Last year was a big one for gaming. We broadened the definitions of gaming and gamer. We saw the meteoric rise of the casual and social gaming genres, and saw mobile games become a true force in the market. We saw greatness in every area of gaming in which gamers could hope to find a game. We saw games recognized as art.

Many of us are “grown-up gamers,” a demographic still finding its identity.

And as many times as I’ve used the words game, gaming, and gamer, not once have I used the word play. It’s an important distinction that gamers (including myself) sometimes forget. Games are increasingly mobile, but my own play often feels stagnant. Social games are everywhere, but my own play feels less social. I’ve been gaming more but playing less.

It’s not surprising. Many of us are “grown-up gamers,” a demographic still finding its identity. We want others to take gaming seriously (like other “grown-up” hobbies) so we take it more seriously, too. We decry “pointless” casual games, we discourage innovation with risk-averse buying habits, and we heavily push realism and competition … often at the expense of fun.

But is it necessary to abandon the spirit of play to hold onto the activity? With all we’ve done to change the way others think about gaming, we’ve changed ourselves along the way – possibly not for the better. It’s time to turn our attention back to how we think and feel about gaming. It’s time to play again.

In our effort to show others the “point” of gaming, we’ve really ramped up the competitive aspect – tournaments, ratings, leaderboards, prizes. Competition is the surest way to make something more serious. It has become the point of most of our gaming, and that’s where we’ve gone wrong. As cutthroat as it can get, we should ask whose throat we’re really cutting. Are we allowing the competitive “spirit” behind our play to become the competitive “phantom” that overshadows it?

Competition isn’t a bad thing itself – after all, videogames have been competitive since Pong – but it quickly snowballs and, if unchecked, squashes the fun for everyone. We need to be aware of how competition changes play:

It changes the nature. Competition is about unevenly distributing limited resources. One person gets, another goes without. In competitive play, fun can become a limited resource. (Winning is fun; losing usually isn’t. One person is getting “more of the fun” by taking it from others.) There’s nothing wrong about this – it’s just how competition works – but realizing our fun may come at the expense of someone else’s, it calls for extra care.

It changes the tone. The next time you’re in a competitive game with friends, keep track of the conversation. If you’re like me, you’ll notice nearly all of it is about the game. And how much of it is argument? When you find the conversation is all-business, ask yourself: Am I playing with my friends, or am I just playing around my friends?

It changes the purpose. Competition has one goal: Determine a winner at the end. Think about that a moment. Isn’t the mark of a great experience that we don’t want it to end? Since the most desirable part of a competition is the outcome, we usually try to get there as efficiently as possible. When that happens, we aren’t really playing with each other. We’re playing straight through each other.

It changes everyone’s play. We’ve all seen this, probably on both sides. A casual group is playing, and one starts taking things more seriously. It could mean they’re buying newer, better stuff. It could just mean they’re getting more aggressive, or more serious about the rules.

Next, to keep up, you’re either adopting the same attitude, or the equal-but-opposite. Players become harder on each other and less tolerant of mistakes. Arguments become common. The feel of the game becomes far more serious … and less fun. Directly or indirectly, the most competitive player can control how everyone else plays.

Even seeing the potential pitfalls of competitive play, we can’t deny competition is in our nature and has a rightful place. At the same time, we can’t forget that cooperation is also part of us. We need for the two to coexist and find a balance. We need ways to cooperatively compete.

This isn’t about ignoring or eliminating competition. It’s about changing how we approach competition – letting it be how we play without always letting it be why. Since it’s as much about what we do as it is what we don’t do, an example goes further than an explanation.

One of my favorite examples is from the film The Princess Bride – the incredible duel between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black. This is no mere sword fight. These two are clearly both masters with a blade, but as we watch them test one another, exchange strategies and compliments, trade flourishes and quips, and turn the tables on one another (“I am not left-handed!”), something becomes very clear: Behind the flashing blades and flashier grins, these men aren’t just fighting. They’re playing.

Valuing play over competition sometimes means letting someone take back a bad move or recover from bad luck.

Make no mistake, this is still a fight. In the end, there is a clear winner and clear loser. But how many times could either man have easily ended the fight but didn’t? Each had the chance to show his incredible skill, to use some of his best tricks, and to learn from his opponent. By unspoken agreement, each gave the other the chance to play. The result was a fight that was incredibly satisfying, on both sides.

Contrast this with Inigo’s fight with Count Rugen, the man who killed his father. Shorter, less flashy, more direct – pure competition. This isn’t for fun, this is for keeps. In the end, the satisfaction is quite different, and quite one-sided. “Prepare to die,” indeed.

An example of my own: Over New Year’s, some good friends and I had a Magic: The Gathering tournament among ourselves. At times, we fell into the competitive pitfall – short, hurried, unsatisfying games. But one friend and I didn’t get the chance to face each other in the tournament, so we had a casual side-match. The first game, I was low on mana; it was over fast. The second, it was her turn to come up short. Rather than allow another “foregone conclusion” game, I waited. I put out a few critters and toys, sure, but I didn’t press the advantage. After a turn or two, she asked why I wasn’t attacking.

All I could think was, “Why would I?” We both knew I could end the game, but where’s the fun in an ending you already know? I hadn’t seen what her deck could do, and she hadn’t gotten the chance to show me. After just a short wait, she was making a comeback; we both showed off our cool toys, and the game ended much closer. I don’t even remember who won. I remember a great game, in which I played more than I had the whole weekend.

It was a cooperative competition. We allowed each other room to truly compete, and got to see each other’s best. Valuing play over competition sometimes means letting someone take back a bad move or recover from bad luck. Sometimes, it’s seeing an opening to end the game and not taking it (yet). Sometimes it’s more than “not using our tournament deck,” but instead trying not to always use our tournament brains.

I might give up a win doing that, but so what? I’d rather lose a good game than win a bad one. I’d still know I “really” won, and the other player can enjoy a brilliant comeback. In the end we can put off (or even give up) winning to spend a few more moments playing. We lose nothing, but look what we gain:

We all get the chance to show what we can do. People put a lot of energy and time into getting ready. When we come together, it’s not just to decide a winner. It’s to show off all that work. Leave room for everyone to have that chance. We all brought our best toys, shouldn’t we get the chance to play with them?

We get to really be with our friends. Toning down the “business” of the game lets us focus on the company, not just the activity. For my part, it could have spared me the shame of spending that weekend playing Magic, and later realizing I hadn’t even bothered to ask a friend about his new job. (Sorry, Eric!)

We learn a lot more. Losing because of flawed strategy or execution can teach us a lot. Losing to bad luck, or just being completely outclassed, teaches us nothing (and it’s no fun). Easy wins are just as useless – they won’t reveal our hidden weaknesses or teach us how to recover from setbacks. We end up better at competitive play specifically by not being as competitive.

We gain fun. It’s simple, but I can’t stress that enough. In cooperatively competitive play, fun isn’t a limited resource anymore. Your fun adds to mine, and vice versa.

Cooperation and Competition are two beasts living in each of us, and both need to be fed. Competition, by nature, is a bit more aggressive at feeding time, and things can go all “food chain” pretty fast. With care, it’s possible for Competition and Cooperation to peacefully coexist … and even play nice together.

When it’s tournament time? “Prepare to die!” When it’s over, and we’re among friends, we should remember: Competition may often be our means of play, but it doesn’t have to be the meaning. It’s fine to play to win, but we should remember which – winning or playing – is the point.

Brian Campbell is a musician and teacher in NC. He is not left-handed, either.

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