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Playing to Win, Part 2: Mailbag


Rebuttals and Clarifications

My original Playing to Win article generated an incredible amount of e-mail, mostly of the form:

Dear Sirlin,

I thoroughly enjoyed your Play to Win article. It has changed the way I think about games. [Or, I always believed the same things about games but you put them into words for me.] What you described about Street Fighter is exactly the same for [game X] that I play.

This man just read Playing to Win. "Game X" took the form of Counter-strike, Virtua Fighter, Magic: the Gathering, Legend of the 5 Rings, Starcraft, Smash Brothers, Scrabble, Tiddlywinks, and many others. It's sort of like when a supreme being speaks and each listener believes the words were spoken directly to him in his native language. Ok, it's not exactly like that, but I had you going there. Seriously though, communities surrounding all sorts of competitive games do face the exact same issues.

Now that the overtly self-congratulatory portion of the article is over, let's move on to those who had disagreements and questions about "Playing to Win."

The Objections

There were some who objected to the entire notion of playing to win. Here are representative samples of their views:

"But I really have a tactic that wins every time! Tower rushing in Warcraft 3 [or camping in Unreal Tournament, or whatever else]. It's not that I'm a scrub, but the game is more fun when I don't use that tactic and when I play against others who also don't use it."

Bad news for you. You are a scrub. You can't e-mail me and claim not to be a scrub, yet exemplify the only pre-requisite! (Well you can, but please don't.) What's worse is that the tactics stated are always tactics I know for a fact not to be "too good." Does tower rushing win every Warcraft 3 tournament? No. Are all the best Unreal Tournament players hardcore campers (players who sit in one spot on the map)? No. Then what are you complaining about? Learn the counter to the strategy. If there is no counter (there is a 99.9% that there is, but you don't know about it), then enter some tournaments, win them all and prove it. If you manage to do that, then fine, you've exposed the game as a degenerate one that you should probably no longer play. Otherwise, expand your horizons and learn more about the game. I suppose you could continue to play your homemade version of the game against other scrubs, but I think you'd be missing out.

"What about using the map hack in Starcraft, or a packet interceptor, or a macro to cast your spells faster, or a server that enforces no camping in a first person shooter, or just a swift kick to the shins of your opponent?"

First let's address the smarty-pants questions, then get to the heart of the issue. One of the great things about playing to win is that it's a path of self-improvement that can be measured. Becoming a better cook is also path of self-improvement, but it's more subjective and much more difficult to measure. In playing to win, we have the cold, hard results of winning and losing to guide us. I think it's only useful to consider winning and losing in the context of formal competition, such as tournaments. Kicking your opponents in the shins is outside the scope of the game, and is not legal in any reasonable tournament.

Likewise, any 3rd party program obtained from an illegal warez site and installed as a hack into your game is also not going to be legal in any reasonable tournament. These things, though technically useful to those trying to win, are outside the path of continuous self-improvement that I'm talking about. You should use any *tournament legal* means to win. If you participate in some strange tournament where all players are allowed to use a map hack, then go for it. You're playing a rather weird, non-standard version of the game, though, which defeats the whole purpose of shedding extra rules so as to play the same game as everyone else. Any reasonable person would consider "no cheating from outside the game" to be part of the default rule-set of any game.


Things outside the scope of the game are usually banned.
Leave your narcotic analgesics at home, kids.

The case of a server that monitors camping (sitting in one place too long) in a first person shooter, is a little more interesting. It meets the very important criteria for a ban of strict enforceability (players need no friendly agreement; the server knows exactly who breaks the rule and hands out a penalty). I think it fails on two other counts, though.

1) The tactic of camping is almost certainly not a game-breaking tactic, so it has no place being banned in the first place.

2) If it were a game-breaking tactic, it's just too hard to fairly monitor. If camping is defined as staying within one zone for 3 minutes, and if it really is the best tactic, then sitting that zone for 2 minutes 59 seconds becomes the best tactic.

A ban must be enforceable, warranted, and concrete (or discrete). The last requirement is really just part of the first, I suppose. Imagine that repeating a certain sequence of 5 moves over and over is the best tactic in a game. Further suppose that doing so is "taboo" and that players want to ban it. There is no concrete definition of exactly what must be banned. Can players do 3 repetitions of the 5 moves? What about 2 reps? What about 1? What about repeating the first 4 moves and omitting the 5th? Is that ok? The game becomes a test of who is willing to play as close as possible to the "taboo tactic" without breaking the (arbitrary) letter of the law defining the tactic.

Some games have it easier than others when it comes to banning. In the card game Magic: the Gathering, it's easy to create an enforceable, discrete ban. "Card X is now illegal. If you have card X in your deck, you are disqualified." The tough part there is whether the ban is actually warranted.

Street Fighter Again!

Speaking of banning, forgive my tangent into the world of Street Fighter. In the 10 year history of the 30 different versions of the game, there has only been one banning issue which had any serious debate: the issue of "roll canceling" in Capcom vs. SNK 2 (CvS2). So-called "roll canceling"is a bug-exploit that allows a player to cancel a ground roll within the first 5/60ths of a second into any special or super move, retaining the invulnerability of roll during the special or super. Let's try that again. Roll canceling is a bug requiring difficult timing that allows a player to have many invulnerable moves that the game designers never intended.

Some people claimed that players would never master roll canceling. That was just foolish, so I'll pretend I never heard that. Players will master anything that will help them win. Some players claimed that if you can beat person A, but not person B, and both A and B learn to roll cancel, that you will still beat A but not B. Others believed that even if the game ended up being all about roll canceling vs. roll canceling, that there would still be a game. Others, including myself, believed that roll canceling would ruin the game, making it degenerately unplayable. The actual results are amusing.

On August 9-11, 2002, we held the largest fighting game tournament ever in the United States. 20 players from Japan attended and CvS2 was one of the 3 primary tournament games. Most American players did not learn to roll cancel (including myself, I did not take the game seriously). Most Japanese players did. The 7th and 8th place finishers were from the US; the top 6 finishers were all Japanese. The player who won the tournament, Tokido of Japan, played Blanka and Honda(!?), using nothing but roll cancelled invulnerable versions of their self-projectile moves. This tactic absolutely destroyed the #1 US player (who even used roll canceling himself!), and the other Japanese finalist, who was clearly the better player. The "better player" just never got a chance to actually do anything during entire the set of games since the roll cancelled Blanka ball seemed unbeatable.

Should roll canceling be banned? I'm pretty sure it meets the standard of "warranted" since I'm satisfied that under serious tournament conditions, the game completely fell apart into a joke. Unfortunately, the ban would be practically unenforceable, since roll cancelled moves are exceedingly hard to actually detect or prove. I should note that many top players of the game believe that the tactic creates a different, but non-degenerate game, so it should not be banned. Ha!

Whew, we made it through more Street Fighter mumbo-jumbo. Back to the complaints!

"But playing hard against beginners (or my girlfriend) is mean. I play down to their level so it will be close."

This one is tough. Many people presented elaborate situations which were basically equivalent to them being stuck on a desert island with only one video game and one opponent who is doomed never to improve and claimed that it is more fun not to play to win since it would always be a blowout. In such a case, I suppose I concede the point.



Apparently, several of my readers are in this situation. But what about a case where you have ready access to a variety of opponents? I'll present the case of legendary Street Fighter player Thomas Osaki (darn, back to that game again). I did not actually play with Thomas during his heyday, but I have since met him and I hope he forgives any misrepresentation of his conduct during his glory years.

Thomas Osaki dominated the game of Street Fighter in Northern California. His reputation for "playing to win" was quite extreme. They say he never really engaged in "casual play," but rather always played his hardest, as if every game had something on the line or was a serious tournament. They say he played this way regardless of his opponent, even if his opponent was a 9 year-old girl with no skill at the game. He would "stutter step, throw" her like all the rest (a particularly "cheap" tactic). Did he have no compassion at all? Was he just a jerk? I like to think of Thomas (or his legend, in case it happens not to be true) not as mean player, but as an inspiring player. He set a bar of excellence. In his path of self-improvement, he was not willing to compromise, to embrace mediocrity, or to give less than his all at any time. His peers had the extraordinary opportunity to experience brilliant play whenever he was near, not just at rare moments in a tournament.

And what of the 9 year-old girl? Perhaps she had no business playing in the first place. From Thomas's view, getting her off the machine allowed him to face the opponents he "should" be facing anyway.

*pause for hate-mail*

Because I'm psychic, I can tell that you violently object to the above, and that you have three specific grievances:

1) "I can't play that way, because if I did, and even if I believed it was the best path to self-improvement, I DON'T have a steady stream of opponents in the game I play. I have a limited audience and playing that way, or playing to win at all, alienates them so I am forced to tone it down."
2) "If everyone played that way, no one would ever be able to learn the game."
3) "There are better things in life than winning. You are just a rude bully."

On the fist point--yeah. You got me. If playing your hardest prevents your opponents from playing you, and you have access to only a very few opponents, I guess you're stuck. Sorry. Too bad you don't play Warcraft 3 or some internet game with endless opponents. You will be unable to improve past a certain point, so make the best of it, find more opponents, or play a different game.

On the second point, I guess you got me again. You, the expert player, are powerful in the narrow domain of whichever game you play. How will you use that power? Perhaps you will judge who is worthy to be taught the secret knowledge and who is to be dispatched quickly. Perhaps you will take one of the two extremes, and either defeat all or nurture all. No matter what you do, I am strongly in favor of you passing on your wisdom and passion to other players. It's no "fun" being good at an esoteric game with no players, so it is even to your advantage to train and mentor new players. But beware--all training and no "real playing" can weaken you. Thomas "trained" his peers by exemplifying excellence, setting an inspiring standard. But what is the "moral" thing to do? Does morality matter in this context?

This whole area is far beyond the scope of my ability to advise. It all comes down to what your goal really is. To improve yourself? To improve others? To win? To have "fun"?

We need to take about 100 steps back and remember what the whole point of "playing to win" was in the first place. It's certainly not about beating 9 year-old girls at Street Fighter.

The Whole Point

Imagine a majestic mountain nirvana of gaming. At its peak are fulfillment, "fun", and even transcendence. Most people could care less about this mountain peak, because they have other life issues that are more important to them, and other peaks to pursue. There are few, though, who are not at this peak, but who would be very happy there. These are the people I'm talking to. Some of them don't need any help; they're on the journey. Most, though, only believe they are on that journey but actually are not. They got stuck in a chasm at the mountain's base, a land of scrubdom. Here they are imprisoned in their own mental constructs of made up game rules. If they could only cross this chasm, they would discover either a very boring plateau (for a degenerate game) or the heavenly enchanted mountain peak (for a "deep" game). In the former case, crossing the chasm would teach them to find a different mountain with more fulfilling rewards. In the latter case, well, they'd just be happier. All "playing to win" was supposed to be is the process of shedding the mental constructs that trap players in the chasm who would be happier at the mountain peak.


You could be up there. I don't think there's any internet connections up there, though.

This brings us to point 3 from way back ("there are more things to life than winning"). A lot of people get rubbed the wrong way by this stuff because they think I want to apply "playing to win" to everyone. I don't. It's not that I think everyone should or would want to be on that peak. There are other peaks in life, probably better ones. But those who are stuck in the chasm really should know their positions and how to reach a happier place.

Thanks for all the responses.


References (71)

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Reader Comments (31)

so playing by some tournament or gamer groups arbitrary rules is better for 'high' gaming than playing the game the way the game designers intended it to be played? I don't think so; glitches and bugs aren't supposed to be there, so either don't use them or get the game developer to fix them or fix them yourself if you know how. I think a lot of gamers do the same thing you say "scrubs" do even though they consider themselves elite gamers; use any means necessary to win. Even if it's not supposed to be in the game. I have never played street fighter, I've played soul caliber and dbz budokai tenkaichi and smash bros 1 and brawl; never really the second one. It sounds like roll cancelling is cheating. I program, it's frickin hard to get absolutely everything working exactly the way you intended; but either players will make you aware of the anomaly and you can fix it or just expect the players to know they're not supposed to do that. But yes, people telling me I can't block and throw when all they do is spam "a" attacks is annoying. Play games the way they're meant to be played, no programming glitches allowed, EVER, learn the attacks and counters to the attacks involving movement, timing and the attacks themselves; only way it comes down to skill. Never played in a tournament; but if the tournament allows glitches and programming error in play; then I don't wanna play in that tournament. Later sirlin.

February 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterhrel

I disagree with hrel. An aspect of the game, regardless of how integral it is, is not enough to warrant a ban simply because of it being a glitch. L-cancelling and wavedashing - both exploits of game physics - in Super Smash Bros. Melee make the game what it is now- a balanced, deep game.

Response by Sirlin: L-cancelling contributes zero depth to the game. It involves no decisions. If opponent does X, then you should L-cancel no matter what X was. It's purely an execution tax to play the actual game underneath.

March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMinwu

"No programming glitches allowed, EVER"? Hahahaha, so I take it you never combo in Street Fighter II?

March 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJackson McDungbeetle

hrel: The concept of 'how something was meant to be played' doesn't work. It's not that easy to ask the developer how the game is meant to be played. And without asking them you rarely have a hint about what they thought about anything in the game. A few examples on features from games:

Roll cancelling (CVS2): Probably starting a roll sets a timer for startup-invincibility that is not reset if you cancel the roll. Seems to be something the deveopers didn't want to be there, since in the EO-Version it was removed.

L-Cancelling (SSBM): You'd imagine it to be similiar to RC, since it has something to do with a timer again. Basically it works like this: if you do something just before hitting the ground, any air-attack's recovery time gets halved. But wait, if it was a bug, shouldn't it be rather something like the recovery being cacelled, because the game directly sets the state to 'on ground' from 'air attack recovery' and the remaining recovery frames get dropped? I've even heard it worked in the N64-game that way. Halving is not as simple as setting to zero. So it might just be something that was meant to be there, but that also got out of hand, so in Brawl it is limited to some attacks and there it's automatic.

Snaking (Mario Kart): Snaking was there in Mario Kart DD and even the team of Mario Kart DS probably knew of its power, still it was added and is an integral part of the game. Yet not everyone agrees the game was meant to be played like that. Also snaking is not there in Mario Kart Wii anymore.

Jump Install (Guilty Gear XX): Basically it's a technique where you 'jump without actually leaving the ground' and it probably was not meant to be there when it first was used. The developers often use the way dedicated players use the game system as source of inspiration. In Accent Core, the latest Edition of Guilty Gear XX, this 'glitch' was not only not removed, but some moves 'auto Jump Install' now, meaning you don't even need to 'Jump Install yourself' anymore to use these moves the same way.

So basically there are cases where developers don't notice something and don't want it in the game when they learn about it, there are cases where the developers keep things they first didn't intend in later iterations of the game. There are even cases where developers notice 'glitches' or other unusual behavior in games and keep them because they think it's better this way. In the end you rarely know if a feature was meant to be there and even less if developers would want you to use it. The best way of coping with that is to accept that every limitation of the game is voluntary and that it's everyone's right to not limit himself to what you think was intended.

March 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMetadeos

You know what Sirlin? I just got around to thinking something. Maybe it's implied and maybe I just needed to connect the dots, but I realized something dangerous about unnecessarily banning strategies and actions. If an action is banned, all possible outcomes relating to that action are hampered, affecting the gameplay itself.

Let's say you and I are playing Dead or Alive. Somehow, we're at a worthwhile tournament that has arbitrarily banned the use of ring-out. At some point in our match, I have you cornered against the edge of the stage. I suddenly realize that I can't ring you out (which will disqualify me), so that hampers my ability to play. Instead of the great combo that I had planned, I now have to change gears entirely so I stop "fighting" you. Maybe I have to dodge to the side. Maybe I have to reverse you so you're closer to the center of the stage. None of these options is as good as what I had originally intended. Now because of the arbitrary rule, several pieces of my playing style are collaterally damaged (and better yet, you could take advantage of it by standing right next to the edge and daring me to ring you out).

While it could be argued that it's a null case (if I were a good player I wouldn't have let you get pushed against the edge of the stage in a no-ringout match), the concept is still the same.

March 13, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterslb1900

Okay, the last paragraph of this second article was what was missing from the first. I think if that clarification had been made before the first Playing to Win, there would have been much fewer people arguing about something that was implied (perhaps unintentionally) in the first article: Winning is best.

Response by Sirlin: I wrote an entire BOOK about this subject which clarifies many topics greatly! And it's free for you to read online! ...

March 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarl

It's funny how you always seem to put the word fun in quotation marks. Almost like you don't quite grasp the concept. And then there's they way you weave your words. Very condescending. I caught your response to my comment. I'll give it to you that "playing to win" isn't a school of thought for everybody and "circus playing" really seems to offend you. "Shedding mental traps" as you put it is a relative concept; I mean, wouldn't you just exchange the "mental trap" of scrubbery for that of "playing to win"? We've all got some mindset to latch onto while playing. I have to say I'm quite offended that you're so quick to say I don't know what I'm talking about. I've been gaming for at least 18 years. And while I don't have books to peddle , I've done pretty well against "professional" players with my style of gaming. I don't get high number combos, I don't get perfects, but I do get wins. "Not knowing what I'm doing"? That's a pretty nebulous, presumptous and borderline fascist statement. By that , do you mean I don't know how to exploit bugs, or main with the top tiers? I know how to use the special moves , I know that the game has a six( or more) attack button layout and tend to actually use more than one. I know what to avoid and how to prevent potentially dangerous stuff from happening and I know what a lethal joke character is. You really seem to hate "house rules" but there's nothing wrong with some common decency in a game. It's basically like bringing a gun to a knife fight; sure you'll win pretty easily but , who's going to respect you when you win , and worse , who won't laugh at you when you lose?

July 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStylestar

Stylestar: your comment is below the quality threshold that I think should be approved to appear here. Try posting in the forums instead. You're being insulting, you're not adding to the conversation in any way, and your concept that "professional players aren't that good while circus players are" makes no sense by the very definition of what "professional player" means (person who wins a lot).

Like I said, if you're here to insult me and argue for the sake of arguing, the forums would be the place to do that, not here.

EDIT: by the way, you do have "free speech" in the forums so go for it and good luck with that. This comment section should really be not full of insults and bad posts though.

July 15, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Your article took my mindset to a whole new level. I kinda use playing video games as an analogue to performing in the real world. If money or life is on the line you play to fucking win. Period. If I tone down my performance in anything (even something as trivial as a video game) I am basically conditioning myself to the scrub mindset. I would rather perform at my best all the time in everything I do so if life, money, or good lovin' is on the line I will not default to some lame, homemade rule set. As to the 'how will new players learn if you rape them all the time?' mantra...well I started a very specialized mod of Quake 3 arena...the "rail jump mod" or "insta" mod. I got raped for three months straight. But I kept at it because I was forced to learn against the best. You CAN learn getting raped all the time: it just takes a little longer. Hell, after that experience, I prefer to start any new game against the best because I know I will be tenacious and my mind will eventually give me counters to try and practice. I am now very good at q3 rail mod: not the best, mind you, but for an old guy that was never really into FPS games I have developed a solid skill set and this mental attitude carries over into the rest of my life and the things I AM the best at. :)

August 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterq3rail

Whoa this last Saturday I was completely destroyed on Brawl, I thought I was getting better, but even if I did get better at it, my opponent improved even more. We don't "play to win" and have our own code of practice because of what type of game Brawl is. So technically that's a "scrubby ruleset", okay let's see, we were playing by a "scrubby ruleset" so in your mountain analogy.

The Peak is "Improvement", "Fun" (a word you obviously hate) and "Whatever", "Scrubs" can never reach this Peak?

I was destroyed and at the same time I couldn't stop laughing at everything me and my opponent did, he ended up taking a break for a while, I (playing as Peach) started digging for items, when we restarted I abused that item (Mr Saturn) then in another match I tried getting some more people online, got a drink and went to relieve myself.

I left him fighting two level 9 AIs who were supposed to be on my team, but they betrayed me by, attacking me and eachother, nobody else showed up, but there wasn't too much lag and we both reached the Peak, losing can be just as enjoyable as winning Sirlin.

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThreadnaught

These guys complaining about the subjectivness of what is broken vs not broken don't seem to fully understand what they are talking about, though I see their point of view.

The whole thing with taking advantage of bugs is that if everyone can take advantage of it then it isn't an imbalancing factor. There will always be bugs, but if those bugs can be used to enhance the game rather than detract from it then it isn't a breaking factor. If the bug results in people avoiding the game because there is no point in playing against someone who's exploiting it then that's broken. But how many people, and at what skill level do you say their opinion of what is broken and what isn't counts? In the end it has to be a community thing, not an individual user's determination that identifies something as 'broken'. In the case of Akuma, the community has spoken - it hasn't been a contested issue for years. Stop griping as if it's Sirlin alone who decided this, all he did was explain how the community came to it's conclusion.

August 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTheSauce

Modern Warfare 2 Online Multiplayer is horrible for newcomers no matter their skill level. Why?

Because anyone who has been playing long enough has unlocked certain Perks, Weapons and Equipment to give their characters, the P90 is still supposingly broken because it's still a very powerful weapon capable of netting even a complete noob a few easy kills.

Something that was horribly Broken in the original, the Helicopter Killstreak Reward, it has not been toned down in MW2, there's actually a better version and a player controlled one as well as an AC130. Why isn't it as bad in MW2? Cold Blooded, which has the benefit of making the player harder to see with Thermal Scopes and makes them invisible to Kill Streak Rewards, as an added bonus getting it to Pro will hide the player's name from and stop another player's crosshair from turning red when another player is aiming at them. This counter is better than multiple players choosing a class with a Grenade Launcher and shooting down the chopper, it also makes it easier to hide anywhere, I've personally seen people frantically shooting corpses just to make sure they're actually dead.

The Riot Shield is apparantly Broken for most people because they don't have the ability to, run away faster on foot then a Shielder can walk while crouched, they don't know how to use equipment to kill the Shielder from behind and some people forget that the Shield only works from one direction. The Riot Shield is meant to be used as part of a tactical movement consisting of someone to hold up the Riot Shield and act like a wall, while another guy hides behind them and leans out to take a few shots, but since nobody I've seen actualy dos this the rear is almost always uncovered, surely this, the lack of ranged combat ability, the inability to know wether or not you're fully protected against the person firing at you from the front and the vulnerable rear are enough to stop it from being broken right? Apparantly not.

There are some Abilities that are legitimately Broken, I haven't personally seen these, but in every game there's something so much better than everything else, a gun that kills in one shot, is highly accurate and keeps it's power from a huge distance, or is so fast at firing and reloading it dosn't matter how many people are attacking you. Oh my god I think I've just provoked a "they're no Akuma" snark, you're going to point out that while many FPS games have guns that are too powerful being far better than anything else, they still require skill and a faster trigger finger than the other players to use effectively. Okay, my counter argument, four different matchups.

1: Super StreetFighter2 Turbo
Novice Akuma vs Pro Not Akuma

2: Super StreetFighter2 Turbo
Pro Akuma vs Pro Not Akuma

3: Modern Warfare2
Novice Broken Weapon, Equipment and Perk Sets on all five Custom Classes vs Pro Preset Classes only

4: Modern Warfare2
Pro Broken Weapon, Equipment and Perk Sets on all five Custom Classes vs Pro Preset Classes only

Who is most likely to win in each matchup?

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThreadnaught

I'm curious how you feel about imbalances which require balancing patches and game updates. For example Starcraft has gone through many balancing updates over the years and so will Starcraft 2. The player who plays to win abuses these imbalances which leads the game designers to enforce balance. I may be a scrub for saying this but to abuse an imbalance is unfair in my mind if it is so bad the game designers must enforce balance via an update.

Also if you are familiar with Gears of War I'd like to know your position on the multiple glitches people abuse. Crab walking... meat shield instant kill... remote chainsaw... I'm sure they are banned in competition though it's hard to play on Xbox Live without encountering it.

September 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTawin

Tawin, your stance is not reasonable. If you are playing a game and tactic X is good, obviously you should use it if you're trying to win. That follows directly from the definition of "trying to win." You can't be expected to glean the possible future decisions of a designer who might or might not patch the game to change the effectiveness of your tactic. The highly likely case is that your tactic is fine anyway and will not be changed. For every 100 times you think whatever it is is too good, maybe one time it will actually be too good. And some fraction of that, it will be changed.

If you restricted yourself to only moves you think are "fair" then you'll never be good.

Also, if you watch the life of a particular game, like Starcraft over the years (or any game) and what you see is players exploring the edges and pushing the limits, and designers making balance patches, what you are seeing is a GOOD thing and not a BAD thing. The players are not even remotely at fault, and the designers are doing their jobs. You should write them a thank-you letter rather than complain.

September 2, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

"You can't be expected to glean the possible future decisions of a designer who might or might not patch the game to change the effectiveness of your tactic."
But what about in situations (like with starcraft 2, iirc) where the devs release patch notes way before the patch is released? What is your stance on the use of tactics that the devs have already decided should be removed in the window when they haven't been removed yet?

November 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterpongopongo

Even still, there are so many ways that can go wrong. What if the patch notes say Zerglings will build 2 seconds slower? You can't really be expected to simulate that while you wait for a patch. Instead, you would use the current zerglings to their fullest potential if you were trying to win. If you made the personal decision to try a different strategy entirely because you know that zerglings will be worse soon, that seems fine. You're trying to get a headstart on learning. But if your opponent crushes you with zerglings, it would be hard to complain.

Maybe if the change in question is fixing a blatant bug you'd have a better case to complain. Your opponent can hardly be expected to not build zerglings (assume they are affected by an upcoming patch) but they could be expected to avoid triggering some obscure, powerful bug that will be fixed. But even THEN, it's hard to fault them. If you refrain from using the bug, you're "playing to win" the upcoming game that doesn't yet exist. If they use the bug, they are "playing to win" the current game in front of them. Choose what you like, but your opponent's choice would seem just as valid.

November 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I don't understand what all the fuss about Sirlin's post is. In CoD: MW2, scrubs say "OMG predator missile to harrier to chopper gunner is SO CHEAP." The fact of the matter is, predator missile => harrier => chopper gunner IS the most dominant sequence of killstreaks because it WORKS WELL. It IS stronger than almost every other combination, but that doesn't warrant banning it completely. It forces a different gameplay style to counter it. Pros would consider using the perk Cold Blooded Pro, or maybe always carrying a launcher to counter this. Staying indoors, playing conservatively, and using good communications will almost always counter this dominant strategy. Another quick example, noob-tubing, is considered unfair to some, especially when paired with the One man Army perk or Scavenger. Simple solution: blast shield.

If there were a "bug" or "glitch" or "code" or WHATEVER on Call of Duty that gives you a nuke with a 2 killstreak, there's no doubt that it WOULD be banned in competitive games. The argument that "well, you just need to be good enough to not let your team die twice in a row to the same person" would be invalid, as the gameplay would be broken. Saying that "well, it's in the game so deal with it" doesn't work either, as this blatantly and obviously breaks the point of the game. The argument "well, just find a new game then" is moot, as this is an otherwise amazing game, and is already played by high level players competitively.

ANY professional game, whether a video game or a sport, has the aspect of playing to win at the professional level. At some point, the officials realized that using steroids is "game breaking" and "ruins the balance of teams." On the other hand, you can't blame the managers of these teams for trying to buy the BEST players, and weeding out the bad ones. Even the "homefield advantage" is like the "code" that only "player 1" can use, but it is still considered fair enough for the game. Even shady tactics, like tackling a quarterback with as much force as you can, so that he is physically weaker for the rest of the game/season is considered fair. Obviously, there are restrictions to prevent this tactic from being overpowered. Even still, some players would rather risk the penalty and "sweep the leg" for their team's benefit. Even with that, there's nothing saying "it's too cheap for the quarterback to have blockers," so until there is something hugely unfair discovered that is "game breaking" like steroids, the officials will keep the rules the same, and the players would be fools to not use every tactic at their disposal to win. If they want to win bad enough, they will do whatever it takes, within the rules of the game.

/end rant

On another note, I'd like to thank Sirlin for such a good article. I've seen myself being a scrub before, and have recently made a concerted effort to actively improve my physical gameplay and analytical skills. There's nothing like the thrill of being brutally defeated, watching the replay, and adapting. The feeling of taking a crushing defeat and turning it into a powerful weapon against other players is exhilarating, and rewarding too. As somebody who recently (within the last 2 months) realized what a scrub I was before, I want to express my appreciation for this information. Keep up the good work, especially this kind of positive work that promotes the appreciation of the intricacies of playing strategically, critical thinking, and analyzing strategy.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFelix James

I guess I should start off by saying that I am an avid fan of the Super Smash Bros. series. I got into the competitive scene and was at one time a ranked player in my state. I see a great deal of Sirlin's points and agree with virtually all of them. In fact, I had no qualms with part 1 of "Playing to win". These "case studies" if you will have raised a few questions though. The few questions that I have are based more on ambiguity than anything.

The first one was with the example of Thomas hypothetically beating a 9 year old girl. I understand the premise and see that you may have used such an emotion-invoking example to prove a point. Personally, as a competitive smash player I play to win even the first time I play someone. I will mercilessly stomp them, and if they are still willing to play afterward I will gladly teach them to the best of my ability. That being said, were a 9 year old girl to come up to me and want to play smash brothers, I simply wouldn't. The unsaid, but present underlying factor of the example is that this girl doesn't know any better. Of course you aren't trying to apply "play to win" to everyone, but in your example Thomas readily and seemingly aggressively forces it upon someone who surely doesn't know any better and isn't going to be able to understand it. I grasp the concept; I gladly destroy "scrubs" who are no better than that 9 year old would be. They are no closer to understanding my mentality than she is, and upon our first match don't know any better. They fit the description of the girl in all aspects that you intend without adding the unintentional aspect of vulnerability and moral consideration. This girl isn't even a "scrub" in that she has no ability to learn anything from this, even if she were willing. Even from a "play to win" standpoint one must ask, "was there really no better option than to annihilate this girl because she was on that system?" and, "Even if you are the best, is it really up to you to decide who "should" be playing the game?" I certainly agree with your point, but I feel the inclusion of someone who quite possibly has never encountered a "play to win" mentality before detracted from that point to a degree. "9 year old girl" could have been easily, and more appropriately changed to "random scrub" or something less emotion-driving. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Secondly, as a smasher I found your comment on how l-cancelling is something of a toll to play the game interesting, but very enlightening. As a player who has played all 3 games, I was somewhat used to it and was sad to see it go after 2 games straight. That being said, your statement is very is true. I miss maybe one l-cancel a set along with all my friends so its presence or absence basically goes unnoticed at a competitive level anyhow. I do, however miss the inclusion of combos, dash-dancing, crouch canceling, and to some degree wavedashing.

Dash-dancing was an excellent way to space and to bait a response to a perceived approach. Because dashdancing was only useful if used strategically and wasn't just "good" if you learned how to do it, Brawl's depth was hurt by its removal. Crouch canceling is a great example of a "counter". It decreased knock back and hitstun, so at low percents it allowed a fresh character to take a hit then counter with a KO move on a damaged character in some situations. It was countered by several multi-hit moves in the game though because the lowered knock back allowed those moves to hit more times than they were supposed to, wracking up damage and denying the crouch-canceller his counter by pushing him out of range anyway. Aside from the offensive uses of wavedashing for 2 characters, it's main use was really to have extra options. It allowed for movement out of shield and for more consistent spacing than dashdancing. Again, it was useless unless used strategically so I would argue it did bring depth to the game in the form of more viable options.

I saved combos for last because I would again like to know your thoughts on the matter. I think we would both agree that since combos weren't completely removed from brawl, and only given to certain characters that, at least removes some depth from the game. That isn't really pertinent though. Combos in Melee are unique in that the victim has some say in which direction the move sends them. Because of this, the victim constantly has to influence the direction they are being sent to minimize the effectiveness of the combo while the attacker has to mix up their moves to keep the effectiveness. This exchange is in the attacker's favor, but I feel it should be. This also definitely requires skill and isn't just "button skill". Unfortunately in Brawl, the victim of a single hit will be able to move freely by the time the attacker can reach them. This gives the advantage to whomever has the better aerial game if the attacker tries to follow up, regardless of who scored the first hit. I find that to be rather displeasing aesthetically and competitively. So, what are your thoughts? Do you prefer a fighter with combos to one without, or do you feel that there is fundamentally no difference to someone whose only goal is to win?

I'm in the process of reading your book and may find my answers there, but I just started so I haven't run into it yet. Thanks for writing it!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBKnight

Some of your responses to the rebuttals reveal that your attitude toward competitive games isn't as thoroughly committed to "playing to win" as you initially indicated.

Suppose I were to take your purported stance at face value, and decide that I should play to win at all costs. In this case, I would conclude that it is indeed desirable to kick you in the shins, unplug your controller, stand in front of the screen so you can't see, or do whatever else it takes to get an advantage. When you object that these tactics fall outside the game, I inform you that I have made them part of the game by using them strategically, and that you have been served poorly by imagining that such distinctions even exist. The game doesn't "know" what is inside or outside of itself; it only "knows" winning or losing. Your arbitrary rule that I can't physically intimidate you during the game is hindering your progress as a gamer, preventing you from ascending the higher and happier peak of self-improvement you could reach by including real-life physical violence in your strategic repertoire. You are a "scrub" for even suggesting otherwise.

Now of course, I do understand that your true opinions are not so extreme as this and that you've said so in this very article. Good. I'm glad you are not as obsessed with winning as this intentionally absurd caricature. However, what I'm noting is that this more reasonable attitude does not comport well with the way you introduced these ideas in the first article. Frankly, you seem to have backpedaled a bit, and that's probably for the best.

The way you've described it, a "scrub" is anyone whose highest priority in a game is anything other than winning. And yet, you know as well as anyone that winning at games is not the most important thing in life and that outside priorities do not magically disappear or become irrelevant while a game is happening. Games are part of life, not some alternate reality in which we should be expected not to behave like humans.

Your observation that playing for fun is not the optimal way to advance in skill is trivial; if you prioritize winning and try really hard to win, you will obviously be more likely to win. Duh. What's strange is that you are critical of people who don't want to win as badly as you do. Why is that? People are allowed to have different priorities, and playing to win at all costs may be a poor strategy in terms of how well it serves external purposes. If a person decides to play a certain way because it is more fun for him/her, then so be it. Fun, after all, is the primary reason people play games at all. If trying really, really hard to win is less fun for some people, then it isn't an optimal strategy for them in this broader sense. I see no good reason they should subvert their primary goal in favor of a win condition imposed by you, by the game designers, or by anyone else. Such an approach to gaming may be whimsical, but it is not arbitrary.

I can understand how it may annoy you that when you play with casual gamers, you are working at cross purposes. I also think some gamers are just looking for a way to express their frustration about losing while avoiding the "sore loser" stigma. They'll complain and criticize you for beating them, whether justifiably or not. They may try to validate these feelings by playing the game in a way that is mindful of a system of gaming etiquette derived largely from sensitivity to common complaints. These behaviors may seem foreign to you, but they too are not arbitrary. The game at hand is merely one theater in the larger social metagame.

I appreciate your insight into game design but I can't really say the same about your dismissive and simplistic descriptions of the behaviors of casual gamers. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed this series of articles. Thanks!

May 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRandom Scrub

Random Scrub, you're really way far off base here. It seems you're just trying to pick a fight, too. Either that, or you've vastly misrepresented my points, and then argued against the misrepresented versions.

You claim that I'm critical of those trying to have fun. Literally page 1 of my book explains that's not true. Play however you want, this is only for people actually trying to win:
In light of that, the last three paragraphs of your post seem directed at some way of thinking that is not mine. Perhaps you've imagined things that are not true of my philosophy.

You also said that really playing to win involves cheating and kicking people in the shins. No it doesn't, because we are talking about winning in tournaments here. Getting kicked out of tournaments and banend for cheating and kicking people in the shins in not a good way to win. If that's your strategy over the years, imagine how that is going to pan out against truly great players who learn to play the actual game well. So actually, what you're saying is the thing that *isn't* playing to win, while while what I'm saying is playing to win: the path of continuous self-improvement.

It's honestly sad that after reading about playing to win, your conclusion is that you think I said there's something wrong with people who aren't doing it, and that people who are trying to do it should kick people in the shins. Both of those statements go against everything I've said. The only thing "wrong" is when a person not-playing-to-win (which is fine, in and of itself) claims that a person who is trying to win should stop trying so hard. That's the surprisingly prevalent attitude I'm saying doesn't add up.

I suggest you try the full text of the free book at to get a better perspective on what I'm actually saying.

May 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

@ Random Scrub: Really, it just seems that you've got the philosophy backward. What Sirlin explain in his book is that the goal is to get better at something, and winning is how you measure. In other words, achieving elite skill is the end, whereas winning is the means to fulfill that. If I'm reading your post right (correct me if I'm not, please) with your phrase "win at all costs", you're taking what Sirlin's saying to mean that "winning" is the end that we should be striving for.

The reason for this is that this book is about competitive games, where someone wins and someone else loses. In this case, winning's USUALLY the best way to measure skill. (Not always, for in games like poker, the poorer player can win, and often does). To prove to yourself (the only person you really need to prove anything to) that you're good, you need to win the games that you play.

For example, I've played a few browser based games that I've climbed to the top of (, for example), and I'm proud that I've won, but I'm MORE proud that people have come to me for advice. Since I think the game's more fun with better opponents than weaker ones, I was happy to teach what I learned, despite the fact that it can be used against me. What it was about, was that I had the respect of other people because I played this game better than they did. From there, I tried to use it responsibly.

The real gist of "playing to win" is that it's a path to self improvement. To be fair, you could make the case that it's not that great of one. Not because it's destructive; someone who plays to win and is willing to teach is one thing, someone who plays to win and enjoys taking scalps is another. The distinction there is in the people, not the philosophy.

The reason I would say that it's "not that great" is because it's really about removing roadblocks to progress, not so much about the progress itself. Going through the book, I was a little disappointed with Sirlin not mentioning other self-improvement essentials, such as enjoying and looking forward to practice just as much, if not more than the competitions. Moreover, it only works at competitive games that have "winners" and "losers". There's plenty of "games" out there that are cooperative where everybody can "win" (raising a family), and games where you're just as likely to succeed via luck as with dedicated work (scientific discoveries, etc.)

In summary, it's not about winning the game, it's about playing the game as best you can. Sirlin's answer to this question is to remove your own limitations. It's a little incomplete, but I still recommend it to my friends. Mainly, it's because so many of us have baggage we need to clear if we're going to get anywhere.

May 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTomm Caudillo

Tomm, I did mention "love of the game" as something I considered as "maybe this is a common trait amongst the best players." Even though it seems like it would be, it wasn't amongst actual top players of various games I knew. There were plenty of top players who didn't even like whatever game it was, they just happened to be good at it, or played because everyone else did, or whatever else. I also mentioned how it certainly can't hurt, and there's a whole section on how it helps, in that if you like a game then you are more interested to find all the nuances of it that you might use someday.

May 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I agree that playing to win is a path to self-improvement. Everybody loves winning, even though it's not the top priority for all players alike (having fun, entertainment etc). However not all fanatics reach the peak where they can compete with the top level. They study the metagame, know the counters and will have a great knowledge on game mechanics, but when facing players of similar skills they fall short. Maybe they are too slow or lack focus, or they hit a plateau where they don't seem to improve any more.

For example let's say "John" is such a player. In his town there are 2 arcades, 1 is frequently visited by his region's top players of Street Fighter, while the other one is mostly filled with casual people. John has been to both arcades but he loses repeatedly to the players in arcade nr. 1 despite his years of experience. Therefore he avoids the first arcade and hangs out at the second one where he can easily beat every opponent with great combos and such while getting much praise from the resident scrubs.

Is John a scrub or is he a pro with bad ethics? Maybe it is human to pick your battles. I've noticed in online shooters that identical players love to enter "noob"-servers" so they can stomp down and easily outclass the rest. This is very apparent at Quake Live where servers are divided between low, mid and high tier servers. When starting players improve their gameplay they move up a tier and servers that were previously marked "difficult" in the server browser, are now marked "normal".

The flaw in this is that people at the highest tier have no problem in entering a server that is marked "very easy" and it is very common in Quake to run into these "tier slummers". They are playing to win just to boost their statistics. Are they in the wrong or should the newcomers take this chance to learn from his gameplay, even though they are getting absolutely destroyed?

(sorry for errors, English is not my native language)

May 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOmnishot

@ Sirlin, I understand what you're saying, and I don't want anyone else reading to think that you never covered things like that. But, I am saying that you could have covered it a bit more. Furthermore, the only reason I say this is because of another book I read, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment by George Leonard. I don't know if there is a "Playing to Win" reading list out there, but if there is, Leonard's book should be on it right alongside your own.

And obviously, my apologies if you've read it already.

@Omnishot: I don't think you've provided enough information to actually decide if "John" is a scrub or not. Scrubs choose, consciously or unconsciously, to limit their own potential. On one hand, John's missing out on a serious learning opportunity in the pro arcade. On the other, he's already a winner at his chosen competition: the arcade 2 Street Fighter "circuit".

I guess a clearer answer would be to define the question better: "is choosing to play downward to lesser competition scrub-like behavior?" I think so, because it's clear that he's still got a long way to go to be the best, and there's no reason he can't be. The other pros at arcade 1 don't have more fingers per hand or longer life bars on their characters. If he wants to get better, he's got to go over there and take his lumps. But, if the question is "Is John a scrub?", I'd have to say no, because he's the biggest fish in the pond he swims in.

In other words, I'd argue that you have many, MANY choices along the way that boil down to "to be a scrub or to not be a scrub". John broke out of the first prison of scrubliness, and should be credited for it. He seems content to stay in his second. Personally, I won't judge him too harshly (this is a video game, not World War Three), but yes, I think he's a scrub in that regard.

I guess that what I'm saying is "scrub" shouldn't be an all-encompassing label. You can't say some one universally is or is not a scrub, just like you can't say that something else is universally good or bad. "Shades of gray", as the old saying goes.

As for "slumming", I think that's an easier question to answer. We all know that winning a game has just as much to do with whether you're playing a hall of famer or a hall of shamer (if "shamer" is actually a word) as anything else. It's up to all of us to look past just the record or rating to see how good someone is. I recommend waiting until he's really challenged. Whether he stands tall or not will tell the tale.

Although, the slummer himself must not have much respect for the people who see him in the ranking lists. Why would the people who care about who the highest ranked Halo player is NOT care about how he got to earn the title? Expecting the people to take his claim of mastery without considering that seems pretty naive, in my opinion.

May 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTomm

I don't know why all of you people limit yourselves. I can beat everyone with hacks and cheats.

May 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJok

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