Everything I Know About Gaming I Learnt From Dogs

“Not everyone has to want to win, but everyone has to play as if they want to win”
– Reiner Knizia

To be fair, some of it I already knew but I relearnt it watching dogs.

Dogs are born with a lot of instincts, including the instinct to play. But those play instincts are primitive. They know only a few basic game “concepts”; basically just activities they find fun. These are pulling, shaking, and running.

Everything else they have to learn. There’s the wrestling game and the chasing game and the being chased game, and they generally learn these from their humans or other dogs. They also – importantly – have to learn how to ask for what games they want, and how to negotiate with the other players. I had a nervous little dog once who loved to be chased more than anything but his nervous temperament meant he found it almost impossible to successfully get other dogs to chase him. Negotiating to get the play you want is a lot more complicated than learning how to play the game. It is therefore, a sign of canine intelligence and sociability. An average dog can learn a game. A smart dog can ask for and get it, and knows who to ask to play it with, and why. The smart kelpie I dogsit knows that only dogs about her size can wrestle, but small and large dogs alike will chase her.

And when little dogs are chasing her, she stays in the open, where their little turning circles keep them close. With big dogs, she runs straight into the undergrowth, where her superior vision and agility lets her equal their speed.

Nowhere, though, is negotiation and game learning more clear than in the game of tug-of-war. Here the game is very simple: one dog on one side of an object, one dog or human on the other, and each pulls as hard as they can. Now the thing is, dogs differ on how they play it. Some dogs are chewers and hoarders and when they win, they run off with the toy and chew it or bury it or just revel in the having. Some dogs are runners and when they get it, they run off with it to be chased. And some dogs are pullers. All they want is to pull. A dumb puller thought will pull and pull and get the object, run off with it, and then wonder where the game has gone. A smart dog knows the fun is in the pulling not the having. A smart dog will, the moment he wins, give the object back.

And a really smart dog will, if they sense they are winning, pull less hard, or if they sense they are losing, change position to get more ground. It’s not enough to pull, you see – it has to be a close-run thing. It has to be in doubt.

A friend of mine has small children, and like many small children growing up in the Australian world of summer sun and swimming pools, they spend a lot of their swimming time playing Marco Polo, a kind of sound-based blind-man’s-bluff. Their pool is miniscule and his reach enormous, he could easily catch the children. So he cheats – he peers through cracks in his shut eyes and makes sure he gets them sometimes, misses them others, but always, always, comes close.

A big part of what game design is for is to do all this negotiation for us. By selecting what game we want to play, we make decisions about what kind of game we want, and what kind of play is allowed and accepted, and we signal to everyone present what kind of gaming goals we have. But because of that, a lot of the decisions we’re making become subconscious and invisible, and we don’t know we’re actually making them. Or we pretend that because they are in the game itself, we haven’t chosen them at all, simply had them thrust upon us. So it’s important to understand these decisions or you just won’t see how a game operates.

The fact is, some people are hoarders. They want to win. More than absolutely anything at all, they play for that sweet tang of victory. But some people  – maybe most people – are pullers. They want to pull on the rope. Now, while pulling on the rope, they have to pull. They have to WANT to win. Even though you and your dog knows that getting the rope isn’t worth anything if you don’t try to get the rope as if you want it, the pulling isn’t fun.

The difference between pulling and getting is fundamental to game design. On some level, almost every game has to acknowledge this, and figure out which one it’s about. Yet we never really talk about it.

Take the world’s most popular game, for example, Contract Bridge. Bridge ends all the time, but it doesn’t matter, because the point of Bridge is to win a single hand (in Duplicate) or a Rubber (in Rubber). The moment it finishes, you start another. There is literally no end to Bridge really, it’s just constant iterations of infinite possibilities, and you just keep generating them. During each hand you pull as hard as you can and there’s no risk that the fun will ever stop because as soon as someone gets the toy, you just give it back and start pulling again.

Chess, on the other hand, has a problem: once you start winning by enough, it’s hard to stop. This is fine if you’re a hoarder. No problem at all. You WANT to win in as few as moves as possible. Chess gives no points for taking longer to win – in fact you can often lose by delaying too long, no matter how much kinesthetic pleasure you find in moving the little pieces. In other words, chess is a game which supports hoarders more than pullers. BUT it has a compensating factor: if you lose a piece, you can sometimes get it back. And you can also force a stalemate. This means that even if the other dog has a lot of the stick, it’s not a foregone conclusion despite their advantage. You can keep trying for the hoard victory AND you have a different mental puzzle to solve, pleasing the pull victory. Poker’s mechanic for going all-in also lets you have a chance even when you have lost a great deal of your betting power, to keep the pull interesting and the outcome in doubt, even though the swimming pool is very small and your arms are long.

We know this most often as a catch-up mechanic, and it is common. Sometimes they exist simply by making the score visible, encouraging people to attack the leaders. Others are more formally built into the mechanics, like the way victory cards choke the deck in Dominion. Famously, games that obviously lack these mechanics are considered broken and unfun, like Monopoly and original Risk. Monopoly very quickly tilts towards a winner, at which point the fun of pulling becomes almost zero, and the game is an extremely slow drawn out dragging of the bone to one dog’s side. Only hoarders enjoy that. Indeed, most people stop even bothering to pull back and the game is won by the dog who is most stubborn, who cares most about actually holding the bone. So it only appeals to people who REALLY want to have the bone. And pullers hate it.

Collaborative games are an excellent place to see this model at work. Generally, nobody wants a collaborative game to be too easy or too hard. They don’t want a puzzle they can unlock so it becomes easy, or something that is hard no matter how the random elements falls. What they want is it to be close. Which would make no sense if they wanted to get the bone. They want to pull on the bone, and snatch it only with all their strength at the last possible second. And the mechanics of the best collaborative games are designed to make that experience happen, to make the pulling always exciting. Not to reward you for getting the bone as quickly as possible.

Perhaps the hardest games to balance on this issue are games where one person plays all the rest. And the reason is that here, the game mechanics can only go so far. If the game has too much luck or obscures skill too much, it’s not fun. You want to feel like you have to work to get the bone. But if someone is just much stronger at pulling they’re going to win every time. Or if they get a few lucky breaks the same thing can happen. Quickly you can get a game where even if the pulling is still fun, a huge advantage can appear which detracts from that sense of suspense. Now for people who like hoarding even a bit, this is still okay. They don’t mind winning or losing even if it isn’t close because that’s still interesting and exciting to them. But for pullers, this state of play is not at all fun. Without the suspense and thrill of a neck and neck pulling match to the last sinew, there’s no fun and the more a clear winner emerges, the less that excitement can remain.

I am such a player. And I don’t like playing things like Descent or Fury of Dracula because I don’t like hitting my friends as hard as I can, from either side. I don’t mind being first in a race to VP but the antagonism of direct battles wears me out. It’s too much about the getting, not the pulling. And so as soon as leads start to accumulate, I cheat. I favour the loser. Because to me a close game is a thousand times better than a won game, by anyone. And indeed, if it’s me versus four other players, then I ALWAYS want the four people to win more than me, because that’s much more joy, all round, then me winning and four people losing. Because I don’t value the bone personally. It means nothing to me. I want the pull.

That doesn’t mean that Fury of Dracula is a bad game. Far from it. It just tells us who wants to play it, and who doesn’t. Who enjoys playing it, and who doesn’t. And why.

Often, in gaming, games are instinctively designed for hoarders. We’re so into the idea that games have winners, and sports have winners, we assume the trophy is the point, that the point is to get to the finish line, to hear the final siren sound and to have, at that point, more points than anyone else. But if you watch a few dogs with bones for a few seconds you can tell in a moment the hoarders from the pullers – and you can also tell those who are pullers but don’t know why the pulling stops when they win, and get sad or frustrated. Who come running back to their humans and go “why did the pulling stop?”. Because, silly doggy I explain, you pulled so hard you won. And I will now teach you a better skill: to pull as if you want to win, but not so much that you DO. Because winning is the last thing you really want.

Figure out which dog you are, or how much of a % you are in each direction – it’s not necessarily either/or. Then figure out how to negotiate for the kind of play you want. Figure out which games give you more of one and less of the other. Figure out which gamers are which and play the right games with the right people, or the wrong games in the right way (hoarder games can work fine if everyone is a puller, and vice versa). Figure out which hat you’re going to wear at which table with which games, so you get the most out of every game you play.

Most importantly, don’t spend your life pulling with hoarders, or trying to hoard with someone who just wants the pulling. Don’t sit staring at the bone wondering where your pulling game went, or stare up at the human wondering why they are waving the bone back at you when they should be eating it. Be a smart dog. And play well.

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