Fascinating stuff

The latest issue of SIMULATION & GAMING has an interesting article by Zagal, Rick, and Hsi: Collaborative games: Lessons learned from board games.
It seeks to explore collaborative games, focusing on board games in order to extract principles which can be used by video game designers.

The article makes interesting points, and a few debatable ones (here I’ll just quibble about theory, without adressing the content).
The article starts of by delivering the “good news” that the number of single-player games will probably soon decrease. A rather odd normative statement.

What caught my eye, however, is the use of game theory to classify games. The authors distinguish between competitive, cooperative, and collaborative games. This is non-traditional – in standard game theory parlance “collaborative” doesn’t mean anything not covered by “cooperative”.

Then there’s the curious statement that

In traditional game theory, games fall into two basic categories: competitive or cooperative. Competitive games require players to form strategies that directly oppose the other players in the game. The goals of the players are diametrically opposed.

followed by

Cooperative games include enforceable rules for negotiating or bargaining that allow players to identify a desirable outcome for the parties involved.

It seems to me that the authors mix up some basic distinctions in game theory. Game theory exists in two variants: Cooperative game theory and non-cooperative game theory. The former deals with games in which the players can make enforceable agreements (and the latter deals with the rest). Non-cooperative game theory is by far the largest subfield. But what the authors are talking about in the former quote is more generally known as zero-sum games and non-zero-sum games. And both are the domain of non-cooperative game theory (thus a non-cooperative zero-sum game certainly does not “include enforceable rules”). An unfortunate mistake, to say the least.

Anyway, the “collaborative game” category includes games in which players share the exact same goal:

…collaborative players have only one goal and share the rewards or penalties of their decisions.

This category probably makes good analytical sense. I don’t use it myself in my dissertation, because I think it downplays the interesting features of coordination games, but I can see its value.

Nitpicking somewhat, however, I would probably not have written that:

The challenge for players in a collaborative game is working together to maximize the team’s utility.

Because that is not actual game theory logic. In “proper” game theory, individuals seek to maximize their own utility – and given certain setups that just happens to coincide with the collective interest (players are not trying to maximize the team’s utility).

The authors engage in an interesting analysis of the board game Lord of the Rings claiming that it is a collaborative game. In this context, the statement

“LORD OF THE RINGS is an effective collaborative game because players are tempted to behave competitively but winning the game requires them to behave collaboratively”

is puzzling. What, here, is the temptation to act competitively? I thought collaboration games had none. The authors clarify:

“In LORD OF THE RINGS, there are many opportunities for selfish behavior at the expense of the team. Usually, selfishness is expressed in a player making a decision that has high utility for their hobbit but is not the best decision for the team. For example, a hobbit might choose to draw two cards to replenish resources or “heal” himself, moving further away from Sauron. A better decision might be to play the last card in the hand and take the consequences of an evil die roll. Competent play requires that players choose strategies that balance or forgo self-preservation to help the team.”

But that means that the categories fall apart – LOTR is then, NOT, a collaborative game but a cooperative one. In collaborative games, supposedly, there was no discrepancy between personal and collective interest; thus no temptation to be selfish.

Thus, if I’m not mistaken, the design lesson:

“Lesson 1: To highlight problems of competitiveness, a collaborative game should introduce a
tension between perceived individual utility and team utility.”

is meaningless in the authors’ own terminology? (Adding “perceived” doesn’t change anything, utility is always “perceived”).

I don’t think the authors are precise enough in their use of game theory as a tool for classification. Nevertheless, the focus is very refreshing and I will of course cite them quite a bit in my own writing.
Read the article.

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