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When Playing Games ‘Wrong’ Feels So Damn Right

When Playing Games ‘Wrong’ Feels So Damn Right:

The New England sun grimaces down on a swimming pool in an unremarkably middle-class backyard, complete with the sounds of swimming kids shrieking with delight, and smells of ribs barbecuing. My gamer friends and our families are eating and chatting before our annual cribbage tournament. I, however, grimace at my friend and fellow cribbage player, who I’ll call “Sweaty Cribbage Guy.”

I’ll call him Sweaty Cribbage Guy. I’m grimacing at him because he’s revealing that he’s a very particular kind of “scrub.” I’ll get into what defines a scrub momentarily, but for now suffice it to say that despite the heat, Sweaty Cribbage Guy is suddenly very animated about the matter of “cheating” in video games. This is my first clue.


How we got here: it began when Sweaty Cribbage Guy boasted that his cousin intermittently holds the so-called “speedrun” record for the original Super Mario Bros. A “speedrun“ is an attempt to get to the end of a videogame in the fastest time possible, a player’s race against him/herself—and against others’ extensively documented speedrunning world records—from the first screen of the game, to its closing credits.

Simple as this may sound, the reality is complex. Speedrunning is about speed, to be sure, but reflexes and coordination are only part of the picture. Much of speedrunning is about discovering loopholes and glitches in the game programming. Speedrunners engage with the mechanics of games, and work in collaborative groups on strategic research, laborious experimentation, and exchange of findings. Speedrunners are part gamers, part scientists of the arcane: grinding away under pale lights, watching one hypothesis fail after another, comparing esoteric discoveries in un-glamorous corners of the internet, chasing breakthroughs so obscure that it would be generous to call them “niche.”

This scientific dimension is what makes speedrunning so fascinating. While a speedrunning record is a singular expression of one person’s ingenuity and dexterity, each record also establishes an incontrovertible fact, no matter how it was done. Any successful speedrun method is as valid as another—there are no “wrong” speedrun methods, no completion times that “don’t count,” no “cheap shots.” You can’t cheat at speedrunning, because speedrunners don’t recognize the concept of cheating.

Related: Video Game Speedrunning is an Art to Those Who Practice

Which brings us back to Sweaty Cribbage Guy, who is telling me how cool it is that his cousin is so dedicated, that the Super Mario Bros. world record is amazing, and that Super Mario Bros. speedrunners are working on a perfectly-executed run that can’t be beat.

“Can’t be beat?” I blurt out, reacting to his absolutism. “What about Tool Assisted Speedruns?” Tool Assisted Speedruns (TAS) are a different category of speedrun involving experiments that use tools to pause the game in 1/30th-of-a-second-frames, making it possible to explore a game’s logistical intricacies in absurd detail. TAS attempts might take a speedrun researcher days or weeks, but the tedious slow-motion analysis often reveals game glitches and techniques that can be exploited for faster runs.

At the mention of Tool Assisted Speedruns, Sweaty Cribbage Guy becomes agitated, “No, no, no. Tool Assisted Speedrun records aren’t legitimate. Those TAS guys aren’t actually playing the game. They’re using a cheat to get the best time.” Sweaty Cribbage Guy is personally offended by—and philosophically opposed to—the idea of someone playing the game in such an abstract and clinical way.

I try to explain to Sweaty Cribbage Guy that there are different kinds of speedruns, and the Tool Assisted records and his cousin’s records don’t have anything to do with each other.

Of course he doesn’t want to acknowledge anything but his vision of purity. His view is not uncommon. Indeed, a number of gamers feel that their interpretation of how to play video games is the only “legitimate” or “fair” way to play, and anyone who plays differently is simply cheating.

While I understand and empathize with the feelings behind Sweaty Cribbage Guy’s philosophy of “legitimate play,” the argument doesn’t quite hold up.

The “legitimate play” position maintains:

1. There is an objective, “correct” way to play a game.

…there isn’t.

2. Any alternative approach to playing the game threatens the integrity of fair play.

A game has no integrity to threaten. It’s a game.

3. Some world records are easy to accomplish, therefore unworthy.

This point insists that a glitch-heavy world record can be accomplished by anyone, or that a TAS is “easy,” therefore not legit. This is ignorance of the process. It takes a lot of dedication to get a world record. Besides, if a record is easy to beat, it will be beaten until it isn’t easy anymore.


arnold commando knife fight

Permit me one more related point of illustration before I tell you what a “scrub” is.

In the final scene of the extra-cheesy ‘80s movie Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character John Matrix challenges his maniac nemesis Bennett to put down their guns and use only knives in their final battle—to fight with honor.

But Matrix knows he has an advantage in hand-to-hand combat over Bennett. Matrix is really just laying a trap for his opponent in the form of an unfair fight. Not so honorable, after all—but very fun.

Youtube is rife with videos of gamers playing with self-imposed handicaps like Bennett and Matrix in Commando, using only a knife in a gunfight or using only fists in a swordfight, among others. This is just another expression of how playing “incorrectly” actually expands a gamer’s enjoyment of the game.

With all the weapons available in adventure and military games, would someone like Sweaty Cribbage guy call anyone who uses anything other than a knife a cheater? Would Sweaty Cribbage Guy get killed by Matrix in the end?



Those questions about the fairness of weapon choice in military games is an excellent analogy for the attitudes of the kind of gamer who doesn’t accept all the different ways to play: the naive fighting game player. A naive fighting game player has a narrow mind, and tries, like John Matrix from Commando to redefine the parameters of the fight to suit their strengths. They also self-limit their actions by misunderstanding honor, fairness, and skill.

David Sirlin is the designer of the card game Yomi and he’s a fighting game champion who understands the mindset of a winning player. His championships were won in the flat, colorful Street Fighter, a game series in which players face off in one-on-one duels of punches, kicks, fireballs, hyperactive uppercuts, and all-of-the-above combinations. In his book Play to Win, Sirlin gives a name to the naive player who holds preconceptions about what is “fair” and what is “cheap”: the scrub.

I asked Sirlin about the origin of his idea of the scrub. Sirlin described the atmosphere of fighting game tournaments, and the attitudes of competitive players: “You use whatever tournament-legal in-game actions help you win. It was just obvious. But it wasn’t obvious to people outside that world. They seem really hung up on inventing their own rules that held them back.”

Sirlin also told me how he personally overcame his own tendency to hold back: “It …shows a lack of understanding that the point of competitive game is to let the players try their hardest, which is the opposite of holding back, and then see what comes out on top. But I was simply out of my depth when I held the bad belief there, and more education and experience showed me the way.”

The scrub imposes his or her own behavioral code on the game—a second set of rules within the established rules of the game. And since a game is its rules, what the scrub is in fact demanding is a different game.

In my own experience playing fighting games—in arcades, where players’ emotions are particularly volatile—I’ve been the scrub killer but also, I admit, the scrub. I recall the time a stranger—maybe The Stranger—came to our arcade, and played the ninja character in our favorite fighting game, Virtua Fighter 2. We sneered at The Stranger’s rookie mistake.

I remember well his lean, primitive, three-move repertoire: leg sweep, screw attack, and spring attack. Three attacks that are easy and fast. They were unrealistic-looking moves that looked dumb, and they were forbidden in our scrub playbook.

Needless to say, The Stranger bested each of us—decisively—many, many times in a row. As if that wasn’t enough, he mocked us when he left. Perhaps that’s the price of a valuable lesson. The Stranger’s thorough beating taught us that we weren’t even playing the game yet. Or rather, we weren’t playing the whole game, but our own limited versions. We resolved to figure out how to beat the ninja, in case The Stranger returned. He didn’t.


virtua fighter 2

Unlike the structured fighting games that showed me the hard road out of scrubhood, games like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto embrace the existential idea that we make our own meaning and choose our own destiny—our own way of playing, in game terms. I once spent a week playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas only letting my character rode a bicycle. It didn’t matter that he was supposed to be a car thief.

Minecraft, one of my personal favorite games, leaves it to players to develop their own ideas of the very meaning of the game. Even the rules can be changed.

These kinds of open games invite players who love to do it wrong. They tinker with the code of the game to make custom modifications, they make games within games—not unlike a scrub, ironically, but in an ebullient spirit of “everything is permissible” that is distinctly un-scrublike.

Even the most anarchic game is, by definition, a system of rules. And where there are rules there will be interpretations, and in turn, arbiters, lawyers, moralists, bureaucrats—and scrubs.

I never did convince Sweaty Cribbage Guy of my point of view. Perhaps he can’t face the blinding light of my post-scrub transcendent wisdom—though I suspect he’s actually just defending his cousin. Ultimately, as the evening unfurls, Sweaty Cribbage Guy and I will come to agree on one thing: I am the better cribbage player.

Alfred O. Cloutier plays the underground backyard cribbage circuit, along with his wife (she’s actually won money) in the suburbs of Boston, MA.

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