Luck – On Yomi and divine grace

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Montag, 12. September 2016

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity (Seneca)

No, I’ve not been leafing through our Book of Happiness. But I often hear or read phrases like “a game of chance” or “a strategy game with no element of luck” and start thinking about what luck in games actually means. At any rate it doesn’t mean bad luck in love, that much is clear. Actually it’s all about chance.

So how does chance come through in games? Mostly through drawing cards and rolling dice, which ensures tension, uncertainty and variability outside complete control. But not everyone likes this element of luck in games, especially really competitive ones. The losers will complain that the only reason they didn’t win was because of bad luck.

For me, there are four types of luck:

1. Luck absolute: A dice roll or coin toss is free of any kind of influence or ability. Even the greatest efforts cannot prevent defeat.

2. Strokes of luck and their reverse: A variance in one’s own abilities. If the basketball player only scores one in every five penalty shots, even though he sinks each other throw, he feels a bit strange, bad even. At this time, strictly statistically speaking, his performance is below average, which can be really demoralising. He speaks of “bad luck” but this can be forgotten really quickly when the next hundred shots go in.

3. Yomi. The best example for this difficult Japanese concept is “Rock-Paper-Scissors”. It’s all about reading, understanding and exploiting the thought processes and even tiny gestures of your opponent. Both players choose an action simultaneously, with other decisions going through each player’s head. Whoever can recognise what their opponent will do next is going to have the advantage. Whoever thinks something like “I know that he thinks I’m going to do this and that, so I’m going to do something different” during a game, is deep in Yomi. Or is it a kind of chance? Or even mind-reading?

4. Mitigated luck: This is where we most often find board games. Luck is certainly a factor because it helps to draw the right card or roll the right number at just the right moment. But good players are able to plan around these elements of chance – and then they can quote Seneca.

This is variance in all its shapes and shades. There are of course games like chess or draughts which are completely deterministic. Or is it luck when my opponent fails to see a perfect move? As we’ll see later, it’s all a question of perception.

Luck factors in games are psychologically interesting – and important: Many players perhaps have a problem with taking responsibility for their own decisions during a game. It’s easier to blame an opponent’s luck or your own bad luck than your own bad choices. Luck functions here as a kind of psychological pressure relief valve, which means it’s still possible to have a positive gaming experience despite not winning.

It is for this exact reason that games need such elements of chance. The winner of a game can in this sense pat himself or herself proudly on the back and say “I played well.” Conversely, all the other players have to concede that they played badly. While some people don’t have a problem with it, it’s harder for others to recognise this. They can only argue that they had some bad luck at important moments and therefore don’t have to feel worse or more stupid. It’s a question of perception. In terms of motivation it’s healthier, because players who have lost can come back and say to themselves: “Next time I’ll definitely be luckier.” In short: players feel better when they can blame the fates. But they don’t learn anything through it.

Tabletop games need this luck, even if most experienced and expert players don’t like it. Random chance makes the experience richer. Unpredictability creates excitement for players around the table; it’s a great leveller, because even if you’re losing, the chance to catch up can strike at any time. Younger or weaker players are also able to win and stronger players can show their experience in their ability to carefully prepare for the effects of chance.

Fundamentally, luck and chance teach us something about life. We’re constantly beset by both of these factors, perhaps without even noticing it. Peter Lemcke, games expert and lecturer at the SAE Institute, said in a radio interview in July 2015: “(There are) games in which we practise what we don’t understand, what we assign to a higher power. Why me? (…) And to simulate that, for us to accustom ourselves to it, we invented these multifaceted games – balls, tops, dice and so on, through which we encounter and are forced to face the unexpected.”  

Already 5000 years ago, Senet was for the ancient Egyptians much more than just a game. It had the character of a cult ritual, something mystical. Players would throw four wooden sticks, similar to pencils, and then read the results. In this moment the players felt extremely close to their gods because they could sense their machinations: It was at this exact moment that the results – their individual fates – were decided. The attempts of shamans and prophets to read the future in bones was here presented as a game. As a very serious one. Senet wasn’t for fun, it was an intentional evocation of divine grace.

Luck in games even today means more for us than mere randomisation. It protects us from the psychological consequences of defeat and teaches us to accept the caprices of the unexpected. Those who practise this will have a more relaxed and emotionally free path though life.