On Sept. 16, 2007, a Japanese YouTuber who goes by the handle “Computing Aesthetic” uploaded a forty-eight-second-long video with the deafening title, “ULTRA MEGA SUPER LUCKY SHOT.” The video shows a high-scoring shot in Peggle, a vastly popular video game, loosely based on Japanese pachinko machines, in which a ball bearing clatters down the screen, accruing points as it bounces through a crowd of candy-colored pegs, which disappear shortly after being touched; more bounces, more points. Although Peggle involves some skill—before firing the ball, the player must carefully aim the launcher that dangles at the top of the screen—you are principally at the mercy of the luck of the bounce. In Computing Aesthetic’s footage, the points pile up as the ball bounces fortuitously between pegs. To underscore the seemingly miraculous shot, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blares euphorically until, in the video’s final moments, the ball bearing sinks into the bucket at the base of the screen and the words “FEVER SCORE” flash onscreen. The description on the video, which has been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, reads, “I couldn’t balieve this when it happened!!!!!!!!!”
Cheaters, B.C.: Loaded dice, often made from animal hooves (above), have been found in tombs, proving that even if ancients believed that a throw of the dice expressed divine will, they weren’t averse to lending a helping hand. Photo by Vassil / Creative Commons.
Computing Aesthetic’s video is just one of nearly 20,000 such YouTube clips labelled with the words “Peggle” and “Lucky,” uploaded by players so amazed at their good fortune in the game that they were moved to share the achievement with the world. But these players may not be as lucky as they’ve been led to believe. “In Peggle, the seemingly random bouncing of the balls off of pegs is sometimes manipulated to give the player better results,” Jason Kapalka, one of the game’s developers, admitted to me. “The Lucky Bounce that ensures that a ball hits a target peg instead of plunking into the dead ball zone is used sparingly. But we do apply a lot of extra ‘luck’ to players in their first half-dozen levels or so to keep them from getting frustrated while learning the ropes.” Tweaking the direction of any given bounce by just a few compass degrees—but not so much that the ball swerves unrealistically in mid-air—is enough to encourage beginners and not make the game too unbelievable, Kapalka said.
Fairness is the unspoken promise of most video games. Controlled by an omniscient and omnipotent designer, a video game has the capacity to be ultimately just, and players expect that it will be so. (Designers also have an incentive to be even-handed: A game that always beats you is a game you’ll soon stop playing.) And yet, when video games truly play by the rules, the player can feel cheated. Sid Meier, the designer of the computer game Civilization, in which players steer a nation through history, politics, and warfare, quickly learned to modify the game’s odds in order to redress this psychological wrinkle. Extensive play-testing revealed that a player who was told that he had a 33 percent chance of success in a battle but then failed to defeat his opponent three times in a row would become irate and incredulous. (In Civilization, you can replay the same battle over and over until you win, albeit incurring costs with every loss.) So Meier altered the game to more closely match human cognitive biases; if your odds of winning a battle were 1 in 3, the game guaranteed that you’d win on the third attempt—a misrepresentation of true probability that nevertheless gave the illusion of fairness. Call it the Lucky Paradox: Lucky is fun, but too lucky is unreal. The resulting, on-going negotiation among game players and designers must count as one of our most abstract collective negotiations.
In ancient times, luck was routinely ascribed to divine intervention; games were as much a playground for the gods as a test of human ability. Luck was a central component in the games of the ancient Egyptians, whose deity Theuth was the inventor of dice, according to Plato. In practice, the dice were typically made from astragali, knucklebones of hoofed quadrupeds, which were polished and used in Egyptian board games and in a type of fortune-telling divination called astragalomancy. Loaded dice have been found in tombs alongside ancient game boards; even if the ancient Egyptians believed that a throw of the dice somehow expressed divine will, they weren’t averse to lending a helping hand.
Olaf Haraldsson, an 11th-century Norwegian king, once wagered a kingdom in a faith-testing game of dice. Olaf was locked in a territorial dispute with the king of Sweden over the island of Hising; eventually the two agreed to settle the matter with a dice throw. The Swedish king rolled two sixes, the highest possible score, and said there was no point in continuing the game. Olaf insisted on taking his throw; a recent convert to Christianity, he was certain that God would steer the dice in his favor. His faith was vindicated with double sixes. The men continued to take turns throwing their dice, twelve after twelve. The matter was finally settled when, during Olaf’s final throw, one of the dice split in two, to show both a six and a one, winning him the kingdom on an unprecedentedly lucky 13.
Luck is equally vital in modern games, whether it emerges from dice rattling in a cup or the treacherous Chance cards in Monopoly. But its role has changed: Humans have taken the reins from the gods, and luck has become a design tool capable of changing players’ experiences and expectations. For instance, it enables players of varying abilities to play together by reducing the advantage of actual skill. The New York-based designer Zach Gage recently decided to reinvent chess by introducing a hefty element of luck. “Chess is historically a very balanced game that is entirely up to the skill of the player,” he said. “This is great if you want to see who is better at chess but not so good if you’re trying to play a fun game with your friends of varying skill levels.”
Lucky is fun, but too lucky is unreal.
Really Bad Chess, by contrast, gives each player a randomly selected set of pieces at the start of each match. The sides don’t mirror each other, so it’s possible for one player to end up with five queens and the other with a battalion of pawns. “This accomplishes two things,” Gage said. “It makes weaker players feel like they have a chance against stronger players because they can end up with better pieces. And it makes the relative strength of the board hard to analyze, even for an expert.” Here, as in poker, victory is determined as much by the luck of the draw as by the talent of the player. The design also allows Gage to secretly stack the probability of the initial draw—making it more likely, say, that a new player will hold more powerful pieces, while an experienced player will be left at a starting disadvantage.
In mechanical games, luck is the player’s saving grace against the mechanism itself. In the early 1950s, the Chicago-based pinball manufacturer Gottlieb noticed that novice pinball players would occasionally lose a ball in the first few moments of a game. So it introduced an inverted V-shaped metal wall that, during a game’s opening seconds, would rise between the flippers at the base of the machine in order to keep an errant ball from disappearing down the gulley. In newer pinball machines, the blocking gate, known as a “ball saver” (a phrase invented by Chicago Coin for its 1968 pinball machine, Gun Smoke), is controlled by software; whether the wall rises or not is a matter of luck, of a kind that has been engineered into the algorithm.