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
8 thoughts on “Frontlines of the Non-Digital – Betting”
This is really great Charley, I hope that we can find more occasions for you to write for the site. Your thoughts on being a ‘champion researcher’ reminded me of Frank’s Sopranos game. The very basics of the game was that you would arrange pieces on a board that corresponded to characters on the show. Pieces that you put next to each other gained more points, but only if those two people appeared on the screen at the same time. I’m not doing the game justice, but the point is that players would arrange those boards, which would then ‘lock’. All that was left was for the player to watch the show and see if their calculations were correct. I remember that Frank and Kevin Cancienne (a programmer and game designer at area/code) talking about games where there was an enormous build up to a point where control was completely taken away from the player. It wasn’t until reading your essay that’s it occurred to me that that perfectly describes sports gambling.
It also brings up one of my favorite discussions: who is and is not part of the ‘magic circle’. However, that’s for another time. Anyway, I hope that you continue to do ‘reports’. Between your reports, Bob’s dispatches and my little histories, we might have an interesting little site before long!
Thanks Charles, I’ll continue to post for sure.
As for the magic circle, isn’t that a card game? kidding…
Remember the article we read about cockfighting in Fugi (wrong place?)? I think any spectator sport that offers gambling offers you front row seats to the magic circle, but I don’t think you’re in it. You can imagine yourself in it — I can suggest if I were a jockey how I’d run the horse — but you’re not in the circle and I’m way too tall to be a jockey. I guess what I’m saying is: to be in the magic circle means you are the gamer strategically testing the limits of the game in hopes of winning. As a gambler, you are the research trying to predict how gamers will preform inside that circle.
I see your distinction, and I think it’s an important one. However, I wouldn’t say that gamblers are not in some kind of magic circle, perhaps a larger one, inside of which the magic circle of the game nested. Maybe they’re overlapping? I don’t know. I think it’s really important though, to keep in mind that the line is much more porous than it seems. For instance, spectators do have a measure of control over a game, otherwise we wouldn’t have the phenomenon of ‘home-field advantage’. I’m very interested in this relationship, the give and take between spectacle and spectator, and feel like it’s a little under-explored.
Nice article, Charley, and an avenue we don’t think of too often in games, which is the presence of games developed by players themselves, surrounding the games they play. My favorite example of this phenomenon is in poker– the game’s supposed to be about knowing when you have the right combination of face cards, but really the players make it into a game about making everybody else think you’ve got the right combination of face cards. In their hands, it’s less a game of winning as it is of convincing everyone they’re losing. Bluffing and the proverbial Poker Face are far more important than learning all the different houses, flushes, two-or-threes of a kind. What Bond says is very true– you don’t play the cards, you play the man across from you.
Still, gambling is the reason I don’t play poker. It’s a great game in that psychogical-war-of-wills sense, but I’m not quite willing to risk my money on how well or not I can con everybody into folding. When the privilege of a game depends upon its high-stakes nature, it becomes more or less closed off from anybody else just trying to have a good time. The only people who play poker, it seems, are the ones who play it for “real”– that is, with cash. I suppose there isn’t much point to all the bluffing if actual winnings and losings aren’t on the line, but it’s certainly one aspect that turns me off.
That’s the dark side of turning games into sport, too much– they stop being fun, because the risk of gambling adds a monetary danger which exceeds the safety limits of the magic circle.
Bob, I would refer you back to the Geertz article we read this past semester. He pointed out that certainly large amount of money were changing hands, but that the overall economic distribution stayed pretty much the same. The thing about high-stakes Poker is that all those guys are to some extent after the money, but none of them are starving, they don’t need it. This is how the magic circle is maintained, because all of the players are on the same level, and competing in relative safety. Sure there are exceptions to this, but it’s only movies that suggest that gambling away fortunes or into fortune is the norm.
Excuse me? Are you going to tell me that “Casino Royale” is an unrealistic depiction of gambling, Mr. Pratt?
Finally got around to reading this post, and I am probably in not a great state of mind to type, but I will anyway.
Great article Charley! You know how I love sports, and I have never payed much attention to horse racing, but after this article, I will have to take a long serious look at this sports of kings. The concept of researching forever and then a period of helplessness is so much like the fantasy league; plan out for the entire weeks line-up, and cry when your star gets hurt on that Monday. Yes, you can make changes, but in your weekly league, that week can ruin the season.
Side note- I really cant wait until you read UBA, which I think you will enjoy even more after reading this post. I wont ruin it for you, but I think you might want to post about it.
Back to your post, the Balinese cockfight reminds me so much of the horse racing. But rather than betting on the animal, you are betting the owner. It also almost reminds me of the spin of a roullette wheel, everyone holding their breath, praying the ball lands on their number.
Well, now my guests have arrived, back to the night…
>> “…sport offer game designers extremely rich moments to consider and hopefully borrow from in creating digital games…”
So true! I think it is often super useful to think about videogames as part of the larger category of *games* that includes sports, boardgames, tv gameshows, etc. In fact, I may be guilty of over-emphasizing this in my thinking (downplaying the unique, particular aspects of videogames that distinguish them from non-digital games) just because I feel that it is normally drastically overlooked.
One of the cool things about horseracing is the way the betting behavior of all the players determines the payoff odds, creating a kind of “just in time” game balancing.
Nonetheless, it is possible for smart betters to have an edge over the crowd. Expert handicappers are able to eke out a decent profit in the long term, and this puts handicapping up with poker in a realm above the pure randomness of lotteries, slots and craps.
>> “…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?”
Yes! I have often thought it would be cool to make non-zero sum gambling games for casinos, where players are wagering their own money, competing against each other, but also can cooperate to earn money from the house (I actually have designed and playtested something along these lines). I think there are probably insurmountable casino culture obstacles to this kind of innovation, though.