|July 8th, 2013|
Another question from Quora. At issue was whether a game can be successful if it relies on players being honest about what they think. The example given was “what number am I thinking of?” If the player with the secret number lies, then the game can be unwinnable. So the poster wondered if there were any examples of successful games that rely on blind trust.
Original question is here. The poster has since updated it to ask “opponents” rather than “players.” Before the edit, I posted that I was unsure if I understood the question, because of course there are so many examples of games that rely in blind trust in other players:
- A player in a team sport relies on his teammates’ cognition all the time. As just one example, passes are executed with the faith that the receiver will be where he is supposed to be, as previously practiced.
- Team sports rely especially on the coach’s cognition, and there’s a good case to be made that many team games are actually coach vs coach, using the players as poorly controlled tokens. The players often cannot perceive the overall strategic situation very well
- Bridge and many other cooperative games are about building up trust in partner’s capabilities even though they do not share equal access to information.
- The classic Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game theory example of blind trust.
I could go on. Which led me to conclude that what was being asked was really about whether the opponent is trusted, and specifically as regards the feedback they give to an action in the game. In a game like this, the player makes a move (uses a verb), it feeds into the black box of rules, and the opponent is supposed to be honest about the way in which the game state is updated, and feed back to the player the results of the action.
Obviously, perfect information games render this moot; state is visible to all parties. In chess you move, the opponent can only challenge the legality of a move. The state of the board and the results of the move are obvious to all. Same with most “race” style board games, and so on.
So we’re really talking about imperfect information games. Here we see that many games have reliance on honesty. A few examples:
- Go Fish relies on an opponent being honest when they say they have or do not have a card. Even the Wikipedia article notes that “Go Fish is very much dependent on the honor system; lying about the contents of one’s hand is difficult to prevent.”
- Hangman relies on the opponent not changing up the word from among possible permutations when it looks like the player is making progress. (I remember once leading a game of Hangman when I was in second grade, and actually messing up my word and forgetting it midstream under all the pressure from the older kids. They were pretty upset with me.)
- Battleship relies on the opponent not moving their ships and accurately reporting where hits and misses have occurred. Of course, moving the ship can be tricky to pull off, but misreporting a hit is easy.
In all these cases, however, there is a moment where tokens of some sort representing state move from hidden to public information. If the player had lied, it generally becomes apparent at that moment. As these are all games of gradually revealing the hidden information, as the picture becomes clearer, the lies are also exposed. In Go Fish, if the player puts down a pair that uses a card that they disclaimed, well, they’ll get caught. So in effect, the game has a sort of enforcement mechanism in that the progress of the game is from imperfect to perfect information.
That leaves games where state is not revealed. Examples might include the number guessing game, but also games like Diplomacy, Werewolf/Mafia, and even poker.
Many of these games rely instead on a presumption of deception. You’re assumed to be lying, and in fact it is a key strategy for success. But these games are also generally based on repeated turns of the same actions. Given iterative interaction, they also eventually oblige the player to reveal game state. In other words, you can lie your way through Werewolf, but the revelation of the truth is the end of the game. You can bluff your way through poker, but only while the opponents choose to fold. At the point of an actual contest, you can’t win unless you show your winning hand.
It’s possible to “fix” the number guessing game using iterative interaction. Given enough guesses and a bounded range, the number guessing game would be cheat proof (especially if it takes the form of “hot and cold” and is therefore susceptible to a binary search). And in Diplomacy, eventually there’s a winner regardless of how much someone lied, and at the end, that person gets the cold shoulder.
Iteration, in general, is what produces trust in humans. We trust where there is repeated interaction that is successful. (See my series: On Trust (part I), On Trust, Part II, On Trust, Part III). Games typically rely on iteration, and therefore can be seen as trust-building machines, in some sense. We often think of this the other way — that entering into a game is to put ourselves into a position of mutual trust within that famous old magic circle. Within that space, even deception is codified, and we trust that it will be used only in the way the rules dictate.
Any game where there are social contracts surrounding the rules (which is to say all of them) are built on certain sorts of trust. The most basic is “we’re going to follow the rules together,” even if this is never stated (though of course there is always room for the satirical take on this, as seen in Paranoia!). In ludological terms, these sorts of social contract rules are considered as binding and real as the ones in the code or the instruction booklet. Certainly you’ll get in just as much trouble with fellow players for breaking these informal rules as you will for breaking a rule in the rulebook; yet another example of how games exist not solely in the designed construct, but drawn on the canvas of the human mind.