Early in life we are taught to be kind, generous, and unselfish. In short, one of our first lessons in life is to be nice.
In my experience – both personal and with the kids I’ve met – there comes a point in our tweens when we start to question those early lessons. Kids start to explore new ideas and think on their own, and often their revolutionary discovery is that nice people don’t always win. At that age we start to notice that the world isn’t fair and not everyone follows the rules. We grow up thinking that doing the right thing will be rewarded, but, of course, things don’t always work out that way.
Our heroes are supposed to achieve what they want. The villains deserve nothing but their rightful comeuppance. In the real world, however, good people can get cheated, and the bad guys sometimes seem invulnerable to justice.
You can’t blame kids when they develop such cynicism. If there’s no guarantee people will be good to us, why depend on anyone else but ourselves? It can be tough to convince ourselves again that trust, cooperation, and sharing are worth it. It’s tough for young people and it’s tough for adults, too. It means making ourselves vulnerable for uncertain rewards.
The Impact of Video Games
Video games doesn’t always help either. In games, movies, and TV we tend to focus on the tough individualism of our heroes. Individualism makes for great drama, but surviving without trust or dependence is not the most accurate portrayal of how ordinary people succeed. In real life, how well we work with others is the deciding factor in achievement and heroism more often than not.
There are some games out there that teach us the importance of cooperation by resembling reality more closely. They challenge our individualist tropes and teach players about the dynamics and economics of trust and cooperation. These games are not necessarily sweet and cuddly either.
Multiplayer games that can have open player-versus-player rules such as Minecraft, ArcheAge, and ARK: Survival Evolved (to name a few) create situations where trust and cooperation are not guaranteed but are necessary to survival. Being repeatedly defeated by other players is a distinct possibility. Betrayal and double crossing is a definite threat. Going through this with strangers can be tough, but it also closely mimics real life.
We rarely have the benefit of only working with family or close friends. We need strangers to get through life and thrive. Some strangers will become our greatest friends and others will be horrible to us. It takes bravery to take a chance on someone, but the rewards are well worth it.
You wouldn’t assume that games that specifically have no rules regarding a player’s aggression are an arena to learn trust, but placing hostility or trust in the hands of the players are exactly what makes these games ideal for the lesson.
In an open PvP game, players initially have an instinct to kill rather than risk being killed. On an open PvP server in Minecraft, for example, gameplay can be frustrating at first. With everyone at each other’s throats, players struggle to establish a cave to live in, much less an elaborate castle. This state of mutually assured destruction makes gameplay slow and tedious. At some point, however, someone takes a chance and trusts. It may start off with only a couple of players. The advantage of many over the one, however, quickly becomes apparent.
In many games there are challenges that are too large for even one guild to tackle. The darkest caverns of ARK or the giant krakens of ArcheAge may be too daunting for a single group. Alliances are forged. Trust – even if it is fleeting – is invested for the sake of a common goal.
I can assure you that the open-ended games make for some of the best stories and lasting impressions, as well. I still remember the various team-ups and capers my friends and I would get up to over a decade ago on Neverwinter Nights servers. We would watch each other’s backs, help people just starting out, and mete out justice as best we could.
ArcheAge was another game I played where cooperation was required and chances had to be taken. On the open seas anyone could attack anyone else – even within the same faction. You were safer if you travelled together with someone. As a group you could fend off the pirates and bandits along the trade routes. You could invite strangers to travel with you; however, you always had to wonder if you had just invited a thief into your own company. There were folks we helped across the sea who joined our guild or became reliable allies. There were a couple who gained notoriety for stabbing us in the back.
A Little Economics
John Forbes Nash, notable for his 1994 Nobel Prize in economics and his film autobiography A Beautiful Mind, described a concept known as The Nash Equilibrium. The concept illustrates that, given that Player 1 knows what Player 2’s likely strategy is, Player 1 will not change their strategy.
It happens all the time in our daily lives. While driving we feel comfortable changing lanes because we assume the person behind the spot we’re moving to won’t speed up. We know their strategy so we don’t change ours. If they do speed up or otherwise act reckless on the road, we no longer have the equilibrium we expected and start to re-evaluate our strategy.
Game theory often uses matrices to help us look at how we make choices. In simple terms, when a player encounters another player they have the option to attack or stay peaceful. Disregarding that friends and family likely trust each other, everyone on an open PvP server starts off not knowing how anyone else will act.
To Player 1 assessing their options, without knowing how Player 2 would likely act, it makes the most sense to attack. At best Player 1 would get the drop on someone and most likely keep their own inventory. At worst Player 1 has a fighting chance if both Players 1 and 2 attack each other.
Likewise, for Player 2, not knowing the likely choice for Player 1 means attacking is the best option.
Overall, however, this isn’t the absolute best outcome for either player, so how do we get to the optimal outcome? The answer is trust. How we get there is where the real lesson comes in. Someone has to be willing to take a chance and trust.
A code of ethics is a good starting place. If Player 1 has resolved to never attack anyone, they will lose a few times, but they will become known as a trustworthy person. Suddenly the chance for someone to react peacefully to them becomes much higher. Knowing that Player 1 is trustworthy, Player 2’s best choice is always to be peaceful. Our equilibrium point has changed, and the good guys who cooperate and keep their word have ultimately won.
It’s a great lesson that those who mistrust and are known to be distrustful are doomed to scrape by at the Minecraft Creeper’s mercy. The players who refuse to give peace a chance become pariahs and are at a disadvantage because they are distrusted by everyone.
Sometimes what we need to restore our faith in others is seeing that those who take a chance on cooperation end up with the nice castle and share it with their friends.