Frontlines of the Non-Digital – Betting

This past Saturday was Cinco de Mayo. For those of you who are not fluent in Spanish, I think that means “you sunk my mayonnaise” which probably can be further interpreted to correspond with a Mexican version of the game Battleship. I’m still checking my sources on that.

Saturday was also relevant to another non-digital game: the Kentucky Derby. The first Saturday in May always serves as the day when 3 year old horses run for the roses and millions upon millions are wagered on their brittle legs and empty bladders. Customary for any ex-commonwealthian (not a real word), I embedded (not only a real word, but the OED’s 2006 word of the year) myself into a frenzied atmosphere of others celebrating the race complete with hat and mint julep. Charles Pratt and Thomas Duc joined me for said festivities and it was suggested I write up a report on this sport of Kings for the blog in reference to the gaming aspects of horse racing. Consider it done.

But first, why should it be done? I mean, why consider non-digital games in this blog? Well I’d argue — and I believe this is why Charles encouraged me — that sport offer game designers extremely rich moments to consider and hopefully borrow from in creating digital games. I just read a great article about considering newly developed sporting games and what is offered to game designers from watching, playing, developing such games. The article is from Wired and is called Aesthletics: Game Designers Should Create More New Sports.

Now, back to our previously featured blog entry. I’ve grown up with horse racing and learned to handicap (what an odd word to use to describe betting) at the early age of 12. This is what happens growing up in Louisville. Your entire boy scout troop is taken to Churchill Downs so that the fathers can gamble. For me, these early lessons begot a love affair. And the first Saturday in May is the holy moment when I celebrate my Kentucky heritage and the beauty of an animal running because it loves to run. And of course also celebrating the chance to gamble large sums of money in the hopes of winning larger sums of money.

Now horse racing is pretty simple in terms of game design. The first horse across the finish line wins. The fascination for me lies in the handicapping. 75% of handicapping thoroughbreds for the Derby is taking a deep look at history and biology. The thoroughbred has a better documented genealogy than any human family tree. One of the best magazines on the sport is called Bloodhorse. You can trace a horse’s roots back to the 19th century, see the insane amount of inbreeding (perhaps this is why Kentucky is the home of the industry), and be able to determine a horse’s running style based on what is found in the family tree. This genealogy has its own language, its own math systems (such as dosage and inbred index), and is the single best indicator as to a horse’s future. And because of this, breeding is where the real money is in the sport. If a horse wins the Kentucky Derby it earns a little over $2 million for its owner. BUT, is immediately worth between $150 and $300 million in breeding fees. Now you understand the devastation surrounding Barbaro’s breakdown and eventual euthanasia. Although as you can imagine, these horses are insured. A yearling sells for as much as $16 million dollars — this is a horse that has never raced (google The Green Monkey) but owners expect returns on the horse in the form of being able to sell it back to a breeder after a stellar racing career.

Consider as a game designer the idea of a sport that evolves with the evolving of an animal. So here’s my first real IDEA that comes from horse racing that can and should be applied to a digital game: evolution of characters. What is every time you played a game and died (GAME OVER), your character was some how altered. Perhaps you the user could change attributes of your character to make him or her faster or stronger. I love the idea of never being able to play a game with the same character twice. It would make interacting with the levels never quite the same experience. There are a lot of ways to go with this but I think there is something really rich to the idea of such an evolution. Players perhaps would be encouraged to die so that they could build a better character which would be necessary to win the game.

So back to horse racing… the other aspect I want to speak to is the idea of gambling and how that affects the experience of the user. It’s worth mentioning I lost my voice in the 2 minutes that the Derby was raced. That’s it: 2 minutes from start to finish. And gathered in a bar with about 150 people also screaming, I think it’s fair to say very rarely does any sport offer such sustained commotion because if you think about it, 2 minutes is a really long time to scream. So why the excitement? I think it has something to do with the money on the line. You’re not screaming for the horse to win — you’re screaming for the horse to win for you to win. Understand the difference? Perhaps this is why they call it the most exciting 2 minutes in sports.

For me, it’s a yearly opportunity to chase what I call the albino whale: the superfecta. The superfecta is the bet where you must get the first, the second, the third, and the fourth place finishers in the 20 horse field in exact order. It’s nearly impossible to do. This was the 4th year in a row I’ve chased this bet. And for the second year in a row I got 3 of the 4. In heart breaking fashion I nailed the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. But the horse that ran 4th beat my other horse by about 2 yards. 2 yards away from a payout around $40,000. That’s a semester of tuition at ITP and a new computer. So close yet so far. And while it hurts to think about what could have been, I admit the first Saturday of May and chasing the superfecta is my favorite day of the year for the simple fact of the thrill I get watching those horse run down the stretch — knowing each one inside and out from genealogy to how they’ve been trained — and yelling my head off because I might walk away feeling like a champion. Also a champion researcher I suppose, because that’s all handicapping is: researching. It’s a beautiful thing watching ego-less, honest, pure athletes competing. It’s more fun to watch them with some serious money on the line.

So what can we learn about wagering in game design? Well, it does make things more intense. I’m sure there are obvious ways to incorporate gambling into video games but my suspicions would lead me to think that such an idea would lead to extremely unhealthy practices. What if there was a way to gamble something other than money? Maybe a way to gamble pride? And what if there were games where you worked as a team with other online players, all gambling together instead of against each other, trying to capture a larger payout as a group but also risking loss as a group? Doesn’t this sound like a really rich experience that would encourage bonding through a digital environment?

Well that’s about all I’ve got for now. I hope this was informative. The second leg of the triple crown (the Kentucky Derby was the first) will be in two weeks and it’s called the Preakness. No horse has won all three races in my lifetime. This year’s derby winner, Street Sense, has a legit shot. And that’s worth paying attention to regardless if you’ve got a bet down or not. -Charley Miller