Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Game of Trust

I think I might have it! At first I thought I should make the Fifth World a game of awareness, and then I thought that it should follow a game of movement, but now I think it should follow a game of trust.

Despairing over how the lack of a core mechanic has kept me from going anywhere with the Fifth World, over lunch today I started to go over again with my wife what we really needed to accomplish with such a dynamic, and I began relating Ingold's take on domestication (1994). The usual gameplay mechanics of overcoming a challenge reflect the "domination" mindset Ingold identified at the heart of domestication. Any mechanic that comes down to counting successes means that you must succeed by domination, by overcoming challenges by force. Even if the game fiction maintains the typical beliefs of, say, a Cree hunter that deer offer themselves and that no violence occurs in the act of hunting, the fact that the hunter took the deer by gaining more successes than the deer says otherwise. It pats our fictional animist on the head condescendingly, while affirming that whatever he might believe, we know how it really happens. That doesn't relate us to an animist lifeworld, that just reinforces our cultural chauvanism.

But Ingold introduces much more nuance than the contrast of "domination vs. trust" might seem to infer. It does not simply demarcate "trust good, domination bad." Trust brings with it a nerve-wracking dependence. The hunter must trust that the deer will offer himself. To trust means making yourself vulnerable, and the fear and trepidation that comes with that. The Other might not reciprocate your trust; they may take advantage of you, or leave you helpless. The game mechanic should follow the challenges that appear in that life: the challenge of approaching the Other, each track drawing you closer, the building tension, and then, finally, the revelation.

As I described it, the moment of revelation hit me. We have a game just like that. Ready-made to become a resolution mechanic. Quick, easy. Other games have already used it. The prisoner's dilemma.

Two suspects, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. So this dilemma poses the question: How should the prisoners act?

We would want to skew this a bit. Take the example of hunting. Both hunter and prey must trust each other; the hunter must trust that the deer will offer himself, and the deer must trust that the hunter will make proper use of that gift, offering the correct rituals in thanks, sharing with all members of his community, and so on. If the hunter betrays that trust but the deer does not, he can take the deer and keep the meat for himself, or not share it out equally, or not give the proper thanks. If the hunter trusts but the deer does not, the deer lives and the hunter goes hungry. And if neither trusts, then the encounter never really happens at all.

When we had the gambling mechanic, some people said it needed some resolution behind it. What if characters bid to try to turn the other person to trust? You still don't know if they trusted themselves, or if they just want to screw you over. But you could bid your beads, or begin burning through your relationships, to compel that trust when you really need to (think of the energy invested in tracking, to gain greater empathy; or, if you need that moment of mutual trust to convince someone of your argument, the energy you put into persuasion or consensus-building). Then, once all bets come in, you have the dramatic moment of the reveal, when you find out who trusted, who betrayed, and who screwed over who.

At first, as in the Prisoner's Dilemma, this encourages betrayal. But you don't play once; as a resolution mechanic, the game requires an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, where other players punish betrayers. The same play pattern emerges: you learn (usually the hard way) that you won't get anywhere without trusting each other.

Other games have used this to great effect; Diamant and its English cousin, Inca Gold, rely on the prisoner's dilemma. I got to play Inca Gold earlier this month, and it made for a rollicking good time.

I don't know if this mechanic entirely works just yet, but I have a good feeling about it--something I haven't had for quite some time now. What do you all think? Does it sound like something worth pursuing?

  • Ingold, T. (1994). From trust to domination: an alternative history of human-animal relations. In Animals and human society: changing perspectives, eds. A Manning and J Serpell. London: Routledge, pp 1-22.


Jason Godesky said...

Here I have a play example I posted to and Story Games:

For now, let's say we use coins. I'll probably come up with something more evocative later, but let's stick with that for the moment. You have beads in your relationships, you have a pool of free beads, and you have a coin. You want to go hunting, since that seems like the archetypal challenge for a game like this. You pick a place to go hunting, and the player playing that place tells you if any animals reveal their tracks to you here. Let's say a deer reveals her track there. You now face a resolution. The genius loci flips a coin and covers it without looking. You hide your coin under your hand, heads-up to indicate "Trust," meaning you agree to share the deer meat with your whole community, and offer the proper rites of thanksgiving for the deer. If the deer also chose trust, your village will have venison for dinner tonight; if not, you'll go home with nothing.

The deer has ten beads; you only have seven in your bowl, but then you also have six beads in your relationship with deer. "Okay," you say, "I follow the tracks and start to get a feel for the deer's health, weight, and age. Three beads in to gain the deer's trust."

But then the genius loci matches your bet, and raises you two beads; does that mean the deer chose "trust"? Or does he just want to compel you to trust, to screw you over? Have you offended Deer before? Might he want to punish you now?

No matter, you need to press on. You see the two beads, and raise him two more. "I keep on tracking, and find where she slept last night. Still a little warm; she must have slept late. Does she feel alright, or has she taken ill?"

The genius loci matches you again, and raises you two more! "I won't burn beads from my relationship with deer," you say. "You win." You raise your hand. "I chose 'trust' anyway. You?"

The genius loci raises his hand. "Trust!" he calls out. "You enter the clearing, and there she stands. She sees you, and stands silent and still. You draw back your bow, and shoot. She falls to the ground. You offer the appropriate thanksgiving, and prepare to take her back to the village."

Because you had an encounter with the deer (you both chose trust), you gain a bead to your relationship with Deer.

WorldWithoutToil said...

Sweet! So, if I'm understanding correctly, you decide in the beginning if you trust or not. Then you bid. If you both trust, the bidding doesn't really matter. If one of you distrusts, you automatically beat the one that trusted. If both of you distrust, then it comes down to the bidding. is this right?

Jason Godesky said...

Well, no, not quite. If you both refuse to trust, no one made themselves vulnerable, so no encounter really takes place. The bidding does something separate. You could not bid anything at all, if you want. You bid to try to turn the other person to trust. If they already trusted, though, then your bid just means you wasted beads trying to get a result you already had.

WorldWithoutToil said...

OK, I had a big response to this that seems to have been lost. Basically, though, I think that both distrusting shouldn't negate an encounter. For instance, a modern deer hunter certainly doesn't trust the deer, does little to gain the trust of the deer, and by now all the deer are wary. Nevertheless, they still have encounters.

I think the system should be designed so that you can win through mutual trust, or you can win through domination, but the path of domination costs more and burns relationships. So you choose at the beginning of the conflict if you are choosing the path of trusting or the path of distrust. Reveal trust or distrust before the bidding. If you both trust, then bidding would represent building consensus or perhaps wouldn't be required at all. If one of you distrusts and the other trusts, then the bidding represents the trusting one trying to gain the trust of the other. The distrustful one starts out ahead of the truster, so gaining their trust will be expensive in resources and really, the other person has to be open to it because they could easily outspend you if they wanted. If both distrust, then the bid is a battle of domination. Now, if a truster wins, then a relationship point is gained. If a distruster wins, then one is lost.

Chooseing to trust or distrust is therefore a strategy choice, and the nature of the contest (or, really, if it is a contest) being changed based on both players decisions.

Jason Godesky said...

World, I agree with much of what you have to say here, but I think we part ways in that you seem to come from the conception of the encounter you and I grew up with, while I've used the understandings I've read from native sources. Let's look a little closer at the example of the modern hunter you've noted. Yes, obviously, your average, modern hunter has chosen mistrust. He won't perform any rituals of thanksgiving; he'll not only not avoid offense, but will often actively brag about his kill in the most vulgar ways--photos over the dead body, mounting the head, and all the other practices of modern hunting that make it so despicable. He won't share the food out equally with his whole community (unless you define community as narrowly as his immediate family, and even then, perhaps not). He breaks every request the deer makes. But the deer has chosen to trust. Yes, no doubt, many modern deer have become quite wary of these vulgar, would-be "hunters." But they chose to reveal themselves to the hunter; that marks the act of trust. In the native understanding, no hunter ever just happens upon a deer, the way we think of it; these encounters do not occur by luck, or even by a hunter's skill. They occur because the animal allows it to occur. They choose to reveal themselves to you. That marks the moment at which the deer chooses to trust or not: whether he allows you to see him in the first place. If a hunter sees a deer, the deer has trusted him, he has revealed himself to him. If the deer chooses not to trust, the hunter wanders through the woods, hoping to find something, and finds nothing. Random encounter does not enter into it.

Now I agree, you should have clear options of mutual trust or domination. Domination must have its allure. But I think your proposal pushes us too far into the direction of a simple "trust good, domination bad" mentality. Living in a world of relationships, trust brings with it vulnerability. What I like about the Prisoner's Dilemma lies in the fact that it captures the uncertainty and tension of living in a world of relationship and trust: namely, will the Other reciprocate? If you have to trust the deer to reveal itself to you, then you have to worry, what if he doesn't? Your family will go hungry. Your life depends on their trust, something entirely outside of your control. Therein lies the temptation to dominate--to simply take what you need, and not worry about their cooperation. How does a hunter hunt with domination? By taking advantage of the deer's offering. The deer still has to reveal himself. In domestication, you begin a lifelong pattern of domination as you betray that fundamental trust.

The option to trust also means making yourself vulnerable. The option to mistrust also means keeping yourself safe. So if you choose trust, you might win the optimal solution if the Other also trusts, or you might suffer the worst possible outcome if the Other takes advantage of you. If you mistrust, you keep your possibilities confined, because if the Other trusts you, you can strike mercilessly and take what you want, and if they mistrust you, then you both stand off from each other, keeping safe and out of sight. Neither of you will likely ever even know that the encounter took place. What happens when deer don't trust the modern hunter? The modern hunter doesn't find any deer. In the Allegheny National Forest, we have a whopping 10 deer per square mile, yet it would amaze you how often hunters will go out there for a full day and find not one deer. I, on the other hand, will regularly see a whole family of white-tails walk past. It really makes me think the Crow got it right.

WorldWithoutToil said...

OK, here's a related model I've been thinking of. Instead of having an explicit trust/don't trust step, we could have a "pre-game negotiation", much like diplomacy (another game of trust.)

So our native goes to hunt. He communes with deer, either explicitly or through his attitude. He says "I need to feed my family." The deer responds " if you care for my family after I am gone, I will fe3ed yours" The player says to the GL "I am going to commit 3 beads to this task", to which the GL responds "The deer chooses to commit none, trusting you to keep your bargain". Basically, each side declares their intentions.

Now we dot he actual commit, and each player reveals what they put in. If both players told the truth, the result they agreed apon beforehand shold be there. If one or both players lied, however, then they didn't trust each other. Lose a relationship point, but potentially win the contest because you fooled the other guy.

Now our civilized hunter, not knowing how to commune like this, merely proceeds directly to the resolution without any negotiation. Implicitly, he has no trust.

Jason Godesky said...

I see a few problems with that system. First, what do the beads have to do with anything? The hunter committed beads, but why? For what? The deer didn't. They don't seem to affect the outcome at all. In terms of game design, the whole thing runs on player fiat. One of the best parts about using coins in a prisoner's dilemma: you can generate a random response. You don't need to always rely on fiat. This system eliminates that possibility. Basically, it falls victim to the common criticism of story games of failing to actually form a game, and instead simply "passing the talking stick."

The second problem I see--this seems to describe quite nicely the way that someone living in a domesticated society with ambitions of leaving it behind would see the situation. I mean that it keeps some deep-rooted assumptions of domesticated culture about human agency. So, for instance, the modern hunter can simply go out and find deer. While most of us think in such terms, the origin of that pattern lies in our assumptions of how humans relate to the world around us. The first few generations might think like that, but after 400 years, participating in the world as hunter-gatherers shows a different viewpoint, one more similar to, say, the Cree today: the modern hunter does not simply go and find deer on his own power; rather, deer reveal themselves to the modern hunter as a gesture of trust, but the hunter violates that trust by taking them by violence. I think the system needs to reflect more an animist viewpoint, rather than a civilized projection of an animist viewpoint, as much as possible. Some will seep in, without a doubt, simply because none of us come from a continuous animist tradition, but where we can identify that influence, we need to eliminate it, not cultivate it.

JimFive said...

I haven't thought a lot about the mechanic, but what occurred to me was the idea of using a die instead of a coin to represent a level of trust.
For the hunting example, something like:
You have a 6 bead relationship with deer. (This will perhaps represent a range of +/- 1)

At the beginning of the encounter with deer you place a d6 under your hand with 1 indicating little trust and 6 indicating fully trusting. When negotiating with the GL you can indicate your trust level (either honestly or dishonestly): You might say "Deer I trust you implicitly and honor your spirit" while spending 2 beads to gain the deer's trust. The goal would be to have the same trust number within the range established by the relationship beads. If the deer trusts, but the hunter does not, then the deer gets killed but the hunter loses relationship beads with the deer (He has offended Deer). If the hunter trusts but the Deer does not then the hunter does not get the deer. If both trust then the hunter gets the deer without offense and (perhaps) gains a relationship bead. IF both do not trust, then the deer is not killed and the hunter loses a relationship bead. If a lie is told during the negotiation then a relationship bead is lost. (So if the resolution was Trust-Trust, but a lie was told the hunter would not gain a relationship bead.)

In encounters between players, if the player wants mutual trust he would buy his trust number to what he thinks his partner's number is.

Beads gained and lost and other details of the mechanic (The range, etc) would need to be adjusted for gameplay.

Jason Godesky said...

So what does the die add that you don't get from a binary choice? It seems more complex, but complexity presents a price to pay for a good mechanic, not a goal to pursue.