Theory: Why Players Concede–and Why Their Opponents Hate It

Why people do people concede–or why, on the flip side, they object to others doing it? Answering those questions will provide us with guideposts for addressing concessions as a design problem. If we know what leads players to concede, we can try to avoid those situations; if we know what makes concessions objectionable, we can design the game to make them less so.

The definition from last time will guide the discussion here. We aren’t going to talk about concessions that are explicitly a form of cheating, because those raise different issues and need to be addressed separately. We will, however, call on forms of concession that feel bad or are unsporting. Minimizing bad feeling among players, after all, is an important design objective.

So, what leads people quit?

The rest of the game doesn’t matter: A player decides that the result is inevitable and that there’s no point in continuing to play. I’m pretty sure that this is the most common reason for conceding, and the least likely to be found objectionable (but some people still hate it; see below). It’s seen in games ranging from chess to Magic to Little League baseball games decided under a mercy rule.

It’s important to recognize that there can be reason to continue even if a player is sure to lose. In card games played over multiple hands, for example, it can be useful to stay in just to get as many points (or as much money) out of a losing hand as possible, so as to stay in the overall running. One also sees this frequently in car racing; even if a driver is sure to finish behind the leader, it’s worth finishing the race to accumulate points toward the overall championship. When a player concedes because the game is no longer meaningful, it’s a statement that there’s no substantial incentive even to play the game out.

The game has stopped being fun: Fun is always tricky to quantify, but there’s no denying when it’s not there–and its lack makes players walk away from games. Often a lack of fun is tied to the rest of the game not mattering; if it doesn’t matter what one does then the game’s decisions probably aren’t very interesting anymore. However, a game can stop being fun for other reasons as well. Perhaps the decisions were interesting once, but the game has gone on too long and the player wants to be done. Maybe there’s a situation the rules don’t handle well, and it’s led to an argument that sucked the joy out of the experience. The opponent might simply be a jerk who’s not worth tolerating any more.

Conceding leads to long-term advantage: Some tournaments are designed in such a way that losing a match has the ironic effect of increasing one’s odds of winning the whole event. The 2012 Olympic badminton debacle grew out of this; the gold medal favorites, among others, threw their first-round games so that they would face weaker teams later in the tournament. While those players were caught (it was hardly difficult) and ejected, sometimes players can manipulate the tournament.

A variation on this theme is the concession that protects what someone already has. One sees this in Magic all the time, as players at the bottom edge of the cutoff for prizes agree to draw their match rather than risk a loss that would push them lower in the standings. Television game shows feature this brand of concession as well, with players deciding to stop with what they have rather than risk it all on one more question.

Stated by themselves, all of those sound like fair reasons to walk away from a game. A bit underhanded, in some cases, but logical. Why, then, do people dislike concessions?

Taking away the climactic move: Some players don’t just want to figure out how to win, they want to actually do it. Concessions deny these players the final moment in which they knock over the opponent’s king or otherwise demonstrate their victory. This is especially galling when the victory was very hard-won and involved a brilliant final sequence of plays; cutting such a game short can feel anti-climactic.

Reducing the time spent playing: I see this reason cited frequently by players who don’t get to play their preferred game often, or who have traveled a long way to play in an event. These players want to savor every moment of their games. Conceding necessarily denies them some of those moments. It doesn’t matter that a concession means they win; these players value time spent playing more than the victory.

Others are affected: Conceding can impact others in the tournament, as it did in the Warmachine event that inspired these articles. When Adam concedes to Beth, it can affect Charlie’s strength of schedule (he played Adam earlier, and will place higher the better Adam does), or Dani’s odds of winning (she has a good matchup against Adam, but a poor one against Beth). It can even, in unusual cases, have more direct effects. The Warmachine tournament’s result was controversial in part because the player who conceded was ineligible for the grand prize; had he played his game out and ended up in the finals, his opponent would automatically have gotten the big-ticket stuff instead of, as actually happened, going home with second place.

The list of people who can be impacted extends beyond the players. Consider professional sports: paying fans would be livid if a hockey team decided that the game wasn’t worth bothering with and left the ice at the end of the first period. Among the complaints leveled against the ejected Olympic badminton players was that they had wasted ticket-holders’ money. Shoeless Joe Jackson had to wonder what the kid who asked him to “say it ain’t so, Joe” learned about sportsmanship from his decision to tank World Series games.

It’s unsportsmanlike: For some players, trying one’s hardest is integral to honest gameplay. Choosing not to pursue victory with all one’s strength is just inherently wrong under this view, regardless of why one might do it. By joining a game, they feel, one commits to try to win it until the very end. The circumstances have no bearing on this moral obligation.

(As a side note: listing these, I feel, helps make clear why discussions about concessions so often involve people talking past each other. The reasons to concede are all about the game’s obligation to the player: when the game stops making play worthwhile, they posit, the player does not need to continue. By contrast, the arguments against conceding are about the player’s obligations to others: they want the player to keep going, even given that the activity is voluntary and no longer rewarding, because doing so benefits those others. Since the two sides value entirely different things, it’s hard for them even to engage with the opponent’s arguments.)

Looking these over, I think that they represent a fairly comprehensive statement of why concessions happen, and why some players would prefer that they didn’t. Next time we’ll try to put this knowledge into practice, discussing how games can be designed to minimize the impact of a player conceding.


4 thoughts on “Theory: Why Players Concede–and Why Their Opponents Hate It

  1. Very interesting set of posts, I haven’t ever thought about concession, especially as it applies to game design.

    I remember the first time I was frustrated by concession, it was actually when playing MtG and one of my friends suddenly said he would “renege” because he had a loosing hand and board situation. I was upset because I was surprised by his action and thought that it somehow let him win even though I was supposed to win given the circumstances. I think my gut reaction makes some sense since control or the feeling or the control is a very important aspect, and my friend’s final action of the game was to quit and remove my ability to control the game to my liking.

    However, many years later, I think I am totally OK with almost all forms of concession (except for those you mention where someone can effect their ranking or some other element indirectly, which to me seems like borderline cheating).

    I’m curious to see your next article and how you will apply this to game design. My initial instinct is that it is impossible to completely remove this, because all games have a certain level of predictability, but I guess if you increase randomness (think Mario Kart series’ random objects) you can make them want to stay along until the end.

    On a related topic, if I am watching a chess game and the players agree to a draw in a debatable position, while I understand the reason for them doing so I am annoyed by this since after all it makes professional (high level) chess matches quite boring in terms of the total stats (draws are very frequent). If I were to have my own chess tournament I would even consider this sort of thing illegal, or at least making the rules for it tighter, and maybe doing something like a “restart” where they do the game over again instead of draw and make it (almost) as if it didn’t happen to begin with.

    1. You raise a really interesting point–that conceding can change whose decisions seem to have given rise to the victory, and in the process change how the win feels to the victor. I hadn’t considered that. Thanks for bringing it up!

      Listening to the latest Chain Attack dojo pointed out another issue I hadn’t thought about: the way conceding calls previous games into question. If a player concedes, it can give the impression that he or she doesn’t care about the game/event/etc. That’s potentially frustrating for other opponents, who may be proud of hard-earned wins against that player and are now left to wonder if he or she wasn’t putting forward maximum effort.

      I’m curious to hear more about your dislike of draws in chess. Is the objection that it would have been more interesting to see the game play out? That the tournament as a whole is unsatisfactory, because it doesn’t correctly measure who was playing best that day? Something else entirely?

      1. I have struggled against the problem of “is the opponent really trying” against several friends in the context of several different games. It’s frustrating because you never know how hard the opponent tried and therefore how great your win was. These are all casual situations, but I guess in a tournament there is a much higher chance the opponent is really trying their best.

        Regarding my dislike of draws in chess, it’s because to me part of the purpose of a tournament (besides measuring skill) is to have an exciting series of games whom are fun to watch, as if watching a action movie (even if the overall pace is much slower).

        However after watching several chess tournament games, I am usually disappointed by draws, regardless of whether they are early on or after a long drawn-out battle. Sure you can analyze the middle part of the game, but it’s sad to think that the result of the game was just a draw that didn’t effect either person’s score (or only slightly)

        My feeling is that the frequency of draws in high level competitive chess is because the players are risk-averse and don’t want to risk loosing because they make a mistake in a ‘neutral’ position.

        Sure, you can say that certain positions are ‘drawy’ and tend to draw and maybe they are saving energy for future games since they feel there is a high % chance of the game turning into a draw. But I’ve seen some games that (at least to me, a relatively weak player) really have so many potentials and yet they were agreed upon as a draw.

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