The So-Called “Alpha Gamer” Problem

One thing I didn’t address in the Shadowrift review is whether, and to what extent, it addresses the Alpha Gamer problem–whereby one player starts telling everyone else what to do. To briefly address this, it takes the same approach Pandemic did, by and large–everyone has their own hand of cards, and the expectation is that that will serve as a sufficient bulwark against sock puppetry.

Many people clearly think that individual hands is insufficient. I’ve heard people condemn nearly all co-operative games need radical redress against the problem or the game is somehow automatically defective. Space Alert’s time crunch is an example of a way to address it, traitor mechanics that disincentivize complete communication are another. To those people, Shadowrift (and the other good co-op deck-builders I mention, namely XenoShyft and Shadowrun: Crossfire) will be unsatisfying.

My experience, however, has been different in two ways, and this leads me to a different conclusion.

First, my most common issue with co-ops is the reverse–people requesting too much advice on what to do. Perhaps it ought to be called the Beta Gamer problem? When playing a co-op with most people, I can pretty much expect to utter “do what you think is best” at least once. I respect the fact that people internalize pressure when playing a co-op, and I further respect that people are inclined to defer to the rules explainer (which is usually me)–but I have no inclination to micro-manage everyone else’s turns even when it’s clear that they might want that.

Second, the people that have exhibited signs of the Alpha Gamer behaviour have not limited that kind of overbearing advice-giving to co-op games. I have yet to see someone micro-manage new players in a co-op who hasn’t also seen fit to micro-manage new players in a competitive game. Indeed, the patterns are identical–typically manifesting itself in frustration and exasperation when someone isn’t playing “properly,” i.e. the exact same way the Alpha Gamer would. This phenomenon is less evident when playing a game that is multiplayer solitaire, but even those games aren’t immune from someone trying to tell everyone else how to play.

These two factors lead me to the obvious conclusion that Alpha Gaming is a problem of players, not of co-op designs. Sure, some people might be less able to engage in this unfortunate behaviour in some designs–but to me, that’s almost akin to saying the games with no hidden information are automatically preferable because it’s harder to cheat in games like that. The problem is with the cheating, not in the design. I am reminded of a great quote from Chris Rock–“There’s a reason to kick an old man down a flight of stairs. Just don’t do it.”

There are innumerable social behaviours that are regrettable that we gamers experience, and some designs might be more prone to those than others–but the responsibility lies with the gamers, regardless of the game itself. So no, some co-ops don’t stop you from being an Alpha Gamer. Just don’t do it.

8 thoughts on “The So-Called “Alpha Gamer” Problem”

  1. Honestly, I kinda hate most co-op games in general, regardless of Alpha or Beta gamers. The problem is most gamers are pretty smart, game-minded people. Set four of them together to “solve” a game, and they’re gonna do in a boring, obvious way. Pandemic is basically a glorified probability puzzle. It’s like doing Sodoku with three other friends. Interesting for a few minutes, then just going through the motions. Boring.

    The betrayer element helps, but what helps more are individual objectives in addition to the group objectives (ala Dead of Winter). I can take or leave the betrayer element, but the fact the players are working towards secret independent goals solves the problem almost completely.

    These are just my humble thoughts.

  2. The idea that the alpha player problem is simply an issue of douchery is facile. A game like Pandemic requires players to reach consensus for things like trading cards – if you play that game with each person doing their own thing, you’ll get destroyed, and it probably won’t be a lot of fun.

    I find that being in the position of having a bunch of great ideas but not wanting to be ‘that guy’ is awkward – you have to work to casually suggest something that players eventually take up. Spending the game trying to figure out how to offer ideas in a way that isn’t pushy is tiring for me – I’d rather just be thinking about strategy. My experience of cooperative games hasn’t been bad because people think I’m an alpha gamer. My experience has been bad because I find it exhausting to work on advancing ideas without coming across as an alpha for a couple of hours.

    1. Do you feel the same level of exertion and pressure when playing negotiation games or trading games? Or when suggesting what to play for an evening, or coordination of any sort?

      1. I’ll answer your question straight up and ignore what seem like sarcastic overtones. Yes, I despise negotiation games and trading games for the most part, mostly because they tend to be interminable, and the negotiation often produces arbitrary outcomes. A cliched rule of thumb I’m sure you’re familiar with is that random outcomes become less acceptable the greater the game length. These kinds of games tend to break this rule in both directions.

        No, I don’t have any issue when negotiating/coordinating things with game nights and people in life. It’s different in the world of board games, where I like to have more agency than one is usually allowed in ‘real life’.

        1. I should note that I do enjoy certain cooperative games, namely those that have a timer, such as F.U.S.E. and Mechs vs. Minions (for part of the game at least – I’d be on board for using the timer for turn execution as well), thus removing the tedium of long negotiations.

          To me, life has enough things that are tedious and out of my control, and I’d rather have my board game time involve making decisions and doing things that matter, rather than wasting time and listening to people argue.

  3. Hmm… I think the alpha gamer problem is a bit more subtle. I don’t pretend to have the breadth and depth of gaming experience you have, but for me it’s always come down to whether a multi-player game is really a solitaire. Two examples: Pandemic and Shadows Over Camelot. Both of these are solitaires disguising as multi-player. What I mean is that any given player’s decisions is forced, either due to situation or group strategy, and a player can go through many turns with simply no decisions to make. With these kinds games, an alpha player is bound to emerge if people don’t really know what they’re doing. Playing Pandemic, telling people “what do you think” is all well and good, but what they think needs to be aligned with what everyone else thinks. Even with the best of intentions, the alpha player will set that group think 9 times out of 10. Doesn’t make for good interactions, nor very interesting game play. Needless to say both these games are at the bottom of my all-times list. On the other hand, an example of a good multiplayer design is dead of winter. It does away from group think with individual goals and a traitor mechanic. Any player is required to deviate from the norm, it’s baked in the design.

    1. While I dislike Dead of Winter for other reasons (the simplistic, rote gameplay), I completely agree that solo games disguising themselves as co-ops is a leading driver of both the alpha player problem and the dullness of co-ops in general.

      1. I’m inclined to agree about dead of winter – just used it as an example of a decent multi-player design. In fairness, I’ve only played 3-4 times but the game felt random: luck of the draw and initial starting conditions heavily influenced the experience. Also, zombies, always zombies…

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