The Apparent Dichotomy of Skill and Luck in Games

In The Co-Optional Podcast Episode 56, the guest Babylonian (formerly of Rev3Games) discussed the relationship between skill and luck when Hearthstone was brought up, which piqued my interest in the subject. It touched upon the competitive aspects of games, whether tabletop or digital. This, along with having gone on a bit of a tirade about Five Nights at Freddy’s in a Facebook thread, pushed me to look deeper into this subject.

There’s a quote I heard from the anime Rurouni Kenshin that I’ve also found in some other media — “It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.” I’ve always been aware of the link between straight-up skill and how the touch of Lady Luck may affect different forms of contests. Upon closer observation, you may see that there are games that have minimal luck and others that are driven by it.

In this piece, I attempt to tackle these games based on these two factors and how it all plays into the players’ involvement. This is far from being the first article online that touches on it, but it’s a big attempt on my part to consolidate all the available information and add something more to it.

NOTE: I am by no means an expert on this subject and this article is not intended as a definitive thesis on it, but I have done my best in investigating and researching on this topic. Corrections, additional information, and constructive criticism are greatly appreciated.

Definitions of Skill and Luck

The difference may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised with how the two can get mixed up and around whenever someone accuses someone of beating them with a lucky attempt in some skill-based contest. Technically defining each can help with the persistent confusion and attitude problems that may arise due to either an error of judgment or the tantrums of a sore loser (or the taunts of a bad winner).

When an action is executed, skill constitutes its efficacy and consistency while luck stands for the occasional yielding of a positive result that may not be entirely intentional and/or practiced. Skill is repeatable and reliable in producing intended results, while luck is subject to chance and probability. Skill is born from logic, talent, and will, while luck is mostly from the coldness of the laws that govern the universe.

thumbnail_diceIn video games, the element of luck has become a subject of interest as it was with poker for many decades. This randomness is colloquially termed by gamers as “RNG” (short for Random Number Generator), referring to what lets any computer application generate random results. For instance, whenever a card player gets a “god draw” or an RPG player gets a critical, it’s usually said that “RNG-sus has answered your prayers,” and that’s a significant part of this whole discussion.

Numerous variables and intangibles are involved, so even such definitions may get bent and twisted as more cases are brought up. The role of skill and luck also goes beyond gaming and competition, involving many facets of life and the ongoing pursuit of success (which has been tackled in many financial and self-help websites).

Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering, had an hour-long talk on this very subject, and it makes for some through-provoking listening.

The Skill-Luck Chart

There are four categories born from this dichotomy, corresponding with a game’s pre-requisite level of skill and entailing level of luck. This isn’t the first of such a chart, but this is my own version made fit for illustrating these ideas. I included games of various sorts as examples, from tabletop and casino games to video games and even a sport.

chart_skill-luck

The Cartesian plane seems to be a good choice for this design as it visually divides the four categories quite nicely. Each category in its own quadrant holds different characteristics that make its corresponding games play differently from those in other categories, most of which are described below.

Low Skill / Low Luck

thumbnail_rock-paper-scissorsIn the first quadrant is perhaps the simplest category of games with simple rules and mechanics, which yields few to no variables that may complicate play. Tic-tac-toe and rock-paper-scissors are the most popular examples of this, being easy enough to learn that even children can play effortlessly.

Some may beg to differ with these examples, especially with rock-paper-scissors, since there are international rock-paper-scissors competitions that take the game quite seriously. Despite that, the complexities of the game are fairly minimal and has more to do with behavioral patterns.

Those who are actually good with these games tend to be so with their understanding of patterns and their opponents’ tendencies, which is basic metagaming. Since there is no element of luck involved, it’s just about picking the best option by predicting what the opponent may throw out.

Low Skill / High Luck

thumbnail_lotteryThese games are the lifeblood of casinos, lotteries, and bingo halls. Personally, being of Chinese persuasion, I don’t play them because I feel like I’m being sucked dry by money vampires whenever I do. They’re all up to chance and nothing else, and I’m not someone who lives according to his daily horoscope.

Craps and slot machines are certainly part of this category, loaded dice and rigged machines not withstanding. There’s also blackjack, which can be played with some skill. But when you win too much or get suspected of card-counting, you get escorted off the table (and maybe suffer the indignity of being portrayed by Ashton Kutcher).

slot-machines

Numbers games like bingo and the lottery give participants a sense of hope, as if they’re hedging for the future, because they get to choose their numbers (or buy as many as they can) almost like how traders choose which stocks to buy. However, everyone is equally unlikely to win, and those few in a billion who do then have to deal with how to obtain and hold on to their winnings.

thumbnail_snakes-and-laddersAs for board games, there’s Snakes & Ladders, which is essentially a dice game. Nothing is decided on in that game and dice rolls determine whether you get to climb up ladders and reach the final square or get gulp down by snakes. The same thing may be said about Monopoly at first, but uncles and grandmothers keep making kids miserable with their greater understanding of taking over everything.

High Skill / Low Luck

thumbnail_chessThis is usually the most preferred characteristic for competitive games as results are most certainly from skill when arbitrated in a controlled environment. Recognizable patterns and predictability of events are the signatures of this category, and technical analysis becomes paramount in explaining what goes on.

Chess and Go are in this category as every move is made through deliberate thought. You can get punished for a wrong move by a superior opponent, so playing strength is the benchmark. Mismatches are obvious and games between players of equal strength would most likely be interesting.

Cue sports such as pool, billiards, and snooker are also good examples of games that make a great effort in removing as many undesired variables out as possible to keep luck out of the equation. From using shale for the even surface of the bed (table surface), the billiard cloth (not “felt”) covering it, the right material for the rail cushions, and making the balls as smooth and spherical as possible out of the right material are all for transmitting kinetic energy from cue stick to cue ball to object ball as predictably as possible.

Most competitive video games fit this category as well, but none are more about this than StarCraft and other real-time strategy games, as well as MOBAs like DOTA and League of Legends. Winning in these games require strategy and skill, and developers make sure that they are balanced and devoid of any element of luck. Fighting games also fit in here, and it’s undeniable that they also requires great skill, but it then brings up a point of contention whenever a skilled player has a chance of being defeated by an inferior opponent.

Some detractors bring up the luck element in what should be skill-based contests. First-person shooters are definitely skill-based, but many contend that “lucky shots” are prevalent in these games. The same can be said with most sports, like hitting an improbable clutch jumper from the other side of the court in basketball to knocking out an opponent with a “Hail Mary” haymaker in combat sports like boxing and mixed martial arts. (More about that here.)

High Skill / High Luck

This is perhaps the most debated and misunderstood of the four categories due to its complexity and unpredictability. It combines skill and the need for strategy with the unpredictability of the luck element. That randomness can come in a number of forms, from the shuffling of cards to the rolling of dice. Going by that definition, Poker is its most well-known example.

thumbnail_pokerDue to mainstream media exposure, it has become a revered game that exudes the glamor of Las Vegas. Professional poker players who win consistently are able to earn hundreds of thousands and even millions. However, it’s not uncommon to read stories of these pros going broke after a losing streak or a bad beat and having to earn it all back in online poker and/or borrowing money to rebuild their bank.

I remember a quote from an episode of QI, one of my favorite TV shows, wherein writer and professional poker player Victoria Coren Mitchell talked about being in a celebrity poker event and hearing from the novelist Martin Amis the following:

“People often compare politics to chess, but it is closer to poker because egos are involved. On a chessboard, the properties and powers of a bishop are permanently fixed. In poker, it’s all wobbled through the prism of personality.”

Amis explained his love for poker as it revealed a player’s weaknesses and vanities, even through watching televised games. If you are a fan of professional Texas Hold ‘Em poker, you may recognize a good number of the players, especially the ones who usually end up in the final table. Each player has his/her own personality that gets shown

Most players make use of the poker face and minimizing “tells” to compete, while there are a special few who actually play with emotion. It could be Daniel Negreanu who psyches his opponents out by “reading” their cards or Scotty Nguyen who plays with instinct that makes him unpredictable and provocative, as shown in this legendary moment.

It played out like it was from a Hollywood script, but it was a real thing that actually happened. Great sportsmanship on the part of Kevin McBride (not the boxer); no one sane can be mad at that.

thumbnail_mikhail-talIt’s not to say that the likes of chess grandmasters don’t get to show their personality; far from it. For instance, Mikhail Tal — The Magician from Riga — was known for his explosive play that has been likened to Beethoven’s music and was known for giving evil stares at opponents across the table. There’s also Gary Kasparov who intimidated opponents as he hunched down in front of the chessboard and deconstructed them with his signature aggressive style. You can spend days reading about these chess greats and how they imposed their personality on the board; it certainly isn’t a boring and soulless game once you really get into it.

However, personality is only apparent in chess after much analysis while that in poker is obvious right there for all who play or watch. Perhaps it can be argued that online poker is fairly barren of emotion, but it’s certainly the reverse in an actual game with opposing players present on the same table. What gives it that much character is the fact that even the best can be beaten with a good bluff or a bad beat. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a no-name up-and-comer, it might just be your lucky day, but only if you play your cards right.

(Maybe it’s the same with stock trading, but that’s a different topic altogether.)

thumbnail_magic-the-gatheringMoving on to other games, collectible card games (CCGs) are another prime example of this category, and one that many gamers like to misconstrue and lambast as “games that need no skill.” Magic: The Gathering is the most popular CCG in the world and has influenced the design of other CCGs, including Hearthstone by Blizzard Entertainment. Many of the recent discussions online regarding this topic has been from Hearthstone’s popularity and subsequent criticisms.

The obvious differences between poker and CCGs are in mechanics and card variety, with CCGs usually having more than 52 different cards to deal with. Living card games (LCGs) like Android: Netrunner and Smash Up may have predetermined cards in each deck, but there are still a lot more cards in play than traditional playing cards whose properties are just their numbers and suits.

Then there are board games like Risk and video games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within that combine tactical gameplay with hit chance determined by dice rolls and/or percentages. But if you consider that giving primary actions a probability to fail is what gives these games fit in this category, then that should include just about every role-playing game in the traditional pen-and-paper and dice archetype.

thumbnail_d20Traditional role-playing games that make use of dice rolls to determine the efficacy of actions are all subject to sudden good and bad strokes of luck. For those who have rolled natural 20’s or 1’s in a Dungeons and Dragons game know that you can be as careful and meticulous with everything you do in a game and still get screwed with a critical fail if you roll bad. Most would think of that as bullshit, but it also means that contingencies are a big part of the game and preparedness is a skill requirement, which does add to the fun.

Roguelike games are also subject to this due to randomized gameplay events, and game knowledge becomes a big part of being good at them. These roguelikes include singleplayer titles like FTL: Faster Than Light, cooperative multiplayer titles like Risk of Rain, and competitive multiplayer titles like Crawl. With all of the games in this category, they all have little to no patterns that can be memorized, which lend to their difficulty.

In all of the games that fit the high-skill-high-luck category, being prepared for all eventualities is effectively a prerequisite for becoming good. Of course, it’s also needed in high-skill-low-luck games since anything can happen in a high-stakes contest, but these games are a lot less predictable and lenient to complacency. In effect, they may even require more skill to master as a result.

Conclusion

This may have gone longer than necessary, but I wanted to cover as much ground as I could. However, I wasn’t able to include something on “lucky shots,” which I’ll post in a future piece. Perhaps it can be said that the really good ones also tend to be the lucky ones, and they can get lucky consistently.

Having talked about all of this at length has led me to the related topic of popularity and spectators in these games. It seems the last two categories are the ones best for spectating, but there are those that garner lots of casual viewers and those who remain niche at best. The proportion of skill and luck in them may also be a contributing factor, although that’s just a hypothesis for now. (Also remember that correlation does not mean causation.)

In most cases, only those who are participants themselves are interested in watching the likes of chess and most eSports (although I can be wrong about the latter in the coming years). I’ve written a bit about art forms and their audiences in a Tumblr post. People watch mainstream sports as skill-based contests, but they also watch poker to see pros get bad beats.

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