Series Info...Playing with History #6:

Winning and Losing

by Michael Karlin
April 16, 2003

"I don't need my happiness, my well-being, to be based on winning and losing." — Chris Evert

This article is going to cover a general concept that is applicable to all aspects of gaming. It is particularly acute, however, in historical contexts.

When referring to the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States of America, it is safe to say that there were two winners, and two losers. This is somewhat of an oddity, as theoretically wars have clear winners and losers. When you ask the British, they'll say quite easily that they captured Detroit and burned the White House to the ground. When you ask the Americans, they rightfully point out that the Battle of New Orleans, the last and most decisive battle of the war, was theirs for the taking. The British will then retort that the Battle of New Orleans took place over a week after the treaty that ended the war was signed, but the Americans will offer a surrebuttal stating that the combatants had not received word that the war had ended. The arguments can go on and on, but what results is the fact that both sides have logical arguments as to their victory. Therefore, both won the war. History may be defined by the victors, but when there are different victors, it is difficult to tell the history.

I've confused you, haven't I? If you're still with me, I'm going to muse about winning and losing in a general context, and ideas you can use to apply to your game. Let's start with the concept of winning. I'll take a rudimentary concept from political science (my background) and apply it here. No doubt academics will roll in their graves.

An Anal Analysis of Winning

There are two types of winning and losing: zero-sum and positive-sum. They are not mutually exclusive, just two different perceptions of winning.

  • Zero-sum measures winning absolutely. It assumes that if one wins at something, be it conflict or a game of chess, the other party must equally lose by the same degree. To use a historical example, take Germany and France. If Germany captures the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, France loses the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Therefore Germany gains to the same degree as France loses. Why is it called "Zero-sum?" If you quantify my example into numbers, Germany gets +2 provinces, whereas France receives -2 provinces. What you end up with is zero.

  • Positive-sum is a bit more comparative, and a bit more applicable to everyday life. It assumes that in most situations where there is an exchange people win something, though comparatively more or less than other parties. If two countries were to sign a treaty on free trade, and economists believed that both would profit from it, they both win. However, if party A's economy will triple and party B's economy will double, then party A "wins more." Unlike zero-sum winning, the winning/losing ratio does not equal zero. A win-win situation might sound positive, but is one side profiting more from an interaction than another?

In online strategy games, we are more inclined to see zero-sum thinking players. Prepare for it, because it's an inevitability. It is difficult to explain positive-sum wins in these situations. On one hand, it makes sense; one side loses the battle and another side wins. But if country A manages to fend off a half-hearted attempt at invasion on the part of country B, did they really win, or did they just not lose? A person who perceives in zero-sum will notice that nothing has changed and conclude that it is a zero-sum situation. Conversely, a person who thinks with positive-sum analysis will probably determine that both sides lost, considering the amount of troops that must have died in order to achieve nothing. To a positive-sum thinker, situations that are zero-sum are rare, battles being the most likely candidates. Glory of the Nile will be based on positive-sum wins; your character will be able to achieve without someone having to be demoted in return. This is not to say that more traditional wins, such as that of a battle, contest or challenge will not greatly aid your character. Positive-sum thinking comes with the stipulation that someone will usually come out ahead.

What makes games like Castle Marrach great is the de-emphasis on winning at all. In these dynamic environments, winning and losing all depends on whether or not your character has achieved the goals that you the player has set out for them.

Winning and History

In this relativist world, one person's win is another's loss. One side's advantage spells disadvantage for another. As I exemplified above, history is often determined by the victors, but in the event that the victor is not clear, parallel histories arise. So what to do when you have different approaches to an era in history? Firstly, be mindful of where your game takes place and the historical perspective your NPCs would take in order to steer PC mind-sets that direction. Secondly, be prepared to deal with aberrants, or those characters who believe otherwise. Most of your NPCs should try and enforce your desired perspective of the history, but it makes for interesting roleplay (and good business) to let historical aberrants exist. Players of aberrant characters should be prepared to face stigma or censure for their beliefs, in varying severity depending on when and where the game takes place.

Reversing the outcomes of a historical event is fascinating. If party B won the war and not party A, setting your game in that extrapolation of speculation could make for many a great game. Soviet Italy, for instance, had a rich environment in which a game would thrive.

I apologize if you found this article a bit perplexing. In two weeks I'm going to return to the basics, and talk about death in historical fiction.

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