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Scoring in Games and Sports

From this interview with Keith Burgun, the developer of several iOS games, a very shrewd insight into the way scoring is handled in sports as opposed to games. His argument: games have never really figured out score and tend to misuse it, whereas in sports, score carries the entire story of the match in an elegant and intimately important way.


I heartily agree that score in games is nearly always arbitrary and relatively meaningless. It was always designed to serve a different purpose, naturally — from the heyday of the arcade where your “high score” was your calling card into an entire subculture, to the modern era of Peggle where score is just another way to make the player feel special and keep them playing, to the vast majority in between where score simply records who won. In every case, as Burgun points out, it feels ancillary — weird and mysterious, and un-processable by the player especially in digital games.

In sports, score is intimate. It really is a representation of how the game played, an abstraction of the story of the match that a fan can use to recreate it in their heads. As Burgun describes with football, just knowing the score can tell you what it was like to play that game. You hear the score, and you see the scenario unfold in your mind as if you were watching it live.

No sport is richer than football in this respect, with its tiered layers of scoring types and the prime number system that ensures there’s always several ways to get or retain the lead. I think about how the Ravens won the Super Bowl this year, intentionally giving up a safety (two points) in the final minutes of the game. They made a brazen tactical decision to narrow their own lead knowing that they were also narrowing the possibilities their opponents could use to reply and overtake them.┬áThat’s something game scores have rarely done. Board games are a soft exception — many of them are intentionally designed with intricate scoring systems that foster exactly that kind of richness — but even those fall short. The tension that comes from score management tends to emerge only at the end of even the best board games, and after they’re over the final scores still don’t tell the story the way a final sports tally does. I really can’t credit why games have made so little effort to follow the example set by sports.

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