novice against an experienced layer there would be stress on the part of the novice and boredom on the part of the experienced player. Go is a game thats moderated by player skill as much, if not more, than the game system.
It is also an example of the original point – if you were forced to play a master you probably wouldn’t like it much. But if you’d have the opportunity to chose to play a game against one you might enjoy it quite a bit, especially if you were a Go player and were allowed to ask questions as you went along.
That’s what choice does.