If, by some odd twist of fate, you’ve found my blog before you ever heard of David Sirlin,
I would like to make a formal apology.
I apologize for creating Top Tier Tactics since it has, just by merit of its existence, made it slightly less likely you could find David Sirlin’s game design site. After all, most Internet users navigate the web by typing “games” into The Google and hitting I’m Feeling Lucky, right?
So, who is David Sirlin? He’s a designer. He’s a guru. He’s the human embodiment of gaming philosophy from the nuances of balance to the overarching meta-knowledge of all things competitive and fun.
He’s basically the person you probably wished you’d be when you were [insert your current age here].
But, aside from his many accomplishments on the fighting tournament scene and as a consultant for Capcom, Blizzard, and other companies, David is a philospher and writer. David Sirlin wrote the book on competitive gameplay and tactics. Literally.
His article series Playing to Win became an Internet phenomenon in competitive gaming circles, eventually being adapted into a self-published guide.
It changed the way thousands upon thousands of people saw competition, from fighting games to RTS games to real-life competitive pursuits.
So, how did David Sirlin become the modern day, virtual version of Sun Tzu?
From the title forward, Playing to Win lays down the philosophical groundwork for what Sirlin considers the most important aspects of not only winning at games, but also (more importantly) accepting what it takes to win.
“Playing to win is the most important and most widely misunderstood concept in all of competitive games. The sad irony is that those who do not already understand the implications I will spell out will probably not believe them to be true at all. In fact, if I were to send this book back in time to my earlier self, even I would have trouble with it. Apparently, these concepts are something one must come to learn through experience, though I hope at least some of you will take my word for it.” – David Sirlin, Playing to Win
While Sirlin spends some preliminary discussion on what makes games fun, how to decide if a game is going to have long-term replay value, and how much time is reasonable to spend on playing games in general, PTW‘s first major point regarding gaming mindsets falls in the first chapter, “Introducing… the Scrub.”
While pejorative terms for new or bad players are often tossed around loosely (newb, n00b, Irish, idiot, greenie, Terran), Sirlin felt the term “scrub” defined a wholly separate class of player.
In his own words, “[a] scrub is a player who is handicapped by self-imposed rules that the game knows nothing about. A scrub does not play to win.”
Much of the book’s exposition is focused on taking apart the “self-imposed rules” to demonstrate that the ultimate difference between a bad player (everyone starts as this in every game) and a “scrub” is that the scrub mentality leads certain players to play by artificial rules (often defined as moral or fun).
His archetype features the most common complaint in fighting games, “Throws are cheap.”
Admit it: in almost every fighting game you’ve ever played, you’ve heard someone complain (or you yourself have complained) that throws are cheap, throws are bullshit, or that the opponent uses throws way too much, etc.
Sirlin uses the example of throws to demonstrate that in the “scrub” mentality, there exists a rule, “Players should not use throws.”
Of course, this “rule” is entirely different from the actual rules of the game, in which throws are used as a countermeasure to excessive blocking. He argues that those who are playing to win will and should use every tactic available (within the legitimate non-exploitative setup of the game).
Throughout the book’s setup, Sirlin describes the differences between “playing for fun” and “playing to win,” ultimately focusing on what constitutes playing to win, and how players can work to become progressively better at any game, from Street Fighter to Magic the Gathering to Chutes and Ladders.*
Rather than rehash his entire philosophy, I can only suggest every gamer take some time to review David Sirlin’s articles. Beyond his Playing to Win work, he’s also composed a litany of pieces on game design, board game strategy, multiplayer rankings, and other musings.
*Chutes and Ladders is the official sport of Greece.