Question: Can playing simple games like Rock Paper Scissors teach us how to be better leaders, help us build effective, equitable organizations, and pave the way to a more harmonious world?
Answer: Yes! Undoubtedly!
If you want to know how, and why I would make such a ridiculous-sounding assertion, then I invite you to come with me on a journey into a dark and mysterious world of theoretical applied improv. The journey will be long and arduous (four blog posts), but for those who stick with me, there is treasure in store.
The starting point in this adventure is the Prisoner’s Dilemma–perhaps the best-known finding from Game Theory: a branch of math that studies how people or animals compete. Simply put, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a formal description of a kind of situation we often face in life, in which cooperation between two parties comes with both risks and benefits, but where failing to cooperate is both safe and predictable.
People have studies Prisoner’s Dilemma very extensively. There have been research papers about it, world-spanning experiments, online tournaments between competing software programs, and dozens of books on the subject. Not satisfied by all this, I wanted to see what happened when I turned Prisoner’s Dilemma into an improv game and took it to Behavior Lab.
To this end, I created a game called Dilemma Party–a little like Rock Paper Scissors but with two options per player instead of the traditional three. Here’s a slide I used at the ASTD conference in Orlando recently (more on that in later posts), that shows how to play, and how the scoring works.
As you can see, players have the option of thumbing their nose at their opponent or offering them an invisible gift. Offering a gift presents the best opportunity for mutual gain but comes with a risk. If the other player thumbs their nose at you, you get nothing and your opponent walks away with a nice stack of points. Thumbing your nose means that you always win something, regardless of what the other player does–it’s a safer bet but not a particularly friendly one.
Players of the game interact for an unspecified period of time, trying to rack up as many points as they can. They’re milling in a large group and can swap partners any time they like, or stay with their current partner if they prefer. What do you suppose happens if you put fifty random people in a room together and get them to play? Any guesses on what strategies they pick?
The answer is that it depends on the group. Put members of the general public together and the group norms to almost universally thumbing noses after a short time, with a few individuals doggedly giving gifts regardless of the losses they incur. However, put a room full of professional trainers together and the group norms to universal gift giving almost as fast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pairs of players who settle on gift-giving tend to stay together. Pairs where one or more players thumb noses don’t stay together very long.
For the most part, people who aren’t already familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma do a very natural thing when reasoning about scores. They realize that by nose-thumbing, they can’t lose, so they keep doing it, even though they miss out on the chance to make more points by building stable relationships. No big surprises there.
Where the game gets interesting is when you look at how the rich, multi-layered nature of human interaction interferes with our stable assumptions about how the game should work. For instance, in one group, players repeatedly thumbed their opponents but then shared high-fives after each interaction. What this suggests is that the players knew they were making cautious, uncooperative choices, but still wanted to check in with each other to show that they were really friendly people at heart. Thumbing their noses felt awkward and antisocial but they didn’t want to change tactics and consequently lose! Giving high-fives was a way of subverting the game, and showing their opponents that they weren’t really in competition.
Also, those people who’ve spent a lot of time in a training, group therapy, or social workshop setting tend to repeatedly offer gifts, regardless of the consequences. I suspect that this has more to do with how those people are mentally parsing the game, rather than suggesting that they have fundamentally different personalities. These are people who’ve played similar games before and aware of the implications of cooperation. That makes them behave differently because perceiving themselves as cooperative affords them more validation than the points offered by the game. They’d rather feel positive and socially useful than win, even if that feeling comes with a very light dose of martyrdom.
Underpinning both of these reactions is the fascinating interplay between the choices made consciously in the game, and the very similar game of token exchange that the players are playing underneath. Because we load the game into the conscious awareness of the players, the acquisition of points can’t help but be held as an extrinsic goal. And because there aren’t cash prizes on offer, that goal comes with low priority. This means that the intrinsic motivations of the players guide their strategies. Thus, while we’re unlikely to get unbiased information about Prisoner’s Dilemma itself from the game, it shines a fascinating light on our motivations.
Interesting, I think, but not a recipe for social harmony just yet. There’s more we can do with these games. Much more. And for that, you’ll have to read my Adventures in Game Theory Part Two.
NOTE: This blog entry first appeared in my improv blog: Thinking Improv