Here it is. The summer heat lull. There are so many ways to tackle it. You could start an online feud with somebody to bridge the monotony between game nights. But I‘m saving up that particularly canny move, for when I start to struggle with my irrelevancy as a board game commentator. So all that‘s left now, is to reach for some rocks and see just how much juice I can still squeeze out of them. This week’s topic bingo has chosen: cooperative games and the alpha player! Fine. Whatever. With a cool Frappé in hand, I will try some light commentary on this tired topic.
The alpha gamer problem and how to solve it.
If you have recently suffered a serious head injury, and lost all recollection of what kind of issues alpha gamers tend to create in a cooperative game, indulge me for a quick recap. In a cooperative game all players pursue the same goal. More than that, they can only reach that goal together. So victory and defeat applies to all players equally. Either everybody wins, or everybody loses. There is no single player to stand above the rest. At least as far as the rules are concerned. Some games have come out that seek to soften up that cooperative game idea, by adding some form of competition amongst players, but they are irrelevant for the purposes of this casual definition.
The alpha gamer takes on a special significance in such a game as he (9 times out of 10, it IS a he) takes it upon himself to guide the group to victory. For their benefit, generally. Before I continue, I think it‘s worthwhile to differentiate between the alpha gamer and the alpha gamer role. Whereas the former describes a certain personality type, that seeks make unilateral decisions for the good of the group; the alpha gamer role is something that players may put on another player, or project onto them. Coupled with the generally bad reputation that alpha gamers have, tension and friction seem unavoidable.
As an aside: I don‘t like the term alpha gamer. It brings to mind a lot of deeply ignorant and half-understood elements of pop psychology surrounding the concept of the alpha male, including all the toxic and embarrassing ideas about masculinity it entails. In lieu of a better term, I‘ve stuck with it. Albeit with some discomfort.
The alpha gamer role quickly emerges, especially in cooperative games, when the person introducing the game or the host is assumed to be noticably more knowledgable about games. Every utterance by this player is given extra weight. Players assume that experience translates directly into superiour skill in pick the right course of action. You end up with a kind of implied hierarchy when it comes to making decisions. Instead of playing on eye level, the rest of the table looks up to the „expert“ to lead the way. If you want to avoid the awkward instance of accidentally commandeering the rest of the table, there are a couple of things you can do. You can underline the unpredictability of the coming turns. Additionally you can try to throw the decision back to the group – if at all possible – and thereby remove yourself more or less subtly from the expectation of telling others what to do. But there are also games where prior knowledge and experience lead to an overall benefit for the group. In Space Cadets, for examples, you can take on the role of the captain, which lets you deal with rules details, ambiguities and most of all the logistics of each turn. This way other players can take on the task of coordinating their actions. The most experienced gamer can make playing the game more accessible, smoother and faster and thereby take on a very important role to make the game more fun. (Or if you‘re the cynical type, they can iron out the kinks the game‘s developer overlooked.) The likely best way to turn the alpha gamer role into something useful and productive is to see yourself as a mediator and supporter and definitely not the decision-maker or strategist of the group. A well realised alpha gamer role is very much like a competent leader: they entrust vital and important tasks to others, and considers themselves responsible for giving others enough room to do their job, supporting the team as a whole.
Naturally, these pointers only help, if it‘s the group pushing that role onto you. It‘s a different conversation, you believe that your gaming skill is vital to get the group to victory. Because it‘s that type of personality specifically, that considers themselves entitled to taking the reins. This is the first mistake. The alpha gamer considers it their responsibility to win the game. It doesn‘t really matter if it is for themselves or the group as a whole. It‘s not even that alpha gamers make decisions for other players. This is simply the most blatant rules violation of playing with others. The mistake is down to looking at a cooperative game, solely from perspective of a competitive one. In those games, it‘s quite apparent that the purpose of the game is functionally identical to winning, i.e. beating your opponents. The rules and mechanisms that shape the game‘s inherent challenge are simply the means to fulfill its purpose. Every competitive game asks the players: who is going to win? And then it presents the rules and mechanisms with which to answer that question. With cooperative games this is similar, but different in a very fundamental way. Rules and mechanisms also have a purpose. But that purpose is cooperation, not victory.
This is where alpha gamers go wrong in a cooperative game. They see cooperation, coordination and communication as tools with which to avert defeat. When in fact, it is the threat of losing that the game uses as a tool to make people cooperate, coordinate their actions and communicate with each other. That is why the unassuming rule in Pandemic, that says you can‘t show your cards to other players, is so essential to understand both the game and its genre. Of course it would be more efficient and make coordinating actions easier, if all the cards were face up on the table. But that would run counter to the game‘s purpose.
That is why the alpha gamer problem isn‘t a design issue. It‘s actually not even a question of group dynamics. It is, at its core, a misunderstanding about why people choose to play a cooperative game. It‘s a miscalculation as to what kind of experience the game‘s design is working towards and how to best play into it. The alpha gamer looks for an experience, and adjust his play behaviour accordingly, which cooperative games aren‘t really setting out to provide. For a cooperative game winning/losing is just a means to an end.
In order to tackle this alpha gamer „problem“, some designers (and some alpha gamers) have taken it upon themselves to improve cooperative games by retooling that make them unique. I‘ve found that generally any cooperative game that claims to have solved this „problem“ hasn‘t really understood the underlying issue of gaming groups struggling with it. At the very least they seek the cause for the friction and frustration alpha gamers cause in the availability of information. But it‘s not the game‘s job to keep players from dominating the table and make decisions for other players. It‘s not even the responsibility of the group to rein in the loud and the overbearing.
The potential alpha gamer needs to reach the realisation that success in a cooperative game isn‘t victory, but cooperation that happens without friction. It‘s the shared experience of play, and the shared, occasionally doomed, attempt at escaping defeat that is the heart and soul of the cooperative game.