The Secret of Good Games
By Bryan Caplan
Next week, I’ll be in Indianapolis for GenCon, the world’s biggest gaming convention. Which reminds me of one of my pet theories: The best games are inter-disciplinary, combining economics and psychology. Games of pure strategic reasoning like chess are dry. Games of pure social interaction are a little silly. But games that bring together strategic reasoning and social interaction are a joy for heart and mind.
A few of my favorites:
1. Diplomacy. This is a classic World War I strategy game, with a twist: To get ahead, you need allies; but you don’t know who your allies are until you turn in your orders. The core of the game is talking to other players, trying to discern their intentions, and then using your knowledge of the rules to get ahead while protecting your backside.
2. Kremlin. This game brilliantly spoofs the late Soviet Union – the mechanics are designed to put a series of sick, decrepit apparatchiks into the General Secretary’s chair. Each player runs a faction (not a particular politician) vying for control of the Politburo. The twist is that everyone has a secret budget of influence over the pool of politicians, so you often wind up helping someone’s career under the false impression that they work for you.
3. Story-rich role-playing games. Many role-playing games are purely strategic – players play a group of characters killing stuff. But the RPGs that I enjoy (which include the Hero System and Pandaemonium, but what counts is the game master, not the system) are character-driven and plot-heavy – half or more of the fun is figuring out what the relevant conflict is.
The key to a good RPG is the norm of “staying in character” – it’s often bad sportsmanship to play the strategically best move because doing so would be psychologically inappropriate. For example, in a superhero game, just killing the villain might be strategically optimal, but that’s not the superhero way. A good player figures out a way to save the day while staying in character. Similarly, if you’re in a horror game, you have to wait for some evidence of danger to run away; it’s bad form to use your meta-game knowledge that you’re in a horror story.
Admittedly, I may just be describing my personal tastes. But I really do think that games that combine economics and psychology can teach us a lot about the world. Laugh if you must, but we’d be better social scientists if we practiced our role-playing skills. Consider: How many people will admit that they would practice statistical discrimination if they ran a business? But if you get in character – if you vividly imagine your position as a business owner with your life savings on the line – it’s much easier to understand why you might not want to judge everyone as an individual.
P.S. The two games I’m officially running (“Punctuated Equilibrium” and “Juche”) are booked solid, but if you want to meet up at GenCon, email me.