Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why bridge fails

What makes a game fun? Steven Johnson and commenters at BoingBoing offered up a lot of great opinions on that question a couple of weeks ago. Different people have different notions of fun, of course.

I like a game that involves a balance of social interaction and some strategy or puzzle to figure out. That’s why I often don’t want to learn a new complicated game: having to focus on learning new rules and figuring out a strategy cuts too deeply into the social interaction. The conversation and problem-solving can be tied together in a cooperative way as in Pandemic, or tied together in a competitive way as in the trading in Settlers, or disconnected as in pretty much any familiar game that doesn’t require constant attention. Any of those options work well for me.

Bridge may seem like it involves social interaction. Players work in teams, play strategy is described as involving communication between hands, and bidding is a stylized conversation. But none of that is really social interaction. The social interaction while playing bridge happens when the game is more in the background, when players can chat about other things, yet I’ve rarely found a bridge group that can sufficiently shift the game to the background. Getting comfortable with bidding conventions can take a long time, and even play strategy often requires a level of focus that isn’t amenable to free conversation if you’re concerned about making mistakes. Bridge contains interesting puzzles and frustrations for perfectionists, and I know a lot of perfectionists. And because bridge is a partnership game, there’s the added fear of disappointing a partner. This leads to a pretty tight focus on the puzzle-solving of bridge. At its best, even though both bidding and play involve cooperative puzzle-solving with your partner, true social interaction is not designed into bridge. If you want social interaction to be part of the game, you need to learn bridge well enough to not focus on it (and have everyone else at the table also willing to not focus on it).


Anonymous said...

One of the hallmarks of what I sometimes call a "serious" or "hardcore" game is that the strategy/puzzle-solving aspect is so dominant that there's little space for social interaction. Bridge fits that bill for me.

Michael said...

Do you feel that's a choice for you when you're playing bridge, or just embedded in the nature of the game?

Anonymous said...

Probably not embedded in the game, but I think it's a better game when played seriously. A good example is Hearts, which you can play without paying much attention to what's going on, but which I think is much more interesting if you count cards and make more of an effort to accomplish whatever effect you're trying to accomplish. The problem with games that other people think of as Serious is that one non-Serious player in a Serious group doesn't tend to work well; it's not so bad for something like Hearts (or vice-versa -- I can count cards in Hearts without annoying casual players, as long as I don't shut down the social aspect by telling them to shut up because I'm concentrating :^), but in Bridge, if three players are Serious and one isn't, it tends not to work well. (It's ok if one is a novice, as long as they're making a Serious effort to pay attention and learn how to play.)

I don't know what Bridge is like with four non-Serious players; when my parents taught me and my sister to play, they taught us to pay attention and take it seriously. :^)

Michael said...

Most complicated tasks initially require concentration, but become easy with enough experience. The mental processing shifts to the background.

For me, bridge required thinking through hundreds of hands to get to that point. Some of that came in group play, and some of that came from dealing out hundreds of hands by myself and puzzling out how the bidding and play would go. I reached the tipping point where bridge became easy through sheer volume, rather than from learning to focus better.

Bridge is unlike many games in that a new bidding system can always force the mental focus to the foreground while leaving the fundamental rules of the game unchanged. If Serious means continual foreground mental focus, then frequently changing bidding systems avoids the risk of expertise turning bridge into a non-Serious game. But I don’t think Serious has to mean that the mental focus is always in the foreground. When I used to play bridge a lot in a familiar bidding system, I (temporarily) achieved sufficient expertise that I could bid, play, pursue strategies, analyze mistakes, and keep track of the cards -- all in the background most of the time. I enjoyed that a lot, in large part because it meant I could simultaneously chat with the other players.