Gamedesign: Cooperation

„Opposition. Oh, say the politically correct. Those bad, icky games. They’re so competitive. Why can’t we have cooperative games?“
– Greg Costikyan (1994), „I have no words & I must design“

Competition, opposition, comparision, struggle is a valuable motivational aspect of games. But you don’t always have to pit one opponent against the other in a simple, static player vs. player situation like in chess or most other two-player strategy games. One of the preconditions of this is, of course, that the game will allow for players to interact in a collaborative, supportive way.

  • Teamplay: The easiest form may be to form competing teams, but with the necessity for close cooperation between the teamplayers. Maybe every one of them has a crucial role or a specific ressource to bring into play, something that is necessary to compete and win. Maybe it is the sheer number (like in a „Tug of War“) that requires everyone to ‚pull‘ towards a common goal.
  • Quizzes and tasks: This is comparable to teamplay, just without an opposing team. The opposition is the quiz itself, or a time limit to overcome. The time limit may be measured in real time (e.g. by a miniature hourglass) or by time-tokens (e.g. per move).
  • Dynamic Alliances: Allow and support via gamedesign the formation of dynamic alliances against the leading player. This can be seen in complex, negotiation based games like german board games (i.e. „Settlers of Catan“), where trading alliances form in mid-play and alliances against the winning player form in the end-game; also in classic games of elimination like „Risk!“ („Risiko“). A bad example is „Monopoly“, where every one is usually playing by him- oder herself. A mentioning in the rules or a more formal support of ‚Kingmaking‘ by providing a combined victory condition would be a nice idea. See also the „Kingmaker Scenario“ from game theory.
  • Dedicated powerful opposing player: Have one chosen player fulfill the role of an opponent, playing the forces of nature, the evil overlord or just market forces. Playing a baddie, and especially with the chance to win, might be motivating and educating. Next time another player takes this role. This is also an approach followed by the ARG concept or pen-and-paper-roleplaying games, where the unfolding opposing events are described to the players by dedicated gamemasters. For gamedesigners – and even gamemasters – it may be difficult to balance the power of the opposing player and the ‚regular‘ players.
    One genre of ‚Paranoia‘-games hides the role of the dedicated opponent, so part of the game is to cooperate to find out who the opponent is in the first place.
  • Randomized or computer generated opponent: With a computer playing the opposing force or a randomized stack of event cards, you may have a somewhat clumsy opponent for your players. You may also set specific conditions into the rules, e.g. „If all players have amassed a sum of 100 Gold, ‚The Robber‘-cards will come into play.“ This is a little bit difficult, since the non-human opponent has to be balanced and diverse in its possibilities. The computer, cardstack or extra-rules may play a personalised antagonist to overcome, or just represent entropy, like the incoming flood destroying a sand-castle, defended by the ‚players‘.
  • Undepletable ressources: Most competitive game mechanics are based on a limited shared resource (money, points to win, raw materials, board game area, options for moves etc.). The prevalence for some specific kind of resources may be an ingrained sociocultural bias to western culture (agriculture, trade, progress). Games which may be build upon immaterial resources which increase when shared, may further collaborative play. A classic / new media example (e.g.Hacker ethics, Open Source Movement) may be ‚information‘, but also affective resources like ‚love‘ and ‚trust‘, ‚fear‘ and ‚hate‘. These multiply by sharing.
  • Aesthetic or functional constructs: Have you ever played music in a group and improvised? You’re making plenty of aesthetic decisions, alone and together, watching what others do and offer your own ideas. The same goes for a town made of Lego Bricks or a contraption with the task to catch fallen eggs safely (a good teambuilding excercise). Creating something in a group on the fly can be fun, be it a mechanic contraption, a song, a story, a poem, a sandcastle. It will be more than just the sum of it’s parts. The ‚opponent‘ may be your own sense of beauty or functional restrictions.
  • Trading surplus: In collaborative gameplay, usually every player looses if there’s no cooperation. How about a game where everybody gains something ‚extra‘ when cooperating with und supporting other players? This would e.g. be the case, if there were different, non-competitive goals for the players, but collaboration – though unnecessary – would make it easier to reach them. At a specific point, where a player does not expect any reciprocity but just ‚helps‘ other players out, this may change a collaborative game to an altruistic one.
  • Hidden cooperative strategy as goal: If it isn’t forbidden by the rules, a course of action is usually allowed in a game. Most rules do not explicitly state that the players have to compete against each other, just that the winner is the one with the most ressources of a kind. If it isn’t a zero-sum-game, cooperation may be the most promising strategy, but the cultural habits and personal experience of playing competitive games may hinder the players recognizing this path until they are nudged into this direction by debriefing or specific rules or narratives. Unusable games usually follow this agenda.