Play for Fun or Play to Win?

Hi Guys! This is Marc. I’m a relatively new hire here at Funomena, and I’ve been really excited about working with the people here. When I volunteered to write a blog post, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to write about. After thinking about it, and reading back blogs, I decided to write something a little philosophical.  So, I’mma dive right in.

A lot has been made about Playing to Win versus Playing for Fun. There are lots of opinions, and I don’t necessarily agree with them, but I do agree that when a player sits down to play there is usually a fundamental divide between attitudes of “Hey, I’m here to have a good time with you” and “I am a better player than you”.  Neither of these attitudes is inherently wrong or right, neither of them requires a second player, and despite what most people think, they are not incompatible.

I’m using the terms Playing for Fun (PfF), and Playing to Win (PtW), but they are just placeholders for the underlying concepts. While both of these concepts are probably very intuitive to people, let me lay out how I see them.

Playing for Fun is when you start a game with the primary intention of having a good time. Maybe you want to relax after work with a single player game, or an MMO. Maybe you want to play tag with your daughter. Maybe you want to teach your friend that sweet new boardgame you just bought.  In essence, you are playing to enjoy yourself, and if you’re playing with others, you’re enjoying your time with them.

Playing to Win is when you start a game with the primary intention of claiming victory from within the rules.  Maybe your hockey team is playing the top seed in the league.  Maybe you want to relax after work with a few games of a MOBA, or a sports game.  Maybe you want to practice your chess skills for that upcoming tournament. In essence, you are attempting to best the bar set by yourself or others.

These concepts already exist in parallel in some situations.  A mother teaching her son to play basketball (ostensibly a PtW game) doesn’t play her best attempting to defeat the boy. This would simply discourage him, and remove the opportunity for a long term shared interest. This doesn’t mean that she would never try, it just needs to be a carefully balanced curriculum.  This is the same reason we don’t hand second graders calculus books, and simply grade them as failures when they fail to grasp it immediately.  Not only would this upset the children, it would likely discourage them from pursuing math, because consistent failure is not a good motivator.  Consistent success is also not a good motivator, as studies have shown that it will cause children to expect success and give up on failure.  Hence the careful balancing act in teaching.

So the teacher modulates their skill in training to foster a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment in the student. They provide challenge and encouragement in appropriate but not absolute measures.  They engage a sense of fun to help the student want to come back and play again, and they engage a sense of challenge and competition to help drive learning.

Another area that the concepts of PfF and PtW collide is streaming.  When viewers tune in to a competitive game stream, they don’t just want to watch that streamer destroy the competition with the same over-powered strategy. The streamer is responsible for entertaining their audience, and they need to provide fun content for them. This might include anything from simply wearing a silly hat, to offering tutorials, or allowing the audience to engage with them.  Neither a high level of skill, nor a silly hat is necessary.  But most of the most popular game streamers are offering both, a mixture of trying to win their game, and providing a fun atmosphere to do it in.

Even regular gamers will run into this admixture of concepts. Say a group of friends logs into an online game together to defeat a raid boss or take on a random five opponents.  Those friends are likely on chat, cracking jokes, catching up on each others’ lives.  They are both having a good time, and trying to defeat something or someone, neither of which is predicated on the other.

As with most things in life, the motivation of a game is not a simple dichotomy. You do not have to play solely with a competitive spirit nor do you have to play solely for enjoyment.  These things can and should be mixed, especially if they let players tailor the experience to what they enjoy, or even better, if the games could tailor themselves to what they glean from a player.

This is an area where I think we as game developers need to think, consider and explore.  Imagine a game where each player’s goal is to make the other players have a better time – and they were scored as such.  Not only would the winner have the satisfaction of winning, but also of making their friends feel good. Seems like a 2x win combo to me.

These few existing examples of PfFtW are just ones that I’ve thought about for this blog, and I’m sure you could think of more, or think up game concepts to purposefully mix the two ideologies.  If you think of any good ones, let me know in the comments below.