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Holiday Guest Blog 6: Alan Au – “Home Field Advantage”

January 9th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Guest Blog

In what is probably the final guest blog of the season (so many shirkers), my old friend Alan Au steps up to write about the comforts and meaning of “home” in gaming. Alan and I have known each other for a long time and try to make the effort to connect in person on those rare occasions we’re in the same city. He’s a freelancer and authority on health games (whatever those are) and has written guest blogs before. Well, he’s back. Later this week, I have a lot to say.

Ah, home for the holidays. A home is a wonderful thing, a haven from the stresses and worries of the outside world. And of course, a home base is the foundation of every great expedition, adventure, and campaign. It is a place that provides comfort and familiarity, providing a unique advantage for the strategy-game player. Professional sports teams are intimately familiar with the concept of the home-field advantage, but what exactly is that advantage? It turns out that history is littered with examples of how being at home can be advantageous, whether in a war against nations, at the local stadium, or in a good-natured contest around the dining room table.

At its core, home-field advantage is really all about familiarity. The Romans were well aware of the value of familiarity; they trained their legions to construct camps in a standardized layout, ensuring that any soldier could enter any encampment and instantly know where things were. Familiarity is how we get through life without having to re-think everything all of the time. This is why we memorize chess openings and StarCraft build orders, why we customize our controls and put our game pieces in certain places. We are creatures of habit, and the advantage of familiarity is that we can spend more time on the intricacies of strategy instead of worrying about the routine stuff.

The home-field advantage is also about comfort. For one thing, you don’t have to go anywhere, which means that the time and energy spent on travel can instead be spent on something else, even if that’s something as simple as a chance to sleep in. When you’re at home, you can also eat foods that you like, and more importantly foods that won’t upset your stomach. Games don’t always model this, but the home-field advantage isn’t so much about the game as it is about the player. Pretty much everyone performs better with a good night’s sleep and a happy tummy.

There’s also a geographical component to the home-field advantage. It may not be quite as critical in chess or football where the playing field is intentionally symmetric, but it can make all the difference in a complex strategy game where terrain comes into play. Modern maps and GPS systems are great, but as anyone who has ever gotten online directions knows, map knowledge will only get you so far. The home-field advantage is about knowing the quirky situationally-dependent ways you can defy the normal assumptions, whether it’s navigating an “impassable” mountain range or knowing which backroads to take on the way to grandma’s house. Home is the place where you don’t get lost.

Of course, the home-field advantage isn’t just about a place; it’s about the people living there and the support that they provide. This is a mainstay of guerrilla warfare and every successful political revolution in the history of mankind. At the stadium, it’s about having friendly referees and crowds who cheer louder when your sports team is ahead. A large part of the home-field advantage is the boost to morale that comes from knowing you’re among friends, and that you are where you belong. However, competing at home also carries some risks. With all of the bonuses stacked in your favor, a loss at home can be tremendously demoralizing. Whether it’s the Visigoths sacking Rome or it’s aliens threatening to invade the Earth, there’s nothing quite as discouraging as discovering that your home is no longer a safe place. Home represents your cultural foundation and final refuge, the one place you know you will always belong. That is, unless you’re somehow kicked out. You can adopt a scorched-earth strategy and try and make things worse for the other guy, but at the end of it all, you need somewhere to go.

Ultimately, the home-field advantage is a meta-strategy that takes effect before you even make your first in-game move. It isn’t really any one thing that gives you an edge; it’s everything all together. It’s arranging all of your stuff just the way you like it and knowing the best way to get from point A to point B. It comes from feeling comfortable with your tools and your surroundings, and the confidence that comes from being among friends. So how do you make the home-field advantage work for you? When you’re at home, it already does.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • ShadowTiger

    The most evocative thing that comes to mind after reading this article are the fictional and historical battles where terrain features determined the outcome of battle. Whether it is having a castle high on a steep hill, or leading the enemy into a ravine, these iconic battlegrounds give great advantage to the home team.

    Realistically though, how often do these come into play? What about the people who live in a vast steppe where the land is flat and open? How often do generals foolishly throw their troops against an entrenched enemy? I know that in the revolutionary war the “traditional” battle method was overturned by guerilla style tactics. I know that in modern warfare outracing enemy reinforcements could lead to desparate measures.

    I am just wondering from a war game perspective, is it reasonable to allow every battle to have a home field advatange, or should it be a rare event that allows one to turn the tide? I guess I am asking both from a realism point of view, and a good game design point of view.

  • simao

    “How often do generals (foolishly) throw their troops against an entrenched enemy?”

    well really this happened quite alot of the time; i take entrenched to mean fortified, or on good terrain, or just well prepared and waiting for the attack. and this is certainly not limited in any way to bad generals.

    think: sometimes in a RTS you just need to throw men into the grinder while you pull off a flanking maneuver, or as a distraction, or as a rearguard.

    indeed, you could argue that offence is just that: taking on an opposition on their home ground. its why invasions are rather difficult.