Risk & Reward

Colin Northway posted a fascinating article on his blog recently suggesting that Apple is allowing gambling in the App Store now. There’s some good discussion going on in the comments, which currently ends:

“As a game designer I have come to realize that all games are an illusion played within the perception of the player’s mind.”

“I’m with you on the Roulette. How is Starcraft an illusion though?”

How Starcraft Is and Is Not an Illusion

That’s easy if you take a notgames mindset. The game part of Starcraft is the illusion and the videogame part of Starcraft is not an illusion.

Chris Deleon articulates it well in this excerpt from Games are artificial. Videogames are not. Games have rules. Videogames do not.

Rules need to be communicated, understood, paid attention to, and enforced to exist. This is because they are artificial.

If something which we’re tempted to call a rule does not need to be communicated, understood, paid attention to, or enforced to have full effect, it is not a rule. It is actual.

Lusory Illusion in Roulette

It’d be interesting to apply this notgames mindset to roulette as a simpler example first, so here’s an attempt.

Roulette is a mixture of a non-material game structure expressed through a material medium. The medium you might call token-based roleplaying, which when combined with the structure of a game might become something called a boardgame. The more non-material part of roulette would be its constituative rules, which might be summarized as a number guessing game of chance played in rounds like so:

The more simply you can play the game in this form, the more of a lusory illusion it is. In other words, it requires a lot of the energy you use when accepting that you’re playing a game.

But there’s another kind of illusion present here. This is a game of pure chance, so to get any points in the game, you just play the odds. Technically, choosing a particular subset is completely arbitrary. The quantity of choices you can make as a player depends on the number of subsets. But, mathematically speaking, the quality of choices over time is zero. Well that’s not very interesting!

Therefore, a good game designer would make the choices seem to have more quality than that. The designer might try to create what I’m referring to, for lack of a better term, as semiotic illusion. An illusion of meaning. The subsets should then be divided into interesting groups. Even numbers, odd numbers, specific sequences, and so on. But in the world of the artificial, there’s not a whole lot to work with. That’s why you need to head to the real world…

Lusory Non-Illusion in Roulette

The real world is where roulette is actually played. As a boardgame, it defines a play space, adds tokens, and adds the element of roleplaying. The play space is a table players can crowd around with a zone for each subset, the points become physical chips you can touch with your hands, and a real person takes on the role of the dealer. The subsets can be divided visually with colors, divided based on the roles like the subsets dedicated to the bank, and into other ways that are culturally meaningful.

One of the most interesting things about roulette as a boardgame is how the random number is chosen. The set of numbers is distributed into slotted pockets along a physical roulette wheel. The wheel is spun, and a ball is dropped down into it, randomly falling into one of the slots that corresponds with an integer of the set. This adds a whole new level of almost theatrical drama and suspense around the choosing of a random number, because you can stretch the choice out to an event several seconds long, and all observers get to see the random selection happening in front of their eyes.

Choosing a random number has now become something very real. People accept the physics of the ball dropping, and the wheel is spun fast enough that the result truly seems random. You as a player are satisfied with the fairness of the result because you were able to see exactly how it was chosen. The number was chosen because the ball clearly fell into a particular slot.

The roulette wheel is an essential component to making roulette interesting, because when considering its constituative rules, the game revolves mostly around the simple choosing of a random number. So why not make that random choice more complex and real?

Semiotic Illusion in Roulette

The fact that Roulette is a game about making player choice seem meaningful, when really its not at all, makes it a natural fit for the realm of gambling. Gambling could be thought of as an extremely conservative entertainment business. Points are substituted for real dollars, and games of pure chance are favored. Instead of odds that are even to the cash payout, the odds are less than the cash payout. Given enough time, you are guaranteed to lose all your money. This is referred to as the house edge, which as Colin says is just over 5 cents per dollar as regulated by the government.

Notice my usage of the qualifier “given enough time.” That is precisely one of the disturbing allures of gambling. Roulette as a gambling game essentially allows you to bet on your own destiny. Given enough time, you will lose your money, but will you lose it this time? Maybe you will make some money, simply by playing this game and beating the odds. That underdog chance, that chance to be a Cinderella story, is very enticing to many people. It is a real-world illusion that piggybacks off of the lusory illusion of the game in order to become much more powerful.

But things get even more interesting. Why not combine the allure of betting on your own destiny and the meaning of interesting sets of numbers together to make the illusion even greater? So you divide your set into different-sized subsets so that some bets have higher odds than others. Now players can choose their own level of risk when it comes to betting on their own destiny! Will you play it safe or will you go all in? The choice is yours, and now a little more meaningful because you can choose your path (to zero, usually).

By now the illusion is so powerful that governments have to get involved, so a limit is set (and enforced) on how high the amount of money is that casinos are guaranteed to make over time.

Semiotic Non-Illusion in Roulette

Not everything related to the meaning in Roulette is an illusion. As was stated above, trading out points for your own money makes winning and losing very real. We’ve gone beyond a lusory game experience. The reality of losing money needs to be enforced somehow. That brings us back to the medium, in this case boardgames. The role of the dealer helps to enforce this reality. As the authority of the game, you’ll find the dealer will be respectably dressed, and acts with authority as well, fearlessly taking chips from losers. Sadly, this is not good enough. What if you don’t want to stop playing? What if you decide to jump the dealer the take some chips to keep playing?

The casino needs security. These are the real enforcers of reality. Are you not playing by the rules? You get thrown out. Trying to cheat the system? You get thrown out. Maybe things are getting even more out of hand…time to call the police. High stakes based on real money means things can get pretty serious. Lives can be lost over it – and they have. And now the non-illusion aspect of the boardgames medium becomes perverted.

Videogames Are Not an Illusion

There’s an interesting parallel here with videogames. Like the casino security, videogames enforce a reality. In that way, Chris is right to say that videogames are not artificial. Before diving into Starcraft, let’s consider how that plays out with roulette’s closer neighbor, Slotomania.

Slotomania is close to a real slot machine because of videogames’ ability to enforce a reality. Like many other traditional videogames, it has some set of valued content, and that content is hidden from you the player unless you can successfully perform challenges. In this case, there is no real performance, it’s just a matter of chance. But in the tradition of gambling games, that chance is skewed toward the house, so over time you are guaranteed to be prevented from seeing the rest of the content…unless you pay more money that is.

So despite the fact that the credits are virtual, they do have real world value, they just can’t be exchanged back into money. But people love it anyway, maybe due to the fun of retaining a superstition of odds.

Like in a casino, after losing you have very little power in arguing with the house, which in this case is your computer. If the code says you can’t play, you simply can’t play. Trying to bypass this security makes similar sense as trying to bypass the security of a casino. Not that it stops some people in both cases.

There are other ways that videogames are not an illusion; Starcraft will act as a great example of that, covered in the next post. (It wasn’t covered in the next post, sorry)


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