Degenerate play

by Possible Modernist

In response to my last post, Suspended asked whether Schneier’s notion of Hacking was the same as degenerate play”. I wasn’t familiar with the latter term, although it turns out I am deeply familiar with the phenomenon.

At least in conventional early usage, it seems like the two concepts are indeed very similar. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Salen and Zimmerman, the authors treat degenerate strategies” as more or less synonymous with exploits”, defining degenerate strategy as a way of playing a game that takes advantage of a weakness in game design, so that the play strategy guarantees success.” Mirroring the Schneier definition, they later emphasize that using a degenerate strategy is not cheating. Degenerate strategies take advantage of weaknesses in the rules of a game, but they do not actually violate the rules.”

How such strategies are received is bound to depend on context. If you figure out a way to defeat a difficult boss in a soulslike by exploiting a weakness in its programmed behavior, perhaps in a way that wasn’t anticipated by the game’s designer, that might at times be seen as clever or even elegant. But (to use what is perhaps the most commonly mentioned example) if you have a Magic: The Gathering deck that is often able to win on the first turn, that is unlikely to be something that will be valued by the other player (in terms of their enjoyment of the game), even if they admire it on some level.

Although not explicitly stated in the above definition, a key part of how the term is used seems to be that degenerate play is a strategy that makes a game less fun. In the strictest sense, if there is a strategy which truly guarantees victory, then we are dealing with a solved game. If both players know this, it seems unlikely they’re going to be able to have much fun with the game, unless they both agree to some sort of rules changes or additional constraints.

However, if we put the emphasis on the fun” aspect, it’s easy to think of strategies that don’t necessarily guarantee victory, but nevertheless break the game. In this way, a long string of final moves in chess might be considered degenerate, with the player who is in the losing position forcing the player who has effectively already won to play out the moves to the end. There’s a reason it is considered proper to concede at a certain point in chess.

A slight variation, which might still be considered degenerate, even though it’s unlikely to lead to victory, is simply refusing to abide by the goals of the game. Although it’s rarely stated explicitly in rules, most games are premised on the idea that all players are suppoed to be trying to win. If a player decides that they don’t care about this, it suddenly frees them to start doing whatever they want, possibly creating chaos. Especially for games in which player order matters, this can often create a large advantage or disadvantage to the player who happens to be immediately before or after them in turn order.1

The most interesting part of all of this is that most games only exist because players on some level want to come together to have a good time. Obviously there are competitive levels of many games, where fun might not enter into it, but these arguably grew out of less serious forms of play. When dealing with hacking, we are typically talking about a system that was designed for some purpose (either by people or evolution), which others may be able to exploit for their own gain. (No one is concerned that tax loopholes make taxes less fun for people, but rather that others may be able to avoid paying their fair share). With games however, there is the meta goal of having a good time, which is (in the best cases) still totally possible if you lose, and which is therefore arguably more important than winning. Players who would sacrifice fun in order to secure their own victory have indeed hacked the rules of the game, but arguably to no one’s benefit.

  1. Something similar can happen with new players who don’t yet have any sense of basic strategy.↩︎