Politics of Gaming – The Role of Random in Games

One of the core elements that goes into so many games is random chance. Whether it is a roll of the die, the drawing of a card, or even the percentage chance that a specific item might drop from a boss; almost every game involves a level of uncertainty to your actions. I have heard many times people complain about random results being unfair or that what they considered a brilliant strategy was ruined by blind luck. I figure it wouldn’t be terrible to take the time to explain exactly why there is a necessity of random chance in most of our favorite games and how you should embrace that.

The best thing that comes from random chance as part of a game is the ability for players of varying skill levels to all play together without having one person always dominate. When playing a game without that element of luck, such as a fighting game or first person shooter, it is very easy to get turned off when you play against other people that are much better or worse than you. While some people may enjoy the challenge to get better or just care about winning, respectively, many others will not. Having mechanics in place that can help a struggling player or making it so a dominant player doesn’t just snowball forever allows for a wider pool of potential players and encourages engagement with the game. As someone that loves games in all their many incarnations, anything that makes it so that more people can and want to play is a huge benefit.

Damn, Billy, you are shit at Dominion. Why do I even play with you?

Damn, Billy, you are shit at Dominion. Why do I even play with you?

Along those same lines, random chance also gives something for players to blame. I don’t think I have ever played a table top war game where someone didn’t complain about their dice at the end. Even if they made some terrible misplays or had a poor strategy, players will inevitably bring up how they could have done so much better if the dice had been on their side. Giving someone an outlet for the disappointment that comes with loss that isn’t the other players or themselves makes for better attitudes and fewer confrontations. If you can view the dice as your enemy instead of the people you are supposed to be having a good time with, all the better.

From a purely game design perspective, you also want that element of luck to be present in your game so that players want to keep playing. There is a reason that people end up going to Gamblers Anonymous and it’s because the thrill of the unknown and the possibility of beating the odds is incredibly addicting for some people. Just look at any popular MMO. The end game of something like World of Warcraft has people doing the same content day after day, week after week, for the chance that something they want might drop. You don’t need to make something purely a slot machine for this effect either. Games like Betrayal at House on the Hill feature random board layouts and random selection of traitors with random selections of goals. This makes it so that you want to keep playing if only just to see a new interaction.

No but seriously I want to see all the scenarios.

No but seriously I want to see all the scenarios.

It is that sense of the unknown and the uncertainty of outcome that makes people really love games. Not even just board games or video games, either. This past year’s Super Bowl was a total blowout and everyone commented on how they stopped caring by half time. When a game gets to be a forgone conclusion, it stops being fun to play or watch and starts being a tedious slog to the inevitable end. Random chance allowing for upsets or comebacks makes it so that everyone actually stays interested. When you know that there still exists the possibility to lose even when you’re in the lead; you don’t lazily accept the outcome and spend the last half of the game going through the motions.

Even in games that end up being played super competitively, like Magic: the Gathering, you still see how random chance is an important part of the play. In Magic, you can spend a lot of time trying to tune your deck of 60 cards to minimize randomness as much as possible but there is still a finite amount you can do given the limitations on deck construction. This makes it so that certain combinations can’t for sure beat other combinations or just win every time, which is very good. The luck of the draw encourages intelligent play and the careful use of resources since you can never tell if the next card will be the vital piece you need to secure victory or a useless card that doesn’t allow you to do anything. Rather than being opposed to strategic play, as often gets complained about, the use of random chance can actually enhance a player’s strategic thinking. Even something like Scrabble’s random tile acquisition makes for far more interesting play since you have to find creative ways to use what you are dealt.

Now, just to be clear, there is a point where the randomness of a game can get in the way of having fun. When too many things are decided without decision from the player, it can feel like there isn’t a point to even playing. This can be especially bad when it’s random penalties or restrictions. Getting something good that you weren’t expecting can make you feel great. It’s like a miniature Christmas when you grab that random tile and it’s exactly what you needed. In my opinion, disadvantages should end up arising from play rather than chance. This makes it so that you don’t have penalties feeling like you’re being screwed for no reason. If you land on a space that gives you the option of rolling a die with the chance of either gaining an item or losing an item, then the penalty that arises happens from your decision even though it was still chance. On the other hand, if you have a game where you draw a card every turn and you end up drawing a card that says “You lose a turn”; that feels like the game arbitrarily punishing you just for playing it.



As you can see, randomness adds a layer to games that keeps us coming back. Regardless of how frustrated you might be that you didn’t get exactly what you wanted at some point in the game; just think how boring it would be if every game went exactly as you wanted it to. There would be no thrills, no adventure, and no amazing stories of incredible upsets. Luck being combined with skill makes it so that even great players can be surprised and keeps things fresh for future games. In the end, all you really need to do is make sure you know what level of randomness you are comfortable with and pick games that allow for that.

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