Monday, March 27, 2023

Hampered Games

 As I was driving back from campus today, I started thinking about what might be called 'deliberately hampered games', that is games which are deliberately played in ways that directly interfere with the gameplay itself because of a more fundamental purpose that playing the game serves. It's a fairly common phenomenon, although I don't think I've ever come across anyone discussing it.

A good example of this is found in pole chess. Pole chess is a variant in chess in which you have extra pieces, the poles, that, under the conditions of whatever pole chess rules you are using, you can move around the board to block moves. This makes chess in some ways less interesting, because it massively increases the likelihood that the game will end in a draw. It also usually guarantees that each player can block the other's best moves, so it puts a kind of indirect upper bound on how well each can play. So why do people play it? Well, sometimes it's just to do something different, but another reason is when the people playing are extremely unequal -- for instance, if, purely for mutual fun, a grandmaster is playing a beginner. By almost every internal standard of chess, pole chess is a worse game than tournament chess. But there can be good reasons why the worse game might sometimes be the better game to play.

Another well known example is with the Parker Brothers game, Monopoly. Monopoly played strictly according to the rules is a rather brutal and fairly fast-paced game. Very few people who have ever played Monopoly have ever played a fast-paced game of Monopoly; the game is famous for being interminable. Whence the disparity? It's because people deliberately modify the game to make it worse as a game. Monopoly has auction rules that guarantee that property gets bought up fairly quickly; the vast majority of people who play it ignore the auction rules. Most people add rules to the game -- the Free Parking lottery is the most famous -- that make it difficult for people to go bankrupt, and therefore guarantee that the game goes on and on and on and on. Why would they do it? Well, because usually when you are playing Monopoly, you are doing it with family and friends, and you have big block of time that you want to spend, and most people don't actually care about winning the game. In addition, people are often playing with children, so they deliberately use the simpler non-auction rules and add rules like the pot on Free Parking to reduce the chances of the kids getting knocked out of the game too early. The result is the game that can only be won even by the best players over a grinding period of time by the end of which almost everybody has lost interest in winning. The game was deliberately hampered so that it is almost pointless to try to win it. But, of course, the reason you do this is because the time with friends and family is more important than winning.

Frank Herbert has a number of stories that are about a government agency called the Bureau of Sabotage. The Bureau of Sabotage has the legally required mission of making government less efficient. It's allowed to use any means to do this, as long as it does not sabotage private citizens or public utilities on which they direct depend. In the most memorable story, the protagonist, Jorj X. McKie, becomes the head of the agency when he figures out a way to sabotage the Bureau of Sabotage itself. The point of it, of course, is that the state apparatus in the world of the story is terrifyingly efficient -- procedures have been perfected and processes have been automated to such an extent that the state could do immense damage long before anyone could stop it. Inefficiency of government is a barrier to totalitarianism; that's why all modern free societies are constructed on some kind of system of checks and balances. The checks and balances make it harder to do everything -- but that's the point, because you don't actually want a government that can easily do whatever it decides to do. This seems to be a real-world version of exactly the same thing  that we find in small-sandbox forms in deliberately hampered games.

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