The Problem With Quidditch

One totally optional, but (in my opinion) totally fun aspect of world building is making up fictional games for your world. Like made-up holidays and festivals, games unique to your world can give it a deeper feel and provide an endless source of subplots, conflicts, and climactic settings.

For a lot of fictional games, the rules don't actually matter. Nobody knows how to play that chess game R2-D2 plays against Chewbacca, but the scene gives the world a deeper feel and gives us a taste of Chewbacca's character (also Han's and C-3P0's). Avatar: the Last Airbender frequently uses a game called Pai Sho to reveal things about one of the characters, but the rules are never explained.

But sometimes you want more than that. A critical event might turn on the outcome of a bet, like in Pirates 2 or Phantom Menace. You might have climactic events that center on the playing field, like Harry Potter's Quidditch. Or your entire plot might center on a game, like Ender's Battle Room. In these cases, the reader needs to understand and care about what's going on. They need to know the rules, which means there need to BE rules.

The easiest way to make a fictional game is to take a real-world game and change it slightly. Take chess and give the pieces fantasy names. Take soccer* and give it two goals instead of one, or play with three teams at once on a circular field. But whatever you do -- whether you vary a real game or invent one of your own -- it needs to be a game that, for the most part, would make sense in the real world.

Here's where Quidditch fails. The made-up game starts okay: basically basketball with broomsticks, three goals per team instead of one, extra balls that hurt/distract the players, and a snitch to determine the end of the game. None of these variations break the game, and they all make it more interesting. If we had flying broomsticks and semi-sentient balls, this is a game we could play in the real world.

The problem is the point value of the snitch. Every goal in Quidditch is worth 10 points, but whoever grabs the snitch simultaneously ends the game and earns 150 points -- 15 goals. The overall effect is that regular goals don't matter. Ever. Unless the score reaches 15-0,** the rest of the game has exactly the same tension as if both teams just sat around and waited for the snitch to show up (which, really, why don't they?).

The only reason we don't notice is because the protagonist is the one who gets the snitch. Can you imagine if Harry was the one making meaningless goals, while some minor character caught the snitch and won the game? We also don't notice because usually something else is going on during the match -- like someone's trying to kill Harry or something -- so we don't actually have to pay attention to the match. But to me, all the wizards who go crazy over every goal seem silly and short-sighted.

So by all means, include made-up games in your world. But give them some thought. They don't have to win Game of the Year or anything, but they should at least make real-world sense.

Though I guess if you really are writing the next Harry Potter, it doesn't matter.

UPDATE: As I mention in the comments, I do like Harry Potter. A lot. It has it's flaws, but there's a reason I own all seven.

* A term I use, not because it's correct, but because it's the least ambiguous. They call it football in Thailand too.

** Which is ridiculous. When was the last time you saw a soccer team up 15-0? Or an American football game at 105 to nothing? Unless you were watching Big Leagues Beat Up on Tiny Tots Day, these scores just don't happen. Not at a professional level anyway


Deniz Bevan said...

But that's if you compare Quidditch with soccer/football - whereas if you compare it to basketball, where the scores run up past 90 all the time, then 15-0 really does mean something. No?

Adam Heine said...

It'd have to be a 30-point difference in basketball, but you're right; that might not be quite as ridiculous (I don't watch enough basketball to know).

But imagine if there were a game-ending snitch in basketball worth 30 points. The best strategy then would be to put all six men on heavy defense (or better yet, just pass the ball around so the other team never gets it) until the snitch was caught.

Matthew Delman said...

While true, that makes for very boring games -- two guys duking it out until one of them catches a single little thingamajigger to end the game?

At that point you might as well just do away with the rest of the players and make it a single-combat kind of thing.

Adam Heine said...

I should add a third reason we don't notice Quidditch is unbalanced: We're not all game design geeks like me ;-)

Joshua McCune said...

So true... The snitch is a little deus ex machina -- kind of like the time turner :)

Adam Heine said...

You know, Bane, I'm in the middle of Harry Potter 7 now (no spoilers, please!), and I'm starting to think the Summoning Spell is a deus ex machina too.

Hepius said...

Maybe it would work if the snitch was almost never caught. Does it have to be caught for the game to end? If that's the case it's bogus. If it's only caught in one game in ten it could work.

I never liked the snitch aspect of the game.

Myrna Foster said...

I coach and play basketball, so the quidditch scoring has never bothered me. Also, in the fourth book, Krum catches the snitch, and his team still loses.

I can see your point, especially with soccer scoring in mind, but it's not enough to make me criticize the author.

Adam Heine said...

Fair enough, Myrna. Also I realize I should have said this up front: I like the Harry Potter books. They have their flaws, but there's a reason I own all seven :-) The Quidditch thing is just a minor annoyance to this strategy geek.

dolorah said...

Effective misdirection on JK's part. I'm not a football, soccer or basketball fan, and don't know the rules, so I thought it inventive. Though I agree that the point span for catching the snitch - and the game is not ended until the snitch is caught - is out of proportion to the effort of the other continuous players.

Terry Goodkinds game of Ja La in the SWORD OF TRUTH series was very well explained, but not so the game of Watch Me in Stephen Kings DARK TOWER novels. Terry Goodkind, like Rowling, made the Ja La game an integral part of the plot in the last few books. His gaming was much better integrated, but probably because adult Foot Ball players were expected to read the fantasy novels, and JK only expected kids to read her game. Much different expectations.

Stephen King used his Watch Me card game merely for setting; a distraction from talking heads. R2D2's chess game was much the same, so no real rules need apply.

Though I liked the excitement of the Ja La and Quiddict games, I really didn't see a point to them in the novels. Something else could have substituted for the high adrenaline content.

Enders battle room, though, was the plot of the novel. I thought it very well written. My disappointment with the novel wasn't about the quality of the games, or lack of reality; but with the simplistic, tidy ending to the war itself. I was so disappointed I didn't pick up another novel.

So, I'm on the fense about whether fictional games help or hurt a novel.

Good analysis Adam. Really enjoyed it.


Joshua McCune said...

Adam, everyone dies, except for that Voldemort guy :) -- just kidding, or not.

As you hinted at, despite escape mechanisms, when the writing is so fun, we can usually forgive authors their flaws.

Chris said...

Yeah I too thought about the flaws with Quidditch and the over reliance on the Snitch. In a way it seems it is almost like a different and side game and a 'betrayal' of the main game - that can make the efforts of the majority of the players of the main game redundant and them meaningless.

However I think 2 points about this:

1. Harry Potter (as our hero) is an exceedingly good Seeker and at catching the Snitch and therefore ending games, and therefore making the rest of the players redundant. OK sometimes he catches it just before Malfoy would have so it would have been caught quickly by either player anyway, but there is evidence in the book to suggest that when Harry doesn't play that many games do take longer and therefore the scores of the others players do count and sometimes more so than the 150 points the Snitch catch represents. In one of the books Rowling says how long some games take, and yes also the Krum game, which was a huge error by the Bulgarian. So there is evidence to suggest Quidditch is indeed more balanced between the goals and the Snitch, but not when our hero is about!
2. At Hogwarts the House Championship is decided by points won not games won. So every single goal counts in gaining an advantage over the season. Indeed a side could decide to not end a game and catch the Snitch at a specific moment in the final game of the year if they needed to get say 220 points to win the Quidditch Cup. They would need to ensure they had a 70 goal advantage before catching the Snitch... not easy if the opponent wants to catch it ASAP... however the opponent might well need to ensure a 80 point advantage themselves to win the Cup , so in this scenario both Seekers would lay off the Snitch as the battle raged below them....

When I think about 1 and 2 I feel Quidditch is less flawed and reliant on the Seeker......!