You know, there are fanfics and there are fanfics. Or, put another way, there is a really tiny percentage, nay, rather an amount best expressed in percentages of a percentage of fanfics which aren’t utter crap.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is one of those fanfics. It is, to the contrary, in more than a few ways, brilliant – entertaining, captivating, thought-provoking, sometimes thrilling, often funny, and consistently well-written. Actually, it is better written than the original books (not too much of a challenge, though), and its characters are way better developed (again, not too much of a challenge). It has its flaws, though – mainly, that it doesn’t do anything really right from a storytelling perspective: It isn’t really a parody or satire; it isn’t really an alternate version of the story built on a what-if-premise; it isn’t really just a vehicle to explain scientific concepts in an entertaining way; it isn’t really consistent in its portrayal of characters, the level of their reasonings, and the development of its plot; and it isn’t really following the structure of a good tale, failing to meet the quota of satisfying revelations compared to the number of mysteries it presents. Still, it is a must-read for everyone who is able to understand it… which is a bit of a problem, I concede: You need to be reasonably fluent in english (certainly a bit more than you need to be to read my blog entries); you need to have a basic grasp of scientific concepts; and – to fully appreciate the richness of this fiction – you should be thoroughly familiar with the original books. I agree that all this may be a bit too much to ask, but I guarantee you, if you meet those criteria, this story is absolutely worth your time!
Now, I have a reason why I link to this fanfic on my Magic blog. I will quote a short passage from this fic’s 7th chapter (it has 87 so far, some of them VERY long):
“So let me get this straight,” Harry said as it seemed that Ron’s explanation (with associated hand gestures) was winding down. “Catching the Snitch is worth one hundred and fifty points?“
“How many ten-point goals does one side usually score not counting the Snitch?”
“Um, maybe fifteen or twenty in professional games -”
“That’s just wrong. That violates every possible rule of game design. Look, the rest of this game sounds like it might make sense, sort of, for a sport I mean, but you’re basically saying that catching the Snitch overwhelms almost any ordinary point spread. The two Seekers are up there flying around looking for the Snitch and usually not interacting with anyone else, spotting the Snitch first is going to be mostly luck -”
“It’s not luck!” protested Ron. “You’ve got to keep your eyes moving in the right pattern -”
“That’s not interactive, there’s no back-and-forth with the other player and how much fun is it to watch someone incredibly good at moving their eyes? And then whichever Seeker gets lucky swoops in and grabs the Snitch and makes everyone else’s work moot. It’s like someone took a real game and grafted on this pointless extra position so that you could be the Most Important Player without needing to really get involved or learn the rest of it. Who was the first Seeker, the King’s idiot son who wanted to play Quidditch but couldn’t understand the rules?” Actually, now that Harry thought about it, that seemed like a surprisingly good hypothesis. Put him on a broomstick and tell him to catch the shiny thing…
So, yes, this passage is about game design. See, everyone who has read the books or come upon the rules of Rowling’s ficticious sport Quidditch by another way MUST have observed exactly the same flaw as Harry did, although they probably didn’t think quite as deeply about it. What was Rowling thinking (or smoking) when she made up those rules? Was she trying to parody the rules of some of the more obscure british sports? Was she actually not noticing, because she isn’t interested in games of any kind? Did she want to point out that the wizard community clings to things which obviously make no sense? Or did she really need a vehicle for the exact purpose Harry describes here (making her protagonist a sporting ace in a somehow convincing way, even though he’d never played before)? While the last theory seems the most plausible at first glance, it isn’t terribly convincing, either, since the plausibility of Harry being a great Seeker by natural talent comes at the expense of Quidditch not being a plausible sport at all, and also Harry still had to be a broomstick flyer prodigy without any good explanation; AND it wouldn’t have been too hard to fit in a role like that of the Seeker in a more plausible way. Personally, I am inclined to believe that Rowling actually hasn’t a clue about how games work, and a disdain for this kind of entertainment which led her to neglect doing even a little resaearch to avoid such sillyness – this theory is supported by her identifying with Hermione Granger (by her own admittance) to a certain extent, who is portrayed as a very smart girl, but just doesn’t get what all this hype about sports is about.
But that’s not my point here. I want to draw your attention towards Harry’s analysis instead, which comes down, for the most part, to: The Snitch is ruining an otherwise reasonable game in an effort to appeal to idiots who are unable to grasp the more challenging aspects of Quidditch. While there is a lot of complexity, as well as intricate strategy and tactics about the main game, to appeal to these idiots, they are given the opportunity to just catch the shiny thing, and once they get it, be declared the winner. This is made possible by making the catching of the Snitch the most powerful event in the game, scoring an absurd amount of points and ending it; but also by removing nearly all interaction between the main game and the Seekers.
Do I really need to point out how WotC, over the last decade or so, have consciously been fostering a growing Snitch element in Magic, for exactly the reasons Harry describes here? Why should players be bothered to learn about the struggle of incremental card advantage, of baiting out counterspells or removal, of interacting in any way with their opponents, when instead they can just go for that shiny object, allowing them to largely ignore their opponents and making all the finer points of Magic strategy moot? As I already explained, Spike is the only player psychographic really invested into interacting with their opponent: Johnny does everything he can to ignore his opponent; while Timmy isn’t even formulating a plan to win, just hoping for interesting things to happen. Spike, thus, is the only one who would enjoy Quidditch more if there was no Snitch in it; who’d want it to be a better game – and he would, of course, be hated for it by the majority. Sounds familiar?
Remember this the next time you lose to an Invisible Stalker or Geist of Saint Traft with enchantments stockpiled on it: Catching the Snitch is worth 150 points, and it ends the game.
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Tags: fan fiction, game design, Harry Potter, idiots, Interaction, Magic, Methods of Rationality, Quidditch, Seeker, Snitch
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