Theory: Decisions in Physical Games

Miniature golf is fun, even though there’s only ever one right move: to hit the ball in a way that results in a hole-in-one. The same is true of tennis (players should hit unreturnable serves that land perfectly in the corners), baseball (it’s always best to swing the bat along an arc that will produce a home run), and many other games that turn primarily on physical accomplishments rather than strategic calculations. All of these games work, despite their tactical simplicity, because they still have compelling decisions; they simply fold those decisions into the physical performance involved.

Let’s look at one of the first games many people play: catch. The only “move” in catch is to throw the ball back and forth, with the goal of making a good throw directly to the other player. There are no decisions to make, no opposing players to outwit or special moves that score more points. Catch has absolutely no strategic depth.

Yet, people of all ages play catch. It could be that they do it out of obligation, as practice for other games, or as something to occupy their hands while they discuss other things. I’m sure that in some cases one of those is exactly what’s happening. However, given the number of games of catch I see played between people who aren’t members of competitive sports teams and who seem focused on what they’re doing, I think there’s a better explanation: catch, despite being strategically simple, involves a lot of interesting decisions.

Consider what goes into that “good throw.” The amount of force on the ball must be correctly judged; too little and the ball doesn’t get to the other player, too much and she has to go chase after it (or, perhaps, the thrower has to chase after it!). One must tune one’s arm motion to produce that amount of force in the correct direction. Last but not least, one has to find just the right point at which to release the ball—too early or too late will spoil all the other work.

Each of those decisions involves selecting, without complete information, the best option from many alternatives. They are interrelated and must be made in a time-pressured environment. A variety of factors play into them, and one must weigh those factors appropriately. Those decisions are, in other words, interesting, for the very same reasons that decisions in board games are interesting.

Another example of interesting physical decisions comes out of first-person action video games. David Sirlin once described the primary skill in these games as “aiming:” moving one’s mouse, joystick, or directional pad so that the targeting reticule is over the enemy. That doesn’t sound all that enthralling, but millions of people play these games every day. Why?

Part of the answer, no doubt, is AAA graphics and sound. Part, though, is the simple fact that aiming is hard. Like making a good throw in catch, it’s a physical act with many decisions bundled up in it. How exactly should the mouse move, given that the player is also running diagonally forward and jumping and the opponent looks like he’s going to rocket-jump but hasn’t done it yet? It’s not trivial to work that out in less than a second while everything is in motion!

I get the same feeling of satisfaction from a really good throw in catch as I do from a really good move in a board game. That’s not surprising, because in both cases I’ve made a series of tricky decisions correctly. In the end, physical games are games, and they draw their fun from the same well of interesting decisions as their more sedate counterparts do.

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