Pure Co-Op Games Are . . . Well, Games (a Response to Jake Thornton)

A few days ago Jake Thornton posted some comments on why he doesn’t like “Pure Co-op” games. Reading it, I was surprised to find myself disagreeing. Mr. Thornton is a great designer, but I think he’s off the mark in his essay. He’s conflated unaddressed design problems with flaws inherent to the genre.

Before going on, I want to emphasize that I have enormous respect for Mr. Thornton. I’ve been playing his games for years, and they’ve always been great fun. It’s sometimes happened that I’ve had to say to excellent lawyers “I think you’re wrong this time;” here as in those instances, I’m only taking issue with the argument, not with the person.

Mr. Thornton’s post is linked above, but in summary he feels that pure co-op games (which he defines as games where “all players on one side are working towards exactly the same goal and play as a group. Usually they either win or lose collectively, ie all win or all lose”) are like group projects in school: either you’re carrying the weight for others, or a (possibly) more knowledgeable person is telling you what to do. Since neither dragging freeloaders along nor being puppeted about are much fun, he finds this sort of game unsatisfactory.

These problems arise, Mr. Thornton argues, because a game requires that the players be in competition. So long as the players are competing, everyone can–ironically–get along. When the players aren’t competing, he feels, power dynamics emerge and people start to feel badly.

Pure co-op board games only work, Mr. Thornton argues, as enablers for “social get-togethers.” Instead of watching the ballgame and chatting, the group plays a cooperative board game and chats. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, my impression is that he feels pure co-ops in this setting avoid the problems that normally frustrate him by making the outcome unimportant. Good players don’t feel the need to carry weight and no one gives the weaker players orders, simply because no one really cares about winning.

As is so often the case, the problem here stems from a definitional issue. Mr. Thornton reads the definition of game as meaning “two or more players, all of whom are competing with all the others.” That isn’t required by the definition he uses (“a competitive activity involving skill, chance or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules”), and it seems like a flawed perspective from the outset. He excludes anything involving teams, such as most professional sports, from being “games!” Sometimes having a correct definition involves slaying sacred cows–witness the fate of Pluto–but the position that football and baseball can’t even be considered games isn’t tenable.

The faulty definition leads, predictably, to a faulty result: games with teams, pure co-op games included, aren’t games. Mr. Thornton views that as reasonable because in his experience pure co-ops aren’t fun. However, there’s an alternative explanation which doesn’t require adopting an extreme definition of “game:” the pure co-op games he has played may simply have been flawed.

It’s no secret that cooperative games can have a power dynamic between the players, and that that dynamic can be unpleasant. However, game designers have been grappling with that problem for some time, and have found ways to deal with it. In fact, they’ve found so many solutions that, as you can see from the linked posts, there’s dispute about which ones are best! That some games haven’t implemented good solutions doesn’t require that they be excluded from the definition of “game.”

Mr. Thornton isn’t obliged to like pure co-ops. However, I’d like to see him recognize the game design challenges they pose, and take on those challenges in a serious way. (Currently he feels that “Pure Co-op is actually relatively easy to design once you have everything else in place,” which is only sustainable because he concludes that pure co-ops aren’t really games and don’t need to be rigorous.) He makes great games, and I’d play a pure co-op he designed to tackle these issues in a heartbeat.

2 thoughts on “Pure Co-Op Games Are . . . Well, Games (a Response to Jake Thornton)

  1. There’s also an entire *industry* of games, called role-playing games (y’know, like Dungeons and Dragons which spawned all these dungeoncrawl boardgames) which are, at least, non-competitive. In fact, when designing adventures for these games, advice is to tailor the adventure so that each player has a chance to contribute to the game. If that’s not coop, or at least non-competition, I don’t know what is.

    1. Good point! Co-op RPGs (as opposed to, e.g., The Mountain Witch) are a fascinating case, since the decisions they involve are often driven by narrative considerations (“what would be an interesting/thematic/characterization-consistent thing for the character do next?”) as opposed to tactical ones. Still, they clearly do involve decisions, often very interesting ones, and they’re certainly played for fun. I don’t think a definition of “game” that excludes them is a workable one.

      Mr. Thornton noted that his definition excluded solo games, which also seems weird–is Super Mario Bros. not a game because there’s no one on the other side? Or are the programmers the other players? I had a friend who played Dominion by himself, just to see how high a score he could get in 20 turns; does Dominion stop being a game under those circumstances?

      I wonder which dictionary Mr. Thornton consulted; I want to have words with them about leading him astray. 😉

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