Thursday, August 2, 2012

Design failure in games

There is a bit of a kerfuffle at the Olympics over four different pairs of badminton players who deliberately tried to lose their matches and were subsequently kicked out of the Olympics completely.  The teams in question were already qualified for the next round of the tournament and were trying to alter their seed position to get more favourable matchups later on.  The fundamental issue at hand is how a competitor should behave when the rules of a competition reward them for trying to lose (or tie) a game instead of win it.  The influence of the metagame on the single match is usually straightforward in that you want to win and when that isn't in place everything falls apart in a hurry.

The Olympic committee and many commentators criticize the players for playing this way and suggest that it is against the spirit of the sport but I find those comments ring a little bit hollow.  When the competition is over there is a huge ceremony for those who won the game and absolutely nothing for those who had the most spirit.  Endorsement contracts, local and international fame, and funding to continue within one's chosen sport is all contingent on precisely one thing:  Winning.  I don't think it is at all reasonable to set up a competition in such a way that losing matches is definitely going to be the best way to win for some teams and then punish them for trying to do that.  I will admit that people who paid a lot of money to see the matches and got rewarded with garbage play got gypped but that is the fault of the organizers.

I remember this same sort of thing happening in Magic:  The Gathering play years ago.  I was in several situations in tournaments where a draw would get me into the finals or where a player wanted to concede for some reason or other and people ended up doing silly and obscure things to arrange this.  I recall people putting cards like Earthquake in their sideboard just to be able to get a draw and trying to pretend to screw up casting spells to manaburn themselves out.  It was all quite ridiculous, particularly the part where the judges were supposed to police this behaviour somehow.  Nowadays players can simply agree to draw if they like and conceding a match is perfectly fine - I don't know what happens if both players want to concede at the same time but they probably are forced to draw in that case!

As a professional organization you have an obligation to make sure that the metagame either 1.  Always rewards winning the current match no matter what or 2.  Allows players to lose or tie without resorting to ingame antics.  It is nothing but a disaster when judges are suddenly in the situation of trying not to enforce clear rules but to determine what a player's intent was with a particular action and to sort out what is going on deep in their mind.  You can't reward and punish the exact same behaviour and expect people to act in the way you want.

Without changing the other rules of the competition at all the organizers could at least have put in a clause that the winner of a match may choose to record themselves or their opponents as the technical victor; every match will thusly be played out to the full ability of the players involved regardless of their position in the metagame.  If you don't like that somewhat kludgy solution then something straightforward like a single or double elimination tournament is called for instead.  Having multiple teams from the same country playing in a tournament where you are using round robin play in pods is just asking for trouble.


  1. As Sthenno commented on one of my posts a long time ago... Making a mockery of a rule which deserved to be mocked is still making a mockery of it. Maybe the tournament format is terrible (the real 'problem' was that China 2 legitimately lost a match they 'should' have won) but it's still on the players to play in the spirit of the Olympics. I am completely onboard with the DQs. China 1 should have had to play China 2 and the blame lied with China 2 losing to Denmark. Clearly China 1 and China 2 weren't the two best teams so hoping to play in the finals was foolish.

  2. I think you are right that the officials had to DQ the teams. Just like when I got kicked out of a Magic tournament by a buddy who was judging there are times when you just have to follow the rules and accept that the world isn't just. However, I don't blame the teams for the situation but rather the designers of the game structure. They created a really awful situation for the players and judges and the consequent mess is on them.