My good friend Gnerphk has eloquently and logically put forth a definition of honorable warfare in VGA Planets, published proudly here on Planets Mag. His justifications are sound, logical, and rhetorically impressive. While it is easy to agree with many of the basic premises of his idea of honorable warfare, his thesis consists of the bold yet troubling statement that “It is the duty of each of us to play this game to win.”
I have two primary arguments against this thesis. My ontological argument questions the nature of winning itself. My pragmatic argument concerns the so-called non-winning players and their role in the game.
The Ontological Argument
What does it mean to win? To hold the most planets at countdown and get your achievement points multiplied? Victory conditions on Nu are pretty clear-cut. But does this mean that each traditional game has two winners and nine losers?
I think not. Just because you are not a member of the winning alliance does not mean that you have lost the game. This isn’t a game of strip poker, wherein the loser’s nakedness is shown to all as a token of defeat. Rather, someone who is not a member of the winning alliance can still gain plenty of leaderboard points from the game. Certainly if one player gets completely eradicated, that person has lost. (It’s really very difficult to annihilate a player who is trying to survive. That’s why the tenacity penalty for non-survival is highly appropriate.) But those who stay in and keep fighting until the very end don’t deserve to be called losers.
Do all players have a duty to play solely to win? Of course not. Rather, everyone has a duty to play for their enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, and interaction with others. Anyone who pays their Nu-dues and spends their hours in the Echo Cluster is entitled to play the game in whatever way they enjoy the most.
Some enjoy playing in alliances. Some enjoy making allies and then backstabbing them. Some enjoy talking out of both sides of their mouth. Some enjoy destroying things.
Moreover, a lot of players — a very significant aggregate of players — never try to win according to Nu’s victory conditions. A quick look at the opponents in your games and at turns of completed games will expose this powerful truth. These players look at the map as a wealth of opportunity, but not as a space to dominate at the expense of others. This group of players includes those who enjoy exploring unknown lands, colonizing planets and watching their little empires grow. They build some ships and defend their people against invaders. When they are contacted by diplomatic message, they respond playing the rôle of their race. These players love the retro feel of the game. These players still have their old VGA monitor in their garage and they plug it in occasionally to look at their old empires in Winplan. And they smile, remembering all the happy times they have had in the Echo Cluster.
These people who play because they want to play, for their own enjoyment and the enjoyment of others — these are the real heroes, and, I would argue, the most honorable commanders.
The Pragmatic Argument
One of my games is presently in the end-of-game countdown. It has lasted well over 100 turns, but there was never any question who was going to win. I had more than 200 ships when the limit hit. No one can beat a Crystalline player who has more than 200 ships. It’s just not possible.
So what about all the non-winners in my sector who have been putting effort in and fighting hard for the last seventy turns? These people have been spending a few hours a week for the majority of 2013 playing a game they cannot win because the Crystals have more than 200 ships. What should they do?
If winning is impossible for anyone else, what are the other players supposed to do? The argument of “it is the duty of each of us to play this game to win” would seem to imply that if the game is not winnable for someone, that person should simply quit.
VGA Planets is not a game like Monopoly where the tide can turn very quickly as soon as your opponent lands on Park Place with four houses. The tides turn very slowly in the Echo Cluster, and more often than not, winners are determined relatively early. When one player or team has a commanding lead, there is often nothing the others can to to change the course of events. If I’m playing the Crystal Confederation, hold more than 200 ships, and have had 50 turns to raise money for webbing, I am undefeatable. I am not a house of cards that falls if the wind blows the wrong direction.
The statement that “it is the duty of each of us to play this game to win” simply falls short on a practical level. As I have established, it’s the nature of the game that not everybody can win from any position.
Also, the “all must play to win” argument entirely discounts the potential of the powerful underdog. The powerful underdog is a player who cannot win because he does not have enough ships; however he holds enough firepower to put a serious dent into whomever he chooses. Often the powerful underdog can decide the game. He can choose to side with whomever he wants the winner to be, collaborating with them against their enemies.
I have taken the rôle of the powerful underdog many times. If I have an opportunity to help someone else win and meanwhile earn some achievement points, learn a few things, make some friends, and enjoy my time, I believe this is worthwhile and honorable behavior. I have also been the recipient of a gracious helping hand from a powerful underdog. To tell any of those unofficial allies that they have behaved dishonorably for not colluding against an apparent winner is a disparaging and discouraging insult. Everyone should have the freedom to help someone else win if they so choose.
My colleague claims that this lofty truth “is counted by some philosophers as the major paradox of human existence.” Who, pray tell, are these thinkers? Gorgias? Descartes? Ayn Rand?
For any who would claim “play to win” as “the major paradox of human existence”, there are far more who would claim more lofty priorities. Confucius would counsel his followers to win if they could, but to be a good leader first and foremost. Augustine would discount the idea of one person claiming victory as a sin of pride. Kierkegaard would say that it doesn’t matter whether you win but how you get there that’s important.
I’ll leave it there with my pal Søren and make his philosophy my thesis: the journey is our home. We fly around in our little ships, looking at beautifully colored planets. We spread our people around, and from there on, it’s entirely our choice. We can go to war or we can be at peace. We can behave benevolently or we can practice ruthlessness. It doesn’t matter how we choose to handle our ships and planets. What matters is whether we have fun and behave in a way that is true to ourselves.