Whenever I play Mario Party, I always choose Luigi. This is not because I think I am Luigi, but rather because I want to work with Luigi. I see us as partners, with me to handle the button pushing in the real world, and him to handle the luck and navigation of the digital world. The thing that first piqued my interest about him, interestingly enough, was the deep sadness he appears to experience when he loses. (Next time you play, take a really good look at Luigi’s loss animation.) Luigi is an emotional guy. He’s the kind of guy who brings you flowers just because and cries at the end of E.T. When I watched the despair in Luigi’s eyes after a loss, I felt certain that he was playing not because he wanted the chance to name Mario Land after himself, but because he had some alternative motive. Maybe he’s secretly in love with Peach, and wants the chance to show her what kind of man he is. Maybe he’s a humanitarian who truly cares about the plight of the Koopas. Maybe he has a wife and kids at home who depend on his hard-earned gold coins to buy food for the family. Whatever the reason, I wanted to help Luigi win. I chose Luigi then, and I’ve been playing with him ever since.*
Over the winter, I happened across this NPR interview and its longer companion piece about the nature of competition. The guest authors (Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing”) point to several interesting findings about the human brain as it relates to winning and losing, but two things in particular stood out to me. First, that people who play to win (risk-takers) tend to experience a greater percentage of wins than losses. Second, that more men are risk-takers than women. My boyfriend, listening with me, immediately synthesized those facts into “That’s why you don’t win when we play games!”
My first reaction was anger. Anyone who heard the story would know his words were a gross simplification of the facts, a joke. But some combination of my sense of feminism and the smarting of the personal slight combined to make a raging lunatic out of me. (“You’re telling me that I don’t win because I’m a woman!?”) But since that time, I’ve done a lot of self-evaluating. I’ve asked myself, Do I play to win?, and found that the answer is overwhelmingly- No. My quest with Luigi, for example, becomes immediately gendered. When I play with Luigi, my goal is not necessarily to win because I think winning is objectively good, but to win because I want to see my partner succeed. I do this all the time. Like many non-risk-takers (or perhaps like many women), I find myself playing for reasons other than a desire to win. I play because I want to have fun, because I enjoy spending time with my friends, or because I like the story arc or the art of the game.
At first I experienced a lot of anxiety about my game-playing style. Should I be playing to win?, I thought, Should I care? I’ve thought about it a lot, and the more I think about it, the less I care. I love playing games, so what does it matter what my personal goals are? If my goal is no longer to win, then winning is only a bonus, not a prerequisite for having fun. I enjoy myself so much more if I don’t stress out about winning than if I do. It kind of takes the pressure off winning, when you think about it.
Of course I didn’t just self-reflect, I also observed the women and men I play games with (or, you know, against). First of all, I know all kinds of people. I think we all do. Men who play to win, women who play to win. Men who play for fun, women who play for fun. I’ve seen men who dispense advice to others, even to their own detriment. I’ve seen women deliberately throw games in favor of prolonging the fun or appeasing a grumpy opponent. Then again, I’ve played both men and women with bloodlust in their eyes. Some people make a competition out of everything. Is there something inherently masculine about winning? Maybe, maybe not. I think it’s safe to say, though, that whatever the reason, those people who play to win are getting something more out of winning than I am.
It’s not that I don’t care about winning. I do care. But for me an important factor is the authenticity of the win. That is to say, a game among equals is infinitely more pleasing to win than a game in which there is a great disparity of skill. I have to be good at the game to win, but in order for me to feel good about the win, my opponent has to be good too. In the same way, I don’t mind losing in a fair fight. It’s much easier to admire skill in an opponent when you truly understand that skill. In this way, I enjoy a game not necessarily because I win, but because I feel I have a chance at winning.
But are the men in my life playing by different rules? Do they see winning as the only objective in a game? Consider this- not too long ago, Luigi and I were in the lead in a game of Mario Party when a fellow player (a male playing Yoshi) stole a star from us! I felt betrayed. Shouldn’t he have stolen from someone else?, I thought, Shouldn’t there be some kind of PC vs. NPC solidarity? But from a win/loss perspective, he did the right thing. I was in the lead, and he took me down a peg. What’s more, as a PC with the ability to reason and think ahead, I was a better target than an NPC would have been. Nonetheless, stealing that star was something I never would have done.
Perhaps I should try to be a little more ruthless. Maybe one day I will, but if I do, it will be like a character I slip on. Winning is all right, but it’s not the most important thing. To date, Luigi and I have won only one game of Mario Party, and yet we truck on. He has his reasons, and I have mine.
Plain Jane has never played D&D, but writing this article has made her want to try on Chaotic Evil for size, just to switch things up. She fervently believes that Luigi is her soul-mate.