The Way We Play: Rituals and Luck

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Jack stood over the pile of cards, his hands outstretched to the sky, fingers clawing at some invisible wall. From his mouth wailed a long series of noises and grunts akin to some lovecraftian sorcerer summoning a beast from the nether. With a quick swoop Jack picked up a card and flipped it onto the pile. A moment of silence as the card’s value was registered before hollers and woops of excitement with Jack proclaiming, “I am the best at this game.” War was the game and Jack was considered one of the best players in class.

I’ve been working for the last two years at a primary school in Melbourne. It’s been a rollercoaster ride filled with screams of delight and tantrums of tiredness. These last two years have also been invaluable for me as a game designer in the observations I’ve made on how children interact and create games. One of the most interesting aspects of game theory I found was the innate sense of luck versus skill and how ritual interacted between the two.

In War a deck is split between two or more players who in unison flip the top card of their piles; the person whose card is highest wins and takes the opponent’s card. Essentially the game is without agency, as nuanced as Snakes and Ladders. Game designer Greg Costikyan believed that War was not a game since no choices could be made and all the outcomes were predestined by the shuffle, yet this fact did not establish itself in the children. They played this game for months on end, rushing to take hold of the now fraying and battered cards. As I watched, it was amazing to note that the children truly believed that they were masters of their fate, that some children were considered better War players than others. I watched summoning rituals just before the draw and if it was not to their liking the players would shrug and say quite confidently, “I meant to lose.” But when the card was drawn that was in their favour they would claim they had summoned it into existence.

Jack understood the concept of luck, however it seemed to him that luck was only a partial agent in his actions and that it was their skill or ritual that decided the outcome. As a designer it reminds me to look at ritual within my own games. Players live in a fallacy of luck versus skill, believing themselves to be better than they actually are. This is not subjected just to gamers but to stock brokers, fund managers let alone the individual in their everyday life. We practice rituals every day to maintain and keep agency over our own existence from the simplicity of shaking your dice before rolling to the power of prayer as an attempt to wrangle cosmic randomness. Wouldn’t it be fantastic and elating to keep rituals we perform as children in games we play today. To have these moments of divine connection to the fates, correlate with a direct mechanic in our games. Of course if the outcome wasn’t as we expected we could always shrug saying, “I meant to do that.”