Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why We Prefer Aggression (A Defense of Defense)

Why is aggressive play so preferred to defensive play?  The answer is, easily enough, that aggressive play is more exciting.  But what is it that makes a certain style of play more exciting to watch?  Unless we answer that question, we’re stuck in a circular rotation of definitions that doesn’t tell us anything.  And I think it’s worth it to investigate what makes us feel one way, compared to another.

The answer is pretty simple, honestly.  The thing about us is that when it comes to life and survival, we often prefer certainty and security.  But when it comes to our entertainment, we want novelty and excitement.  We crave uncertainty,  As nice as it is to have champions and people we believe in, we want to see them challenged.  We want them to win, but we don’t want the victory to be a foregone conclusion.

And solid defensive play, to the spectator, looks unbeatable.  It looks like there aren’t openings, because covering your openings and weaknesses is the whole point of defensive play!  Good defensive play might require a lot of prediction, forethought, intelligence, and even hidden risks and guesses… but that’s exactly it.  Those risks are hidden.  Aggression takes place out in the open, and much of the strength of defensive play is in the mind.  You only see the result, and by that point, it seems unbeatable.

It’s not the fact that somebody is defending, rather than attacking, that we hate.  At Evo, one of the biggest cheers I heard was when Justin Wong, down to nothing but his Akuma in MvC3, blocked for what seemed like a solid 10 seconds.  MvC3 has so many mixups, and so much control coming from the aggressor, it gives great advantage to the offensive player.  Because the aggression is so solid, everybody knows that defensive play is difficult to execute; it’s as much based on luck as it is knowledge and prediction.  Blocking a series of mixups like Wong did, in that moment, is known to be uncertain.  “Sitting and blocking” is not a sound way to win in Marvel.  So it earned cheers rather than boos.

On the flip side, a defensive, run-away style like Chris G’s does not earn cheers from people.  He spends the entire time keeping people out with a seemingly unbeatable strategy.  The fact that nobody else can execute the strategy to his level of success is irrelevant; he uses it, and wins, and as a result, he becomes the villain of the community.

Normally, turtles are not crowd favorites.  Good defensive play is too prophylactic, and seems too strong in the right hands; when executed well, we believe, “well you could never have gotten through that,” even if it was incredibly difficult to set up the defense in the first place.  Even when nobody can replicate that style, if it’s repetitive, if it seems too good (whether it is or not) people won’t like watching.  They will even go so far as to tell you that you aren’t any good at the game (even though your style may have taken years to cultivate and perfect).

In many respects, the same is true of aggressive players, but only when they win by large margins consistently.  They look too unbeatable, and spectators do not want unbeatable champions.  Why is it that we want the best players to be dethroned?  Nobody wants to watch the same person win all the time.  Or, at the very least, we want to believe that they might have lost.  The same happens in fiction, when we see a main character win through deus ex machina, and it feels like the writer, the guardian angel, is watching over them.  If a main character never has to earn their victory, we are less likely to cheer for them when they win.  Likewise, a champion that is too dominant, and too incapable of losing, just isn’t interesting to watch anymore.  It’s okay if they do win, provided their opponent generates sufficient threat.  Then the story becomes interesting.  And, all the way down the line, the same is true of defensive play; it has to look beatable and vulnerable for its success to be impressive.

As spectators, we don’t want to know who wins beforehand.  We want to sit on the edges of our seats.  We don’t want to know that the game is decided in advance, because one player chose
to camp or take a defensive posture.  It’s perceived as guaranteed, brainless, skilless, even though any number of things can go wrong with defense.  The spectators are perceivers, and therefore what they see defines their enjoyment.

This is kind of a shame, because defensive play can actually be very difficult, depending on the game, and we should be rewarding players, whether with money or accolades or just the occasional pat on the back, for pulling off difficult strategies.  Obviously, if it is too easy to defend, then that’s a sign that your game needs better designing.  It means that attacking is bad, and defending is good, and stalemates become preferable to pointlessly exposing yourself.  At which point nobody wants to watch.  People are more alright with a bevy of aggressive players; at the very least, poor defensive options means that the action remains fast, furious, and uncertain as players attack constantly.

I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with preferring aggression.  It is definitely more fun to see things happen at a quick pace.  But failing to appreciate defense and the skills that go into it is damaging to your understanding of the game.  I like action movies, but I don’t think that means every slow-paced drama is bad for not having explosions in it.  And if you hear me say, “this movie sucks, where are the guns?” then you probably wouldn’t take my opinion on a movie’s quality very seriously.

The differences in playstyle are what allow you to create broader challenges and understandings of the game.  It’s fine to prefer aggression, just as it’s fine to prefer defense, and I’ll be the first to admit that faster-paced, bloodier games are always more exciting to watch.  But there is also a payoff to understanding and enjoying defense, and it's a shame more people don't see that.

Thank's for reading.


  1. Everything perfect.
    Then thank's.

  2. Lovely post you've got here, Rob :D
    I was hoping to see one on this topic!

  3. I would make the argument that even a more understanding observer could somewhat substantially prefer aggressive play, even on an intellectual level as opposed to a merely visceral one which is what most spectators function on. As a general rule, and of course this is not the case for all games and situations, highly defensive play is slower than aggressive play and this is not merely an issue in that it stimulates yawns from the audience–slowing down the game also slows the pace at which decisions must be made and on a fundamental level asks much less of the players. They simply don't have to think as fast when the pace of gameplay drops. Of course, having more time to make decisions leads to many people second guessing themselves and overthinking as well.

    Now for something like marvel where defense is so incredibly difficult a well structured defense hardly slows the pace of the game at all. JWong's frenetic series of blocks forced him to guess and read and pray like a madman. And I think the contrast with Chris G's strategy is really relevant in that while it can be defined as a defensive style, it can also be considered as a hyperpatient offensive style. After all Chris isn't sitting and blocking–he's attacking, relentlessly, in a way that prevents his opponent from gaining ground. Difficult though this is to execute it's also fairly simplistic on an intellectual level. The fact that marvel is a game balanced around offense basically means that the roles of offense and defense are switched in this case.

    1. Whoa dang paragraphs.

      I totally agree that you can have your preference, one way or the other. I enjoy seeing more aggressive games too, and I also prefer watching it to defensive play (even though I'm a defensive player). It's mostly an issue of understanding, and how defensive players get *active dislike* rather than simply not being preferred.

      I'd also like to point out that if the aggressive player is thinking quickly and forcing the defensive player to make lots of decisions, then despite the lack of aggression, you're still having to think quickly; it just doesn't manifest in obvious action. One of the biggest difficulties *I* have when being on the defensive is not being goaded into taking action when it's incorrect to do so. I have to keep my mind totally under control so I don't impulsively leap into a trap or bait. I am often thinking and watching just as hard as the aggressive player; sometimes harder, because he gets to pick his own option, but I often have to discern it in advance.

      The only reason I characterize Chris G as defensive is because he is very happy not to actually engage the opponent. His goal isn't to open them up, but to keep himself from being approached in a meaningful, scary way. Other than that, I agree with your assessment and find it interesting.