/Blog: How randomness contributes to strategic thinking

Blog: How randomness contributes to strategic thinking


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In his article, Randomness and Game Design, Keith Burgun describes two kinds of randomness. Input randomness influences your decisions (ex: the procedurally generated starting conditions of a board game). Output randomness influences the outcome of a player’s decisions (ex: the roll of dice determining whether an attack hits or misses). This distinction is used to build an argument that while input randomness contributes positively to strategy games, output randomness “in all its forms is to be avoided”. Statements like this that conclusively discount value concern me. There is more we can learn from randomness.

In this article, I will explore randomness as it relates to strategy games. I’ll begin by providing a definition of what strategy games are and why they are valuable. Then, I’ll illustrate how random outcomes positively contribute to strategic thinking and help us grow our creativity, problem solving abilities and connection to others.

According to Keith, “Strategy games are engines that allow us to understand them.” It’s from this position that his arguments against output randomness are established. By winning or losing we make connections and figure out how the system works. Through the process of understanding, we gain enrichment and entertainment.

I agree there is value in the learning and understanding that comes from playing strategy games, but additional dimensions are needed if we are to uncover the true “why” that makes these experiences so compelling. A strategy game is a construct of rules whose principal value is the act of play that lets you creatively outwit your opponent.

Strategy games have value because they satisfy our innate, intrinsic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. The act of outwitting an opponent speaks to competence, our need to seek to control the outcome and experience mastery. The win/loss nature of the game provides context from which to measure effectiveness and improve. By “creatively” winning, we also fulfill autonomy, our need for freedom of internal will. We define something about ourselves through the style in which we play. Finally, the two pieces together – “creatively outwit” –  helps to establish relatedness, or meaningful relationships with another person. The act of play enables us to share an intimate part of ourselves with another player and learn together through the expression of our creativity and how it relates with theirs. While relatedness generally speaks to relationships with other people, this can also describe the relatedness you have to yourself as you engage your will and unfold your personal story through the interaction with the game itself. (See “Self Determination Theory”, then check out how it applies to games in Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan’s article and their book Glued to Games.)

Using the notion that strategy games have value because of their ability to satisfy our innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness, let’s consider three arguments to show how random outcomes contributes positively to strategic thinking.

A hypothetical example often used to argue against randomness in strategy games goes something like this: Say you make a move in chess and use a random event to decide whether or not the opponent’s piece is successfully captured. If you lose the game, do you attribute that to making a bad move? The feedback teaches you the move was bad even if the choice was good, so it’s argued that random outcomes diminishes our ability to learn from the game outcome.

The problem with this argument is that it takes a generalized example outside of real world context and ignores how randomness can be used effectively in games to teach valuable lessons. Random outcomes in games like Summoners War, Hearthstone or Dream Quest are not disconnected events anymore than how wars in real-life history are disconnected from random events such as weather and disease.

The outcome of random events laid out over-time are influenced by the strategic preparedness of those participating in the system. Did the general secure adequate provisions in anticipation of bad weather for his troops to wait out the cold? Did scientists anticipate the chances of an outbreak and make strategic decisions to prepare vaccines? If I’m fighting the ooze in DreamQuest, did I take enough cards in my deck to avoid having my entire arsenal devoured? When I play a game of MtG, did I anticipate my opponent might bring fliers and choose to bring my own fliers or direct damage to counter them? Random outcomes teach us how to plan for uncertainty and makes us more competent strategic thinkers.

When a dice roll outcome is preceded by strategic preparedness, such as positioning your unit to attack from the rear and bolstering their to-hit attribute with additional abilities, any observer of the match can witness this and judge the soundness of that tactic. Similarly, we can offer a nod of acknowledgement to the foolhardy player bold enough to take an impossible bet by sending a unit that is statistically improbable to win into combat. This can create many interesting dynamics, taking the enemy by surprise and creating an exciting and meaningful moment for both players. There is also psychology going on between the minds of the players in this interaction: a bold move like that is often coupled with a supporting hidden attack played from the hand, like a Giant Growth in MtG. When you make these plays and see your opponent’s reaction, regardless of how dice ultimately decide the outcome, you learn something incredibly valuable about your opponent and yourself.

Random events teach us how our opponents respond to uncertainty and reveal underlying details about their character. Is this person a risk taker? Do they play it safe? Would this strategy surprise them? And if so, wouldn’t that be an awesome moment to share together? While you can get some of this in deterministic games, many of the lessons we’ve learned from revered strategy games would have been lost had randomness not been included.

While immediate learning is theoretically possible in deterministic games, it is not realistic to how we as humans have been observed to learn things. When a new chess player moves his queen into a position where his opponent can capture it, it’s clear to see how this teaches them to be more cautious with their queen. But if you ask this same player whether moving their king’s rook pawn in their first turn was a good move, you’re not likely to get a clear answer because this player does not have enough experience with the game. As players continue to master chess, they have to re-evaluate “bad lessons” taught by the inherent deterministic outcomes of the game. The lesson “it is a bad idea to expose the queen” must be adapted over time as many games are won by making such sacrifices. Deterministic outcomes can muddy a player’s ability to learn about a game’s endstate just as much as random outcomes. This is why it’s important to examine how learning progresses over time and in the proper context of a particular game we are discussing, not just in isolated incidents.

This learning over-time pattern is evidenced by the virtue that we have grand masters in games like MtG and Hearthstone that consistently perform well. This is statically improbable if randomness could not be overcome by strategic thinking.

Uncertainty inherently makes us uncomfortable to try new things. By nature, we strive for competence, so it is reasonable to conclude that it’s counter-intuitive to play random outcomes against known outcomes. However, human experience constantly challenges this notion and shows time and again that “fortune favors the bold”. Another way of putting this is that we grow by taking chances.

Creativity is the transformation of novel ideas into reality. The uncertainty of randomness in games is important because it encourages us to perceive our world in new ways, to see strategies we might otherwise have missed, to solve problems in ways we might not have previously considered. 

Creativity and luck are fundamentally intertwined. Luck is beyond our control, but luck can be cultivated by taking chances, putting yourself out there, being vulnerable and trying something different. To grow your creativity, you have to take risks. Random outcomes in games foster the growth of creativity by providing safe opportunities to take risks and clear metrics (win/loss) on which to learn from those risks over-time.

When I examine my own life, I consider that I could work twenty years on my game, make all the right moves in it’s design and still fail because of bad luck. This has nothing to do with how good my game is or how hard I worked. This uncertainty is what discourages many people from the pursuit of indie game development, but it’s precisely this uncertainty that makes it so compelling and gives it so much meaning. There is merit in overcoming fear to take a leap of faith.

While some people may succeed on luck alone, when you look at patterns over-time, you can see how random events contribute to strategic thinking. By overcoming the challenges of random outcomes, we grow into grittier people who don’t give up. We devise novel approaches to marketing, to community building, to connecting with our audience, and to designing better games. We learn to recognize that while we may not be able to control the outcome of a random event, we can, through creativity, envision the future, anticipate the outcome and influence how that outcome affects us.

If all games were focused into perfectly deterministic idealizations, we would miss the value of how our creativity is paralleled in real-life situations. Real-world problems are rampant with randomness. There is skill and merit involved in solving problems in games with random outcomes. You’re not just fighting your opponent, you’re bettering yourself and your adaptability to unpredictable situations. You build strategies that are more apt to handle the potential randomness thrown at you. You become a more strategic thinker.

In his video, Systemic Meaning, Keith explains that meaning is established in strategy games by moving your pieces on the board and developing a connection as you associate this process with yourself and the strategy you are forming. You can tell a story about why you made a particular move with each of your characters. By contrast, he calls random outcomes, such as missing an attack in Final Fantasy Tactics, anti-meaningful because you can’t give any insight other than that’s just how the dice roll played out. As I’ve pointed out earlier, however, random events are not disconnected, but rather a test of of strategic preparedness. This makes them incredibly meaningful to the story the players are creating.

It’s moments of randomness like these that grow relationships and genuine camaraderie within a community of players. When I make a poor move playing a skill-focused game like League of Legends, it’s often followed by communal ridicule for my foolishness. But when a Barbarian whiffs his dice roll in Hero Mages, someone makes up a story about how he got too wild at the tavern last night and everyone shares a laugh together.

Determination of casual events doesn’t paint the full picture of the human experience. If this were so, anyone could take prescribed steps to fulfill all of their goals and dreams. Consider this quote from the School of Life on Meritocracy that resonates the inherent dangers in discounting the role of chance in our relationships:

Our societies tell us that everyone is free to make it if they have the talent and energy. The down side of this ostensibly liberating and beautiful idea is that any perceived lack of success is taken to be not, as in the past, an accident or misfortune, but a sure sign of a lack of talent or laziness. If those at the top deserve all their success, then those at the bottom must surely deserve all their failure. A society that thinks of itself as meritocratic turns poverty from a problem to evidence of damnation and those who have failed from unfortunates to losers.

Games, like people, are entities of multiple dimensions. From a given perspective, they have strengths and they have weaknesses. They deserve our criticism. They also deserve our reverence. Particularly when discussing titles that have shaped so much of the game industry, like MtG and Hearthstone, we should not draw generalizations that discount their value and dismiss them as something we can no longer learn from. There’s a reason these titles have captivated so many millions of people. I take this as evidence that hard-working people devised these games with careful intent. They use randomness in their games not because they are weak designers, but because they are strong designers who deeply understand the higher purpose randomness serves towards cultivating meaningful growth in the strategic thinking of those who play and enjoy their games.

I’m grateful to Keith for the arguments he’s presented against randomness and the drive that’s given me to keep asking more questions. I hope in turn my perspective, that randomness positively contributes to strategic thinking and quality strategy games, provides value and consideration to all those that have found themselves here. Thanks for reading!