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Olympic Badminton's Broken Meta-Game Design

Readers are probably already aware of a recent Olympic badminton scandal involving several teams intentionally throwing games and subsequently suffering various punishments and humiliations for it.

Without getting into too much detail about the strict definition of what a "game" is, let's just assume we can all agree on the idea that a game can at least sometimes be described as an activity involving players who attempt to achieve a goal while constrained by rules.

Bearing this in mind, we see how the players' desire for the goal, or intention to win, or drive to compete, or whatever you want to call it, provides the essential fuel driving the course of the game's events from start to finish.

badminton = broken
Players make games... and players can also break games, in several specific ways: by cheating (i.e., attempting to gain an advantage by breaking the rules), by being unsportsmanlike (i.e., attempting to gain an advantage by some means which may or may not be governed by the rules), or by being spoil-sports. As Johann Huizinga writes in Homo Ludens,
"The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle... the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shit himself with others."
Obviously, being a spoil-sport is totally wack and represents a form of sabotage, an existential threat to the game itself. But I contend the following: in this badminton case, (a) the players were NOT being spoil-sports, and even if they were, (b) spoil-sports cannot and should not be punished except within the game itself.


With regard to the first point, the real problem here lies in the design of a meta-game that, in this particular case, served to undermine the foundations of the game by discouraging players from achieving the goal. That is to say, the reason these teams threw their matches was to give themselves a preferable position in the rankings for the next round of play -- what the hell's wrong with that? I call that "being smart." The way I see it, these players should be lauded as heroes for grasping the difference between tactics and strategy, for knowing when to lose a battle in order to win the war.

It isn't right to blame players when game designers screw up, and it isn't reasonable to expect players' sense of ethics or sportsmanship to pick up a designer's slack. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens in video games all too often: a friend of mine, for example, was banned for life from XBox Live because he discovered a clever way to position himself outside the zombies' reach in Call of Duty, and the authorities elected to give him the boot instead of owning up to their failure of level design.

Granted, exploitation of the rules can and often does border on "unsportsmanlike" territory, but ultimately it's a game designer's responsibility to anticipate or discover those holes and figure out how to close them. A good design doesn't punish players for being clever. A good design trusts its rules to limit players and doesn't expect them to police themselves according to some nebulous, implied spirit of intent. Game design is a means to the players' end of achieving the goal, which means designers serve players -- not the other way around.


My second point is a corollary of sorts to the idea that a game ceases to be a game when the players are compelled to want or to try to win, or even to participate. Motivation for achieving the goal in a game is axiomatic; it is presumed, taken for granted. By way of historical analogy, you can put a Christian into the gladiators' arena, but you can't make him fight. Perhaps this final descriptor, that a game be voluntary, is equally as important as involving players and goals and rules.

Now, if I intentionally lose a baseball game or a boxing match in order to win some money, I deserve to be punished for that. But that isn't because I'm a spoil-sport -- it's because I'm cheating at a different game, the game of gambling! Obviously there should be sanctions against that sort of thing. But what if I'm just in a bad mood and I'm not playing my best? Do I deserve to be disqualified for that?

The choice to compete is the very essence of the player's prerogative in a game, and it's also at the heart of any significance that championships, victories, triumphs, and so on may have. When an athlete ascends to the top of the Olympic podium, it should be because he or she made the free choice to do whatever it takes, to put everything he or she had, into being the best in the world -- not because he or she was ordered or forced to do so by authorities.

Anyway, shame on the various governing bodies that have mishandled this whole badminton affair, and let's try to get the sport fixed in time for Rio 2016.