on sirlin

November 29, 2006
The other day in a GamersQuart thread about Smash Brothers and "being sporting" and shunning weird and obscure tactics vs just playing as hard as possible, someone referenced Sirlin.

He argues that playing to win every time is the best path, and that people who don't are "scrubs" who don't know what they're missing and who will be forever limited by their own choices. He presents some compelling arguments, and is worth the read, but I had a few objections I'd like to bounce off of people here:

First off, Play to Win exhibits great faith in game designers, that in "99.9%" of the situations, there isn't a simple strategy that wins over all others, or that the community will serve to eliminate those games that do fall to a simple pattern. So therefore, any arbitrary restrictions by "scrubs" are largely pointless and out of the true spirit of gaming. But Sirlin himself points out some exceptions to this, cases where the "Pros" agree it is justified. Essay 1 talks about Akuma:
But the first version of Street Fighter to ever have a secret character was Super Turbo Street Fighter with its untouchably good Akuma. Most characters in that game cannot beat Akuma. I don't mean it's a tough match--I mean they cannot ever, ever, ever, ever win.[...] the community as a whole has unanimously decided to make the rule: "don't play Akuma in serious matches."
Also from the mailbag
Roll canceling is a bug requiring difficult timing that allows a player to have many invulnerable moves that the game designers never intended. [...]Should roll canceling be banned? I'm pretty sure it meets the standard of "warranted" since I'm satisfied that under serious tournament conditions, the game completely fell apart into a joke
So, there at least some cases where restrictions are acceptable... therefore, the question is just one of degree.

Then, in describing his own feats he talks about his moves of doing a defensive move until his opponent finally does something stupid:
For example, an opponent faced with my "jumping straight up and down Zangief" could simply decide to back off and wait. What he might not realize is that I have unlimited patience. Since my brick wall in this case is keeping me even (I'm not falling behind) I'm happy to do it forever, which is probably much longer than he's willing to avoid the battle. Most opponents lack the will to avoid battle forever, and will eventually enter into it at a disadvantage out of impatience.
I assume the game would time out if both players took this kind of tactic, and it would end in a tie (correct me if I'm wrong) So Sirlin is relying on the other player having slightly more devotion to the game not being utterly pointless, while all he will ever care about is winning.

He makes a bigger philosophical defense of the pursuit of the truly optimal strategies
Imagine a majestic mountain nirvana of gaming. At its peak are fulfillment, "fun", and even transcendence. Most people could care less about this mountain peak, because they have other life issues that are more important to them, and other peaks to pursue. There are few, though, who are not at this peak, but who would be very happy there.
I think his assumption of it being the "happiest" peak is unfounded (in fact, elsewhere he argues that amateur chess players have more fun than the pros) but at least he also points out the possibilities of other peaks. (Also, there's an interesting dependency, then, on being surrounded by similar caliber players, and possibly even doing research out of the game, like online...)

He puts forward some thought-provoking ideas, and I've even put his book on my Amazon wishlist but if taken too seriously, he can be almost Nietchian or Ayn-Randian in outlook. It's a short hop from him applying this kind of gamesmanship to the show "Survivor" to thinking about how the ideas might be applied to real life. And that leads to some profound questions, what's really worth pursuing in life? and how do you tell if you succeed?

There are some "obvious" possible metrics, like money. So maybe everyone should work to maximize their money. And some people do. But that leads to smack into a fundamental issue with the outlook, the "Tragedy of the Commons". Case in point: Spam. Spam, to some large degree, is effective, and people following this kind of "screw everything else I'm gettin' mine" outlook make life a bit more miserable for everyone, filling inboxes to overflowing and turning innocent folk's PCs into spam-spewing Zombies. Clearly, this isn't the path to the best balance in life.

(In practice of course, some of this all comes down to me being total crap at the type of fighter games he's so good at. In fact, a lot of what he describes requires an ability to emulate and even visually observe that I'm not sure that I have. The first mountain for the newbie player to climb is recognizing what the opponent is doing and how, and that's actually pretty tough in and of itself.)