Optimal Strategy of Submission: Punishment and Fairness

Part 2 Here! 

Part 3 Here!

Absolutely zero games should punish the player for pursuing a correct, optimal strategy. That seems like a given for any successful game design, and yet it’s obviously not the case from a cursory glance of games in general. Poorly designed, if massively popular, games tend to abandon exquisitely structured design for the “easy to learn, hard to master” model with varying success.

Unfortunately, something easy to learn is not often hard to master, and many times something easy to learn actually allows the cracks and problematic issues to arise with great ferocity and speed…if you’re looking for them! Hence why this articles laments the lack of the “optimal strategy” in many video games, past and present.

Angry Birds Physics


Such is the case with many mobile games of our modern era, though obviously that isn’t an exclusive stance. I hoist Angry Birds onto the stand for violating this rule especially, considering its status as the progenitor of these haphazard models. At first, I believed that it required some modicum of skill to progress in the game. If you want, you could pay money to use extremely overpowered skills, but I choose to play with the default set of birds. The powerups also tend to make the game far too easy, and I avoid those as well. I would pull myself up by my own bootstraps, and Rovio’s massively popular creation would not stop me.

Unfortunately, I soon found out that the game does not reward my approach at all. The problem isn’t the destruction elements or the design of the game; who doesn’t want an ever escalating series of challenge involving precise aim and special abilities? Isn’t this why people play the Worms series, or other such titles? The real problem lies in the predictability of said destruction, namely that you can’t predict the results of the slingshot AT ALL. Either the touch controls strive for too much precision or there’s just too much variation, but it’s literally impossible to get “the perfect shot” with any consistency. The winning vs. losing shot seems divided by a single pixel, an unreachable goal – in that sense, the game remains functionally random for the purpose of success or score.

Trust me, I’ve tried. I think I’ve played enough games to know how to accurately pull back the shot in the exactly same position for the same shot. Every time, the objects on the other side wouldn’t react in a similar fashion on impact; rather, an apparently random result would occur every time I replayed the level. In that way, Angry Birds relies mostly on a combination of persistence and luck rather than skill – if you attempt the same level many times, eventually you’ll win through no fault of your own. You may as well press random buttons for all the good it will do. I suppose we could level a similar complain against most smartphone games, what with the constant badgering to trade money for time, but Angry Birds struck me in its inability to reward consistent and skillful play. Literally, it’s there to waste time or take your money – choose one or the other. Those games I’m not interested in playing. There’s no optimal strategy, and no real hope of improvement or skill.

In the same way, I find most card game develop into the same basic rut. Or maybe I’m just a sore loser at Texas Hold’Em, you tell me! The last time I played, however, I ended up with the same exact style of hand as my opponent (two pairs, flush, take your pick) and lost for arbitrary number reasons. You can play right, aggressively pushing with bets and an excellent hand, while still losing for those decisions. I realize that gambling-style games always end up with this problem – an element of chance must always enter the proceedings in some way, shape, or form – but it still offends me a little bit. Any expert at the game will tell you that my sentiment represents that of a layperson without the proper experience, and I’m perfectly fine with that call-out.

And yet, what a weird thing to be thinking. I sound like I’m pouting about all this, but the real issue isn’t my penchant for being bad at card games. Rather, why exactly do I think this way? What leads me to this conclusion? And further, why I am looking for fairness in games?



I have a natural desire to look for the best way to do something, especially when it comes to games – hence, these sorts of games really annoy the heck out of me. There must be an optimal play in every situation, even if I don’t know it. The best games provide multiple such strategies, and that will turn them into an continually engaging experience overall. I am sure I’ve explicated this a bunch of times in multiple contexts, so I’m not going to type yet another thing on the same subject.

The bigger question is, why does this sort of game design feel hollow when you finally identify it? Where does this innate sense of “fairness” and “reward for skillful play” come from? On one level, I can assume that civilization taught us this very fact over time – democracies bulge to the brim with this sort of thought, and what’s “fair” ends up as the number one talking point in any number of different political contexts.

Is this necessarily a Christian idea? Do we seek fairness as we imagine ourselves as children of the living God, or merely due to an infantile desire to get our way? Does context play more into the whole subject matter more than we’d like to admit, or should we really think this way under the hegemony of Elohim? Am I asking far, far too many rhetorical questions for my own good, and should I stop at this very moment?

1 Peter 2 an interesting counterpoint to all of this.


About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.