An unexpected take on how games work, what the stakes are for them, and how game designers can avoid the traps of optimization.
The process of optimization in games seems like a good thing—who wouldn't want to find the most efficient way to play and win? As Christopher Paul argues in Optimizing Play, however, optimization can sometimes risk a tragedy of the commons, where actions that are good for individuals jeopardize the overall state of the game for everyone else. As he explains, players inadvertently limit play as they theorycraft, seeking optimal choices. The process of developing a meta, or the most effective tactic available, structures decision making, causing play to stagnate. A “stale” meta then creates a perception that a game is solved and may lead players to turn away from the game.
Drawing on insights from game studies, rhetoric, the history of science, ecology, and game theory literature, Paul explores the problem of optimization in a range of video games, including Overwatch, FIFA/EA Sports FC, NBA 2K, Clash Royale, World of Warcraft, and League of Legends. He also pulls extensively from data analytics in sports, where the problem has progressed further and is even more intractable than it is in video games, given the money sports teams invest to find an edge. Finally, Paul offers concrete and specific suggestions for how games can be developed to avoid the trap set by optimization run amok.
Christopher A. Paul is Professor of Communication and Media at Seattle University. He is the author of Free-to-Play and coauthor, with Mia Consalvo, of Real Games (both MIT Press). He is also the author of The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games and Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games.
“Paul offers an exceptional and detailed analysis of the optimization of video gameplay that is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the contemporary nature of video games and their players.”
Garry Crawford, Professor of Cultural Sociology, University of Salford; author of Video Games as Culture, Video Gamers, and Cosplay and the Art of Play
“This is more than a book about optimizing gameplay. Weaving together examples ranging from Big Brother all the way to Overwatch, Christopher Paul has crafted a compelling critique of our society's obsession with maximizing efficiency.”
Kelly Bergstrom, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication & Media Studies, York University
“With Optimizing Play, Christopher Paul proposes a provocative and thoughtful account of the trend toward optimization in video games, how it homogenizes play, and why we should remember that play is a creative exploration of possibilities.”
Miguel Sicart, Professor of Digital Play, IT University of Copenhagen; author of Play Matters, Playing Software, Beyond Choices, and The Ethics of Computer Games
“Smart and engagingly written, Optimizing Play offers a well-evidenced argument and suggestions for how, in the face of optimization, game producers and sports leagues might still balance the competing interests of players, leagues, and spectators to maintain interest and excitement.”
Amanda Cote, Associate Professor, Department of Media & Information, Michigan State University; author of Gaming Sexism
The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding and support from MIT Press Direct to Open