Home Asymmetry


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Before writing this I tried really really hard to think of a sport that is asymmetric. Baseball and Cricket are played asymmetrically, with one team in the field and one team at bat, but the game requires each team to take turns at bat or in the field, making the game, overall symmetrical. It is possible that you could consider hunting and fishing to be asymmetric sports, with the hunter versus the prey. Hunting is not really a game, but a primary survival skill of human beings, as predatory animals. As a survival skill, people finding fun and engagement from hunting is fairly easy to understand. People also enjoy eating and using the toilet. These are not things that most would consider games. If there is any game to be made of hunting, then it is a competition between the hunters and not actually between the hunter and the prey. Of course that makes hunting and fishing, again, symmetric.

Many games (board games, and video games) have played with the idea of asymmetry. The playground game "tag" is a great example of an asymmetrical game. Playing a game of tag never requires every player to be "it". A player could play tag for hours and never be "it". For the players that aren't "it", the game can be fun and engaging, but, as any kid will tell you, tag is more fun when you are "it". Video games, likely starting with breakout, but then really with space invaders, made sure that the player is always "it".

The really difficult design problem that space invaders, being a video game, solved is that it sucks being the guy who is supposed to lose. It is much more fun to catch one player after another as "it" than to be one of many people waiting to be caught. No human would ever willingly play as the space invaders. This is the playground role handed out to little brothers and sisters for centuries. The dutiful punching bag. This is a role only a computer opponent could relish. A cursory glance at the standard game board of space invaders would lead most to believe that the player is faced with overwhelming odds and will need to call on all their dexterity and focus to prevail. That only becomes true as the game progresses. For the first few minutes the player is omnipotent. You are the one in control of the game and the computer will suffer the beating you dole out and keep coming back.

Maybe I should change my terminology. It is probably not so important that space invaders be a "video" game. It could be an incredibly complex mechanical shooting gallery. What is more important is that it is a "computer" game. Sure, you could compete against other players to see who can set a higher score, making space invaders a symmetric game, but it doesn't require another human player to be a complete game. It only requires a computer. A computer that doesn't care that its only role will always be the "not its" to the players "it".

Having this perpetual digital soup can available for the beating, changed game design. Ideas that you would never be able to get a team of real humans to rally behind, became the norm for video games. The next time you have a bunch of people around getting ready to play, soccer, hockey, baseball, football... or really any other sport, ask them if they would all rather line up and run straight at you while you punch them, one at a time, in the nose and crotch. They will probably tell you that idea doesn't sound like much fun. Then ask a computer. Computers are always up for it.

This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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