Is it a competition or a race? Building scoring structures (Mental Models XIII)

Metrics are dangerous. You manage what you measure, as the old saw goes, and you want to make sure that you are not measuring the wrong thing – or things. We need to take great care when we set up metrics for anything we want to accomplish in order to make sure that we do not get the wrong outcomes.

One way to approach metrics is to look at them as “scoring systems” in board games. Board game designers are mental modellers par excellence, and the work they do is astonishingly instructive when we think about metrics. So, let’s look at a few ideas from board game scoring and what they can teach us.

In a recent post on fundamental game design one designer suggested an intriguing hypothesis: that all games can be seen as competitions or races. Races are about getting there first and achieving a particular goal first, competition is about about having the highest score when the game ends (as determined by some other criteria).

So the first question we should ask ourselves, then, is if we are scoring a race or a competition.

My suspicion is that most of us think in terms of the highest score-paradigm, and so focus on that – which makes it interesting to think about what a race means. In a race you only need to achieve a certain state, and it does not matter how you do it. What matters is getting there. Competitions are much harder, because they are much more relative to the other players in terms of scoring.

Races sound bad, but think about it. What if you were to consider your life a race rather than a competition – what you want to accomplish is a pre-defined state where you own your own time. That is all. You can now carefully design that state by tuning income and costs, as well as finding sustainable investments that will allow you increasingly to own your own time. This means you suddenly are not trying to get more than your neighbors, but enough.

It is easy to mistake life for a competition, however, since there is an external condition – death – determining when the game is over. Hence jokes like “he who has the most toys when he dies, wins” — this is life as competition.

I remember distinctly noting this difference as a kid when I was playing an old board game called Career. The game had a simple structure — it looked like a monopoly board and you veered off the edges into “careers” and each career would have possible pay offs in three dimensions: fame, love and money. Some where weighted towards fame (the movie actor career) others towards love (the doctor career) and some towards money (the stock broker career) — but you were not guaranteed any mix of the three, you just had a higher weighted probability to get those kinds of scores in different careers.

Swedish readers will see the events – and the era-typical misogynism – in this photo.

Now, the game was not about scoring the most across these categories, but it had an interesting twist: you had to, secretly and beforehand, define your happiness formula. And that formula was essentially a distribution of 120 units across the three categories. So you could be balanced – 40+40+40 – or choose to have happiness dependent only on love or money. But this was an exquisitely designed race where you had determined an individual end state to reach!

I always found it an intriguing model of life – albeit with some obvious flaws.

But leaving the existential aside — many projects are actually more like races than competitions, and scoring or measuring them like competitions may well end up delaying them — much better then to focus on race-like metrics.

Board game design is often under-appreciated as a way to model the world. You don’t even need to be much of a player to find game design really interesting, and there is a recent book out about the broader, philosophical ideas here – Games – The Art of Agency by C. Thi Nguyen as also explored in a paper by the author here.

Scoring structures have a lot of space for creativity, and metrics need not be simple nor boring. Give it a go!

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