A Theory of Cooperative Competition

In cooperative games, players act against a common opposition, while in competitive games players oppose one another. I want to approach these terms—competitive and cooperative—in a different way. Instead of a struggle for shared success, it is useful to define cooperation as a struggle for shared enjoyment.

This definition decouples success from enjoyment, because there can be enjoyment in defeat. When I die in a game to protect my friends regardless of their success without me, when a friend suddenly falls and our virtual mortality is made tangible, or when we resist defeat in a glorious last stand, we have found an enjoyment distinct from success. These examples are a narrow sampling of cooperative gameplay. Cooperative enjoyment can also be part of competitive games. Consider the following examples:

Chess has four general outcomes. 1) Player A wins by a significant amount, and Player B loses. 2) Player A loses by a significant amount, and Player B wins. 3) Player A and Player B tie. 4) Player A wins or loses in a close game.

Because Chess is competitive, success would only be upon victory. This means that outcome 1 is the goal, followed in order of desirability by outcomes 4, 3, and 2. However, anyone who has played Chess knows that outcomes 1 and 2 are the least interesting; a four-move checkmate is only amusing the first time.

The ideal chess game is outcome 4, a series of cunning traps that are detected and circumvented until one succeeds, regardless of victory or defeat. This reality makes more sense from the perspective of cooperative enjoyment than from the traditional notion of competition. Both players are cooperating for the shared enjoyment of outcome 4.

There is also an unusual amount of trust involved. Stronger players might remove pieces, modify rules, or secretly weaken their strategies as handicaps to increase the likelihood of outcomes 4 and decrease the likelihood of outcomes 1 or 2. Either player could also intentionally lose, forcing outcomes 1 or 2, and eliminating all enjoyment. There is a mutually expected sportsmanship.


A visual summary of Chess

The second example is Call of Duty (any of the games since 2007’s Modern Warfare will do). There are three general outcomes in a multiplayer match of CoD. 1) Player A’s kill-death ratio is negative. 2) Player A’s kill-death ratio is positive. 3) Player A’s kill-death ratio is neutral, give or take. This is a specific way of playing CoD; most players ignore deaths and focus instead on whether they were on the winning team or not. However, kill-death ratio is the only way a player can influence my team’s success or failure, so that is the metric I chose. (If recent CoD games offered support interaction, like the medics of CoD3, this would not be the case.) Even so, these categories are scalable down to each engagement in a match, and up to a session of matches without changing my findings.

The only enjoyable outcome is 2. Like any effective random reward schedule, outcome 2 happens just often enough for players to continue playing. Outcome 1 leaves players frustrated, but there is a need to redeem oneself and play “one more match.” Outcome 3 is almost as bad, because players know they are capable of outcome 2. And so they play again.

Most modern competitive shooters amplify these problems. They are designed for competition (and victory), rather than cooperative enjoyment. CoD’s “score streaks” unlock bonuses (e.g. airstrikes, helicopters, dogs) that behave as positive feedback loops. These bonuses cause arbitrary death, which causes the positive feedback loop of frustration. Unreal Tournament 2004’s “adrenaline” also unlocked bonuses (e.g. invisibility, health regeneration, speed boost), but these were not arbitrary.

Unlike Chess, there is no way to examine CoD for cooperative enjoyment. Even if players have friends on their team, the only cooperative interaction is by sharing tactical knowledge, and the benefits of this in CoD are limited. In short, CoD’s multiplayer is severely asocial.


A visual summary of CoD

TLDR; A multiplayer game’s encounter/match/session needs to be intrinsically satisfying, or else only victory will be. Thinking of competition through the perspective of cooperative enjoyment may help in achieving this.

Note: the graphs are visual representations of my quantified subjective experiences. They are not based upon data I have collected. I could have made the curve steeper for Call of Duty, or scored a tie in Chess less enjoyably, so read them cautiously.


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