When I tell people that I teach game design theory usually they just hear game theory and admittedly there are some connections. Take a look at Parrondo’s paradox, it does comes up in game design although it isn’t often referred to directly.

The basic idea of Parrondo’s paradox is that one can “win” by losing at two separate games, as long as those games being lost are different. Playing either game on their own will result in a loss, but playing the games together in a certain way can mean winning.

Confused?

These images from Wikipedia may help visual thinkers understand what’s up:

This isn’t just a mathematical abstraction that Parrondo came up with. It’s based on a physics concept. If people placed water at the bottom of a long, gentle slope, the water would just stay there. If they placed it at the bottom of a spiky slope, like the one simulated by the second game, it would also just sit there. Any water placed at the top of either slope would roll down it. But if the slope flashed back and forth between its smooth and spiky counterpart, the water would actually travel uphill. Parrondo considered this physical finding, and translated it into a game to come up with his paradox. The paradox is now being studied by investors and financial analysts, eager to see how they, too can juggle losing assets to make the “slide uphill.”

For another interpretation on how this paradox can work in the real world for tangible benefits, check this out:

Since the Paradox has been reported a couple of years ago, many real world and abstract examples has been thought up that make it more palatable. Indeed, monetary rewards apart, a combination of negative trends may lead to a positive outcome.

Brooke Buckley, an undergraduate student from Eastern Kentucky University, mentions in her honors thesis that it’s a well known fact in agriculture, “that both sparrows and insects can eat all the crops. However, by having a combination of sparrows and insects, a healthy crop is harvested.”(*)

This is taken from a good introduction to the Parrondo paradox, which has some more examples.

How does this relate to game design you ask? In many different settings it can have impacts that you may not have predicted.

Keep the sparrow example in mind as you think of ways that people can (and do) exploit MMOs. A single person may die consistently in one area, but if the player is put in that area with other competitors (who the original player would lose to) the chances of the player passing that are may increase. Essentially, you can get ahead by combining two losing opportunities.

Another example could include ammo or health replenishment. If a player needs to acquire both but can only do so by playing two separate mini-games they can, in essence, still progress even if they lose at both. Go to one mini game, get health and lose ammo, then go to the other mini game and get ammo, but lose health. It’s all about finding the pattern that permits a net-gain in both.

A simulator that explores this paradox can be found here.