World-Building and the Problem With Quidditch

On Friday, I talked about making up fictional games for your world: take a real-world game and alter it slightly: to suit your world, to make it unique, and (if you're like me) to make an actual game that might be fun to play.

Today we're looking at an example: Harry Potter's Quidditch.

Quidditch is essentially basketball on broomsticks -- with six goals instead of two, extra balls that hurt/distract the players, and the snitch to determine the end of the game. It's a good concept and it totally suits the world. And it's a testament to the books that even though this central game is fundamentally unbalanced, hardly anybody seems to notice.

But yes, it's unbalanced.

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.

Unless one team is down by more than 15 goals, right? Then they wouldn't want to get the snitch. There's tension!

Well, yeah, but when does that ever happen? Have you seen a professional soccer game go 16-0? An NFL game with a 112-point gap? Even in the NBA, all-time comeback records don't go much higher than a 16 goal gap. The best strategy to win Quidditch would be to make everyone a keeper until the snitch shows up. Nobody would do that (because it's boring), but any team that did would always win.*

So why does Quidditch work? For the following reasons:
  • The protagonist is the seeker. Can you imagine if Harry was the one making meaningless goals, while some minor character caught the snitch and won the game?
  • Quidditch wins and losses are not plot critical. If Harry had to win a Quidditch game to save his life, I would be a lot more mad at his team for not being smarter about gaming the system.
  • Something else is almost always going on -- like someone's trying to kill Harry or something, so we're invested in something other than the match.
These are good things to keep in mind if you're making your own fictional game. The more the plot focuses on the game, the more that game has to hold up under scrutiny.

And don't bother playing Quidditch in real life. It's not as interesting as it looks (unless you change the rules, of course).

* Though in the books, Quidditch teams are ranked by points scored, not games won. This fixes the brokenness for a tournament, but it makes individual games less interesting, and makes it almost impossible to have a true championship game.


Steve MC said...

Never thought it through like that, but she did set it up to be properly dramatic for Harry.

Maybe she didn't figure in the point system 'cause of the conditions she invented it under:

I had a blazing row with an ex-boyfriend. I had been writing Harry Potter books about a year, and I had decided that one of the unifying characteristics of any given society is sport, you know. And then we had this blazing row. I don't know whether it was cause and effect. I doubt it. But I actually walked out of the flat and I booked into a hotel for a night and rather than sit there and mope about this row, I sat there and invented Quidditch.

Matthew MacNish said...

Plus (I can't remember if this is movie only, or also in the books) at the World Cup match between Bulgaria and Ireland, doesn't Krum decide to catch the snitch even though they are going to lose when he does because they are down 180 or something like that?

I may not be remembering it correctly, but if I am, that always bothered me.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

There are points in Quidditch?

(Ok, I'm not entirely that lame. But really, really close.)

What about TV shows like American Idol? Do you consider those a "game" or more of an individual sport?

Authoress said...

This has ALWAYS BOTHERED ME about Quidditch. I have decided that you are my long-lost brother.

Jennifer said...

Not something I even gave thought to. Apparently the rest of the story did as it should. Plus, I am totally not a sports geek. :)

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I am one of those bad readers who skimmed over the whole quidditch match. All JK's work and I barely paid attention. (If you meet her, don't nark me out!)

Deniz Bevan said...

Hmm, I can't say it's bothered me that much, but I think it's because of what you've said - Rowling does a great job of always having other things going on/other stakes while the games are on. And it's easy to cancel Quidditch when it's not needed - like in the fourth book.
I hadn't heard that story of how she invented it!

linda said...

Yeah, it's basically designed to make Harry the most important person on his team. And so he can have an intense direct rivalry with Dravo.

I don't usually read HP fanfic, but I did read one called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality wherein Harry is the son of a biochemist professor and is very smart and scientific. He gets sorted into Ravenclaw, tries to figure out the laws of magic, thinks of Gryffindors as dumb jocks whose first instinct is always "let's go beat someone up" instead of actually thinking about the problem, and considers Quidditch a ridiculous game. He even suggests reforming the rules and not having the results count toward the House points, haha. I thought the entire thing was brilliant.

Angela Brown said...

I fall into that third category. I was completely unconcerned with the game of Quidditch because I was waiting to see what could possibly go wrong for Harry or see what spec-tac-fan-tabulous way he'd win the game.

Jack said...

I noticed that when I read the books. None of it made a lot of sense but who cared because Harry was about to be killed.
Good to keep in mind though. I don't know if I will ever invent a game, but if I do, I will have to remember all this.


Kristen Wixted said...

I tend to glaze through the Quidditch parts because they were a little slow and yes, the scoring is not designed with logic (or sports) in mind. Bill Belichek would make everyone a seeker.