Posted by: bracehare | November 16, 2011

Self-handicapping in gaming communities

One of the more interesting phenomenon in gaming (or perhaps it’s simply depressive, depending on your perspective) is the way that virtually all gaming communities have developed certain sets of fandom established rules defining alternate ways to play through a game, particularly when these rules constitute a severe handicap or otherwise provide heavy limitations for the player. For shoot-em-ups, or shmups, the best example tends to be Single Credit Clears, or SCCs. Borrowing the name from their arcade lineage, when a single play would cost a single credit, they are exactly what they sound like; they require the player to complete the game without having to continue, or “buy back into” the game (the process is sometimes literal and sometimes figurative). This type of challenge represents perhaps the simplest type of handicap, which can be characterized as a mandate to the player to not die, to die a limited number of times, or to not take more than a certain level of damage.

In fighting games, players sometimes handicap themselves by playing as weak or “joke” characters. It is still not entirely uncommon to hear a competitive Street Fighter 3 player boast about their mastery of Sean, for example. In many games, particularly stealth games or games with a heavy stealth element, the ability to complete a playthrough without killing a single enemy fulfills a similar role. What classifies both of these examples together is that they do not simply gimp the player, but instead give them a limited toolset which is outside their normal range of comfort and force them to find ways to make use of it. This is very different from other types of self-imposed limitations like level one playthroughs in RPGs, which effectively only serve to gimp the player.

In dancing games as well this is a real phenomenon. I can think of two examples, in fact; players who abhor the use of the bar, and players who will play sets in “S4R”; a term which used to refer to an actual game mode in early versions of Dance Dance Revolution arcade games, but which now refers to a set of modifications performed to a song in the song modification menu. These modifications randomize the arrows, remove the color coding which arrows normally have (which represents what kind of note they represent; 4th note, 8th note etc), and make the arrows invisible until shortly before they reach the arrow targets.

I believe it is possible, broadly, to divide these examples into two different categories. I have already hinted at these categories. In the first category, a handicapped playstyle forces the player to interact with the game in a new way and hence develop new skills. In the second, it simply introduces artificial difficulty which has no later benefit. The distinction is not entirely clear. For instance, an SCC is not so much a limitation but a goal. As a goal, it therefore forces the player to improve certain skills central to shmups, like bullet pattern recognition, dexterity, and fast-twitch firing. However, a level one playthrough of an RPG is also a goal, but does it encourage the development of skill in the same way? It certainly encourages learning the core mechanics of the game, including how to effectively utilize items, but it also places an absolutely huge amount on luck, forcing the player to reset the game repeatedly. The player is also not, for the most part, learning new skills, but rather simply making existing skills less effective due to the nature of RPGs. Because of this, a level one playthrough seems to mostly only serve to introduce tedium and waste time.

Going back to the street fighter example, learning to play with Sean helps a player to build skills in the metagame and in parrying, as they are more reliant on reading other players to make effective use of the character, and as parrying can be used defensively, charges the players special attack bar, and can be used for this purpose in leiu of landing hits (to an extent, obviously). No kill playthroughs encourage the actual use of stealth in stealth games (although this can encourage rote memorization more than skill development, which is a good criticism against it). S4R play develops a players reflexes and pattern reading skills, and encourages them to minimize the amount of motion they invest into stepping on the arrows. No bar play can, to an extent, lead to physical development, but it is also demonstrably less effective than bar play.

Given all of this, the dichotomy is not so clearly defined. However, I might recommend one way of determining whether a handicap serves a long-term purpose or is simply an exercise in masochism, and it is contingent upon the player. If a player celebrates it for its own sake, and sees it as an end in itself, then there is a strong reason to believe it falls into the second category. Particularly in competitive player ecosystems, noncompetitive players are often driven laterally into specializations which are by nature noncompetitive. It is a sour-grapes type of reasoning. Since they cannot be successful at interacting with the game in the manner which is commonly agreed upon to be the “point”, they essentially just declare that the point for them is otherwise. By doing this, and by pursuing a handicapped style of play as an ideal, they obfuscate the fact that they would not be competitive in a non-handicapped version of the game; although the converse is generally not true, as the player who is best at a game with all the tools at their disposal is generally also very good at any variation of the game which can be produced.

– Jessica Evans



  1. Have you considered finishing your Metal Gear Solid analysis? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on MGS3.

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