Strategy, Tactics, and Turnovers

It was a rough weekend for Bay Area football fans. It was an especially rough weekend for Kyle Williams, the San Francisco 49ers’ kick returner. His two unfortunate fumbles were crucial parts of the 49ers’ defeat and the end of their Super Bowl run. Now that the disappointment is starting to wear off, I find myself able to appreciate the disastrous sequence of events in an academic sense. There’s something exciting about a game in which the most carefully designed strategies can be dashed by unforeseen events. Football is a beautiful combination of meticulous planning and implementing those plans under pressure, a description that also apples to most video games.

In the fourth quarter, Williams accidentally got too close to a short punt. The ball bounced off his leg, thereby allowing the Giants to take possession and score. When it happened, you could tell by Williams’s body language that he didn’t believe it: He just knew the ball didn’t touch his knee. He didn’t plan on touching it, he didn’t want to touch it, and he didn’t feel it. Unfortunately, the video footage proved otherwise. A huge, intricate game plan was dashed by random chance and a tactical miscue.

Regular video game players have all been there. How many times have you mapped out a game plan, only to later alter it amidst the chaos of trying to implement it? You start a level of Mario and make a plan: you’ll dash across that pit, double jump over those spikes, kick that enemy out of the way, and grab the 1up sitting on that floating platform. But then, something goes wrong: you fall down that pit. But you just know you pressed “A.” You felt your thumb mash the button. You saw the pit plain as day. Deep down, you know what really happened: you messed up.

From the earliest days of Spacewar! and Pong, video games have excelled at offering these two-part challenges. Winning requires that you understand the rules and have planned a strategy for success. You know what you have to do because you’ve learned how the mechanics and dynamics function within the game world. However, just like G.I. Joe told us, knowing is half the battle. Almost every video game genre requires you to carry out these strategies under pressure: timers, enemies, complex button patterns, and a host of other challenges force you to combine dexterity and poise with mental preparedness.

Understandably, people often compare video games to board games. True, there is plenty of overlap in terms of rules and audience, but the two media have undergone a crucial divergence. Last weekend, I also played Game of Thrones: The Board game with my friends (you can read about our experience here). As that backstabbing rogue Kirk said, the game was over four hours of intrigue, negotiation, and fateful decisions. I had a good time but was struck by how orderly everything was. Of course, there was plenty of uncertainty, but even unexpected events like battles or double-crosses proceeded according to rules that could be precisely described and measured. Even if one were to add more chaos to the game (perhaps by random dice rolls that simulate damage taken in battle), the game would have no way of modeling the way that some people adapt to unexpected situations. Whether a game is completely ordered or incorporates details of randomness, it’s difficult to simulate fear, pressure, apprehension, and mistakes. The kind of randomness generated not by rules, but instead by great players working within those rules, is an elusive achievement.

Sports and video games offer glimpses at the intersection between planned and spontaneous action. After the 49ers game went into overtime, Williams again lost the ball after an opposing player knocked it out of his hands. Williams undoubtedly was trying to be careful, but there was no way to measure his caution, nor was there any way to quantify the skill of the player who caused the fumble. The field was a combination of planned movements, random chaos, and players dynamically adapting to that chaos. Watching a high-level play in Halo offers a similar perspective. Although there are certain basic mathematical rules governing the game, the battle dynamics consist of players trying to translate strategy into tactics. Sometimes, things just fall apart and a new strategy is formulated on the fly. Any such plan requires steady aim, a quick trigger finger, and knowledge of your surroundings.

The point is that both turnovers and headshots are achieved when players inhabit a hybrid space, a space in which a game’s rules, a player’s skill, and randomness intersect. The mental and physical skills required to play a video game are definitely different than those required to play football, but anyone who has ever watched competitive fighting game players knows that even the most brilliant tactician can be felled by an opponent with fast hands. At this point, the line between “sports” and “eSports” gets blurry. Perhaps its time to ditch pesky first vowel?

Now, in the aftermath of the 49ers’ loss and in anticipation of a Superbowl comprised of two teams that I generally root against, I can at least take some solace in the fact that the whole ordeal has helped crystalize my understanding of what distinguishes video games from other media. Of course, all this is probably little consolation to Kyle Williams and the rest of the 49er faithful.


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