Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Competitive Vs. Cooperative

One day, at an old job I had, the head of our department called the whole team in for a meeting. 

It wasn't a big group, two men (myself included) and three or four women. The department leader asked, "Have any of you ever been involved in competitive sports? I don't mean as kids. I mean, in your adult life, say in college or a company softball team? What was it?"

One by one each of the members of our group described their previous experiences. As it turned out, the women in the group had played a lot more competitive sports than either I or the other fellow had, ranging from volleyball and basketball to ultimate frisbee. The other male in the group had some experience in the area but it had been a while. 

Then it came to me. "Adam, how about you?"

"Not really." 

"Surely you've competed in some way. Track?"

"I am flattered that you'd think so. No. I don't care for sports and I don't enjoy competitive play. I'd rather do something by myself or as part of a cooperative. Build something as a team. Achieve something as a team. I like working with people, not against them."

As you can imagine, I didn't last long with that group. I'd been with the company about two and a half years, in charge of an entire department myself with only one assistant, but when they downsized and dissolved the need for my position I transferred to another. It was one where I was excited to work with the group because I saw the team as a team. The 'powers that be' thought each member should compete against each other to motivate the department as a whole. That just isn't what I'm about. 

Competition is an innate Human quality that can be very useful, even helpful, but it's also one of your...ahem...sorry I mean our...absolutely worst traits. 

Animals compete. They compete for food, mates, territory; and other resources. We're Humans. We should try to do better. Competition tends to create a sense of selfishness and a general self-centered, self-important attitude. It prevents us, in my humble opinion, from achieving amazing things. Combined we could be great but because it's all about 'me', not we, the whole of Humanity is held back. 

Um, what does this have to do with RPGs?

RPGs are the ultimate cooperative endeavor. The players, through their PCs, work together to overcome obstacles, defeat enemies, solve problems, and achieve some agreed upon end goal. Individually they may not be able to meet their objective, be it personal or a group's objective, but together than can accomplish what the individual alone can not. 

The GM is equally in cooperation with the players. It is a give and take dynamic wherein the GM provides challenges, a world, interesting plots, and reasons for the players to work together. In turn the players engage with the GM's setting, the NPCs they have created, and try to succeed at their individual and collection goals.

All too often I feel an underlying competitive mentality in players to the detriment of the games I'm running. Not just competitive with me as the GM, that I can handle and will discuss further on, but with the other players. 

It is not enough for a player to have their turn, they must have as much spotlight as they can get. It's not enough to be effective and cool but the Most Effective and the Coolest. At best it's, 'You'll want to hear My idea'. At worst it's, 'Who cares about you're idea'. Be aware that the line between those two statements is often very fine in the other players' heads. 

Quite simply, WTH? What is this?! Are we not aware that there are other people at the table? That these people are our friends? Don't we want their characters to survive, to claim victories? Do we really only care about ourselves? 

Personally I find it incredibly entertaining and exciting when a fellow player's PC accomplishes something. I am encouraging when they miss a roll or when they guess wrong and set off a trap. I try to help them succeed by adding my PC's skill to theirs or trying to knock them out of the way of incoming damage. I try to always be aware that they are on my team. If they win, I win. If they perish, I too may perish. 

While I find player on player competitiveness especially disheartening, I find Player vs. GM competition to be simply downright stupid.

You want to be pushy, quote rules in a rules lawyer fashion, and be disruptive to the other players over what is happening in the game to your character? Fine, we can handle that sensibly or we can do it your way. Now what is happening in the game is your character is dead. That's it.

There is no competition with the Gods my foolish friends. Your GM can simply find a way to kill your PC or can kick a player out of the group. I am not saying they should or that either of these is a mature or reasonable way of handling the situation but it is the reality of what a GM can do. Instead, and I can't stress this enough, try going in with the mindset that you are there to work with your GM and vice versa. You'll be amazed at how much more a constructive, cooperative outlook can accomplish. 

In my ALIEN FRONTIER campaign, using the ALIEN RPG and film franchise setting, we've had some minor injuries and numerous really close calls, but so far no deaths in the 7 sessions we've played. 

A few gamers I know who are not participants in the game have commented how I am probably being easy on them, or letting them 'get away with stuff'. When I asked a few of the players about this they all thought that was way off. As one noted, "Are you kidding, [there was this one moment] that was absolutely terrifying. I thought I was a goner." Another said, "I was sure I was going to die when I realized what I'd done".

You might be wondering, 'Why aren't they dead? How did they escape? What did I, as GM, do to ensure their survival?' Nothing. It wasn't ensured. Not by a long shot. 

So what saved them?

Cooperation. They saved each other. Each and every damn one of them has been hellbent on not leaving any of the others behind. 

Games need more of this.

Humanity needs more of this.

Barking Alien


  1. Well said! I have nothing more profound to say.

    Games work best when the players work together to craft a good story out of the material you present them with. That doesn't necessarily mean all the characters get along (I'm not opposed to a bit of PvP if it makes for a fun story), as long as the players aren't actively trying to sabotage or undermine each other for the sake of "one upmanship" or just out of spite.

    1. Interestingly, as one of my players said, I don't think the gamers who are competitive or at least not cooperative are Trying to undermine each other. I also don't think they are thinking about the other players at all when it comes to this. They think solely about themselves and that is just as bad.

    2. So, I was watching the new season of Cosmos the other day and there was a statement, which I'll have to paraphrase, along the lines of why humans evolved as we did and animals didn't.

      It stressed the importance of team-work amongst the original hunter-gatherers over the "alpha male" prevalence of animal species.

      See, it's science. We're engineered to work together!

  2. We are in agreement, and I am so glad I have players who cooperate and support each other.

    1. You are very lucky. Never take that blessing for granted! lol

  3. Competition bred faster cheetahs, stronger lions and smarter leopards in order to catch their prey. Humans saw the competition, put the prey in a pen and started killing the other three. Depending on how you look at it, we are too good at competition or absolutely suck at it, all because we know how to cheat or circumvent the rules.

    The very act of looking for those workarounds is often detrimental to the RPG experience, so, no, I'm not a big fan of a competitive mindset in games.