Games People Play

by Douglas_Knight1 min read20th Nov 20108 comments


Personal Blog

Game theory is great if you know what game you're playing. All this talk of Diplomacy reminds me of this memory of Adam Cadre:

I remember that in my ninth grade history class, the teacher had us play a game that was supposed to demonstrate how shifting alliances work. He divided the class into seven groups — dubbed Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria and Russia — and, every few minutes, declared a "battle" between two of the countries. Then there was a negotiation period, during which we all were supposed to walk around the room making deals. Whichever warring country collected the most allies would win the battle and a certain number of points to divvy up with its allies. The idea, I think, was that countries in a battle would try to win over the wavering countries by promising them extra points to jump aboard.

That's not how it worked in practice. Three or four guys — the same ones who had gotten themselves elected to ASB, the student government — decided among themselves during the first negotiation period what the outcome would be, and told people whom to vote for. And the others just shrugged and did as they were told. The ASB guys had decided that Germany would win, followed by France, Britain, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Russia. The first battle was France vs. Russia. Germany and Britain both signed up on the French side. Austria and Italy, realizing that if they just went along with the ASB plan they'd come in 5th and 6th, joined up with Russia. That left it up to Belgium. I was on team Belgium. I voted to give our vote to the Russian side, because that way at least we weren't doomed to come in 4th. And no one else on my team went along. They meekly gave their points to the French side. (As I recall, Josh Lorton was particularly adamant about this. I guess he thought it would make the ASB guys like him.) After that, there was no contest. Britain vs. Austria? 6-1, Britain. Germany vs. Belgium? 6-1, Germany. (And we could have beaten them if we'd just formed a bloc with the other three losers!) The teacher noticed that Germany and France were always on the same side and declared Germany vs. France. Outcome: 6-1, Germany.

The ASB guys were able to just impose their will on a class of 40 students. No carrots, no sticks, just "here's what will happen" and everyone else nodding. I have no idea how that works. I do recall that because they were in student government, for fourth period they had to take a class called Leadership. From what I could tell they just spent the class playing volleyball out in the quad. But I guess they were learning something!

What happened? Why did Italy and Russia fall into line and abandon Austria in the second battle?

This utterly failed to demonstrate the "shifting alliances" that Adam thought the teacher wanted. Does this happen every year?

Yes, the students were coerced into "playing" this game, but elsewhere he describes the same thing happen in games that people choose to play. Moreover, he tells the first story to illustrate his perception of politics.


8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:23 PM
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[-][anonymous]10y 9

Could this be just a case of apathy among all students other than the ASB guys? The teacher failed to make this an issue that the students cared about?

Also, since it was pre-determined which order the countries would be placed in, there was no shame in being the lowest ranked team. The team Russia can tell themselves they were just going along with the group decision, it's not like they tried, yet failed.

To both your points: no, this is not just apathy. The bottom three teams did try to put up a fight in the first round.

To your first point, the second link gives examples of this in games people choose to play on their own.

To your second point, why did they give up in the second round, rather than form a block of losers? In particular, Austria supported Russia in the first round, so why didn't Russia support Austria in the second?

why did they give up in the second round

Because once they saw that everyone else was following the lead of the ASB guys, they didn't want to force the issue (social confrontation) because they didn't care enough about the game?

I think this is exactly the point of the post.

Game theory is great if you know what game you're playing.

The teacher set up some fun, interesting and rational game-theory world. The students played some insane social status game, with completely different rules and payoffs.

I would put it this way: The students were playing a social status game combined with an academic success game. The teacher started a sub game of both of these games but failed to provide academic incentives for it, resulting in incentive to win the social game, so that's what they played and quite well I might add since it was zero sum and they resolved it quickly without any negative consequences from conflict. Would that all conflicts over fixed resources get resolved so cleanly!

Why "insane"?

Probably the wrong word. I don't understand this kind of behavior and am often frustrated by it, but it probably makes sense in certain contexts.

Here's my attempt to explain the other examples the author sited, from Diplomacy and KDice (not that I've ever seen KDice).

The Diplomacy action I've seen before, and the real reason for that action (letting the guy who attacked him get his centers) has several causes I've seen. The most common is "I can't win and the sooner I'm eliminated the sooner I can go do something else." Very rational. The next most common is: "If the guy who beat me wins, I feel that's a better result than losing to a guy who didn't win." A third possibility is he wanted to punish those he feels should have come to his aid and did not, which is often far worse than attacking a rival. And yes, fourth is to do the only thing he could do at that point, since he didn't care about anything else. I've seen many players do such things without any prompting from the attacker, including when the attacker was me.

Italy letting Germany write his orders for him is something you see a lot when someone is tactically superior to the other player. Usually in a long term alliance there is talk about goals but the actual orders are being run by one player, and that's as it should be if you have to coordinate. Some games allow the leader to physically make sure the follower is handing in the orders he wrote, and that's awful, but a lot of players don't think ahead to what will happen when they don't want to follow their dear leader anymore. It's also possible that Italy was willing to accept second place, which is a fine result for many people especially as Italy.

On the KDice situation, the game is rather poor as a game. It's not good enough at being Diplomacy to be a good Diplomacy and it's not strategically interesting in any other way except in the very beginning. With the social conventions that evolved it's even worse, and the people who continue to play are the ones who like it anyway for whatever reason. I don't think letting the winner be judge is a bad rule, especially if it's known in advance, and in fact I think that the need to fall in line and win favor from whoever is going to win, once the winner is known, makes the game better rather than worse.