SPRING TRAINING MONTH #3: Playing to Win, by David Sirlin (2000)

Type of Media: Guidebook

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” is a phrase most often used by greedy gits trying to excuse their sociopathic tendency to grab as much money and power as possible while screwing over everyone around them. However, in the world of competition it’s a phrase that holds true. There aren’t many games that give awards out for playing beautifully or creatively, but almost all of them acknowledge a winner. The simplicity and finality of this fact lures a lot of people into competing. If you’re one of those people drawn to competition, do yourself a favor and take a couple hours to read Playing to Win by game designer and former pro Street Fighter player David Sirlin.

Contrary to popular belief and cheesy movies, being a competitive ‘winner’ isn’t just about raw technical skill or unshakeable drive, but a variety of skills and attitudes working together. In Playing to Win Sirlin breaks down how to play a game competitively, from avoiding mental blocks to basic strategy derived from ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu’s battle manual The Art of War. While this guide was written for competitive gamers, and references a lot of Street Fighter, Starcraft, and chess in its examples, the lessons in this book are applicable to any sport.

Playing to Win is probably known best for its definition of “The Scrub”, a player handicapped by their way of thinking. According to Sirlin, a scrub is someone who has the mentality that there is a ‘right’ or ‘fair’ way to play a game, and everyone who does not conform to their arbitrary rules is being ‘cheap’ even if they are still playing well within the rules of the game. If you’ve ever played Super Smash Bros. with a guy who thinks blocking or throwing isn’t fair, you’ve encountered a scrub. Being a scrub is a major barrier to being able to compete, because the reality is that every action you can take that falls within the game’s rules is a fair move, and at high levels of competition players will exploit every advantage they can get to win.

This book isn’t entirely theory, though, as Sirlin offers a fair amount of practical advice as well. One section is devoted to the special rigors of tournaments, and warns of the long hours, crappy food, and mental exhaustion that you’ll have to endure if you make it to the finals, while another is specifically written for players who have already reached the top of their game and find themselves with some newfound influence. This is a clearly a guide written by someone with a lot of experience in a competitive scene, as some of the problems he addresses are ones that are not immediately obvious to outsiders.

As a final note, one thing that’s very nice about this guide is that, unlike other books that purportedly tell you how to win, this guide doesn’t encourage being cold-blooded or acting like a dick. In fact, Sirlin has a section on sportsmanship that encourages being a good sport simply because it will let you get help from your chosen game’s community more easily. He warns that extensive trash talking will predispose judges to rule against you. However, Sirlin does also warn that being too nice and accommodating with new players can make you worse at your chosen game. Someone who coddles beginners and plays example matches with them loses some of their edge, while a player who plays their hardest all the time, even against absolute newbies, doesn’t have to worry about that.

So, while you do need to have a bit of video game literacy to get the most out of it, Playing to Win is a lot of wisdom condensed into a small package. If you’re trying to be the best around at a game or sport, check it out. You can find the entire text for free on David Sirlin’s website, here.