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Gamification: Game Design and Addiction

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I’m the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews, a site I founded in February 1998. I recently reviewed Natasha Dow Schüll’s book Addiction by Design, which makes many points relevant to my post on the ethics of gamification. The full text of my review appears below.


Title: Addiction by Design

Author: Natasha Dow Schüll

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Copyright: 2012

ISBN13: 978-0-691-12755-2

Length: 444

Price: $35.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, explored the allure of food in mass quantities in her documentary Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas. In her new book Addiction by Design from Princeton University Press, she examines how machine and game design facilitate addictive behavior.

Human Side of the Equation

Schüll begins by describing the human cost of gambling addiction by profiling several individuals, all of whom have driven themselves and their families into difficult situations because of their gambling. One woman interviewed by the author has structured her daily routine to visit a circuit of gambling establishments, including casinos and grocery stores with video poker machines. The small footprint, low operating costs, and revenue generation capacity of machines means that table games such as blackjack and craps have been squeezed into increasingly smaller spaces. Mirroring this trend, the typical problem gambler has changed from a middle-aged man who bets on sports or blackjack and waits ten years to get help to a 35 year-old woman with two kids who plays video poker and seeks help after just two years.

The financial windfall generated by problem gamblers is staggering. One study by Tracy Shrans indicated that gamblers who follow the industry’s “responsible gaming rules of conduct” (e.g, setting time and money limits, understanding the odds of the games, and not gambling when you’re lonely, angry, or depressed) generate just 4% of gambling revenue. A slew of studies, notably work published in 1998 by Lesieur (cited p. 16), estimate that problem gamblers generate between 30-60% of casino revenue. Part of gambling’s attraction is the possibility, however remote, of winning a significant amount of money, but the varied reward schedule plays a significant role as well.

Entering the Machine Zone

The effectiveness of a varied reward schedule holds true across the animal kingdom. Rats that press a lever and receive a food pellet every time will press only when they’re hungry, but rats rewarded on an irregular schedule, where they have no idea when the next food pellet will drop, will press the lever until exhausted. When the rewards come not from food but from direct stimulation of the endogenous reward system, the effects are even more pronounced. In her Great Courses video series Understanding the Brain, Jeanette Norden notes that rats with wires inserted into their brains, allowing them to stimulate their pleasure centers by pressing a lever, will forgo all other activities — including but not limited to sleeping, eating, and sex — to press the lever. She described the scene of an exhausted, filthy rat collapsed on the floor of its cage, reaching with its last bit of strength to press the lever just one more time.

According to Schüll’s analysis, the analog for humans appears to be entering the “machine zone”, where the player is engrossed in the game and their interaction with the machine. Unlike poker and other table games that provide experiences mediated by other humans and offer occasional thrills, machine gamblers are able to maintain stimulation for as long as their bankroll allows. The rhythm of their interaction with the device induces comfort and, most importantly, lets the player escape from the world for a time. Game designers have capitalized on this trend by offering multi-line video slot machines with as many as 100 payouts. The result is that most spins pay something, but the majority of spins pay less than the player wagered. Rather than a singular win or loss, these fractional payouts provide a smoother ride down as the built-in house advantage grinds away at the player’s bankroll.

Nevada is arguably the most libertarian state in the U.S., so it’s no surprise the gaming industry bases its arguments against limiting game design and player tracking on the grounds of personal responsibility. Schüll implies, but never as far as I could tell directly states that the games’ design promotes addiction. She probably couldn’t do so because of legal concerns and the inherent difficulty in proving such a statement, which is fair enough. That said, if there ever is such proof, it’s likely that the self-exclusion policies in other gambling jurisdictions such as British Columbia, Canada, and Australia would be replaced by stricter rules.


Schüll goes beyond the basic “reward schedule” addiction analysis so common in the literature and casts the role of casinos and their visitors in terms of the social theories of Weber, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault, mirroring the theoretical underpinnings of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. (Though this publication and the program have similar names, we are not affiliated.)  I thought her analysis added value to the book, but the sections didn’t feel tightly integrated with the rest of the narrative. Schüll wrote the book over several years and the book’s cohesiveness might have suffered a bit because of it. Important life events take priority, of course, and despite some small shortcomings Addiction by Design is a detailed, useful, and readable analysis of machine gambling and the players on all sides of the game.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at

My Experiences Thus Far with MOOCs

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I’m an information forager, someone who wanders among topics picking up bits and pieces of knowledge as I go. If you offer me a good way to gain information and experience, you’ll get my attention.

I’ve sort of fallen in love with the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offerings from Coursera. I’ve successfully completed seven of the courses, ranging from an easy introductory course on geospatial information and mapping to a challenging course on machine learning. I bit off substantially more than I could chew when I signed up for a natural language processing class, but at least I had the good sense to pack it in when I saw I didn’t have the skills to complete the assignments.

One of my just-completed courses was Model Thinking, by Professor Scott Page from the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute. This session was the second time the course was offered and, as it turned out, it was an exact repeat of the first session. Dr. Page and his assistants didn’t update any of the lectures (or even edit out coughs and other flubs from original recording), participate in the class’s discussion forums, tweet from the advertised Twitter account, or update the class’s Facebook page or blog. As befits a summer offering, the class ran entirely on autopilot.

We’re very early in the days of MOOC development, so there are a lot of experiments going on as professors and institutions determine how to present MOOCs and incorporate them into university curricula. One of the big problems MOOC providers have to face is the immense number of individuals who sign up for the class but never watch a single movie. In some cases, only a third of students who sign up for a MOOC watch even one lecture, and most courses have pass rates of less than 10% (7% is typical). Part of the problem is that there’s no real penalty for not finishing the course — you know you didn’t do the work, but there’s no social stigma attached to it. And besides, you can always download the movies and watch them at your leisure.

Dr. Page seemed to address this dropout issue by making the Model Thinking class very easy to pass. Grades were calculated by adding 50% of your quiz scores (dropping the lowest two) and 50% of your exam scores, with everyone who scored a total of 75% or higher receiving a certificate. But here’s the kicker: you got three attempts at each quiz and the system displayed the correct answers after you took the quiz for the first time. All students had to do was write down the answers and re-take the quiz to get a perfect score.

Like the quizzes, you got three shots at the mid-term and final, but the system didn’t display the correct answers. It did tell you where to find the information required to answer the question, but you had to figure out the answer for yourself. Even so, if you received a perfect score on the quizzes (hard not to), you only had to get half the exam questions right to pass. The only reason a mildly attentive student couldn’t pass the course would be a lack of time to take the quizzes and exams. You barely needed to watch the lecture movies.

Is this strategy a good way to improve MOOC completion rates? Yes, if that’s your only goal. I would be very interested to learn how this Model Thinking class session’s completion and engagement rates compare to those of other MOOCs, but I wonder how much material students who took the easy route retained. If there’s no significant marginal cost per technically passing but unengaged student, perhaps it’s OK if they take little or no knowledge from the course. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile experiment.

Gamification: Don’t Forget the Fun

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My previous set of posts described elements of gamification (such as meaningful choices and conflict) and how to incorporate them into business and improv. Kevin Werbach and his coauthor Dan Hunter also identify six steps to gamification (For the Win, p. 86), which I think provide an excellent framework for business and theatrical endeavors. I just examined how you can devise activity cycles for user interactions. In this post, I’ll talk about the ever-elusive concept of fun.

As a quick review, the authors’ six D’s are:

  • Define business objectives
  • Delineate target behaviors
  • Describe your players
  • Devise activity cycles
  • Don’t forget the fun!
  • Deploy the appropriate tools

What is fun? Dictionaries tell us it’s a sense of enjoyment or pleasure, which is a straightforward enough definition. When you gamify a business or personal process, such as eating healthfully or completing daily assigned tasks, you want to make the experience as enjoyable as possible.

Designing for fun isn’t easy, so my best recommendation is to look for best practices in the industry, visit as many gamified websites as you can, and scour the literature for every example you can find. Many companies have gone before you, so you should do everything possible to learn from their successes and failures. The one hint I can give is that you should acknowledge your players’ actions. Congratulate them and make them feel good about what they’ve accomplished. That step might not seem like fun, but it rewards the player’s action and helps establish that undertaking the desired activity creates a positive reaction.

Always bear in mind that you have different types of players with different goals, whether to explore the world or to specialize in an area and unlock achievements as quickly as they can. You might consider displaying different congratulatory messages for different types of players.

Like all designing, designing for fun is an iterative process. After you implement your system, monitor player activities and feedback to see what you can do differently. Buy key players coffee and ask why they like what they’re doing, how they encourage their friends and coworkers, or why they stopped playing. Every bit of information you capture will help you make your system more rewarding.

Improv and Gamification: Meaningful Choices

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I’m taking the free Coursera course on Gamification, taught by Kevin Werbach from the Wharton School of Management. The book For the Win, which Werbach coauthored with Dan Hunter, mentions four basic elements of gamification:

  • Motivation
  • Meaningful choices
  • Structure
  • Potential conflicts

The second item, meaningful choices, is a foundation of well-being and self-esteem. Everyone likes to feel that they have some control over their lives — that their choices make a difference in how events turn out. Improvisers’ choices have direct and immediate impact on the show, for good or ill. Your scene partners can find ways to exclude you, of course. A former member of our group was a guest performer in another city, but the other players on the team apparently didn’t care to have him around. They were polite to him before the show, but after he exited a scene, one of the other players stepped on stage and said “You know the guy who was just here? I killed him.”

So much for collaboration.

It’s little better to have teammates ignore offers you make within a scene, preferring to wait for another player to come on and further the action. It’s hard to make progress when no one listens to you, even if you are the junior member of a group.

The same considerations hold true for the office. I’m not saying less experienced workers should be given complete autonomy, but they should have their opinions given a fair hearing. There’s very little that’s more demotivating than disappearing into the bowels of an organization and losing the connection between your work and a company’s success. Of course you can add points, badges, and levels to attach some (albeit artificial) meaning to their tasks, but Werbach and Hunter point out that it’s possible to gamify work unethically, in such a way that the “game” structure works against the employees’ best interests. Much like the sales competition in the movie version of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (first place is a car, second place is a set of steak knives, third place is you’re out of a job), you can use gamification for good or evil. One of their colleagues turned down such a consulting assignment. Rightfully so.

When Goals Don’t Match Incentives

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Several months ago I wrote about how improv and business relationships can resemble some of the classic 2 x 2 games, such as Chicken or the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Improv and business have characteristics in common with other games, too.

My last post mentioned Mikhail Tal, one of the fiercest attackers in the history of chess. He specialized in knocking the position and his opponent off balance and winning in the resulting complications. Tal lost a lot of games in dramatic fashion, too, but his games were rarely boring.

You can’t make progress in an improv scene or business if you’re afraid to shake things up. Unlike in chess, where you face an opponent over the board by yourself, improvisers and business people have colleagues who are working with you toward a common goal. At least, that’s the ideal. You probably know what kind of disasters can happen when you and your colleagues aren’t all moving in the same direction. But why would team members work at cross purposes? One possible reason is that an individual’s incentives don’t align with the project goal.

As an example, suppose you’re a programmer tasked with shipping a product update one month from today. Further, assume your annual bonus and (possibly) continued employment hinge on releasing your code by the deadline. I can guarantee that you will do everything you can, including cutting every available corner if necessary, to get that software out the door 30 days from now. Doing so meets your objective of getting the software out the door, but does so at the expense of the company’s overarching goal of providing quality products to its customers.

Economists and game theorists call this practice suboptimization, where individuals focus on part of a process at the expense of the project as a whole. Chess players can suboptimize by trying to reach an endgame with very few pieces on the board, regardless of what the position calls for earlier in the game. Improvisers can suboptimize by “working on a character” or “finding a way to work a song into this scene” no matter what happens in a scene. And, as argued above, companies can make their employees suboptimize by setting incentives improperly.

I wish I had a good answer for the problem of suboptimization in organizations. It’s relatively easy for individuals to avoid it if they can identify the larger goals they’re working toward, but it’s hard for employees to consciously work in a manner that won’t be directly rewarded. If it’s a choice between getting paid and doing what’s best for the organization, I say take the money and work with your boss to restructure your incentives after you cash the check.

A Genius, in Retrospect

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Mikhail Tal, the Latvian chess grandmaster and one-time World Champion, played a raging, attacking, seemingly bizarre brand of chess. His willingness to sacrifice his pieces for nebulous compensation led to some embarrassing losses but resulted in many fantastic wins when his opponents couldn’t, as Tal put it, see their way out of a forest where 2+2=5.

As an improviser, I admire his courage to randomize a position and put both him and his opponent on the spot. It’s easy to think of his creations as “just games”, but he was a professional player in what was then the Soviet Union. The tournaments to which he was invited and, more to the point, allowed to participate in depended on both his style of play and his results. Of course, it wasn’t until a game was over and the chess world had a chance to analyze his moves that the verdict for a particular sequence was known.

The same consideration is true for improvisers. We don’t know whether what we do is brilliant or not until a scene is over, but we have the luxury of working with a team to make all of our choices brilliant. And that’s why I have such respect for a competitor like Tal, who told this story (paraphrased):

I was in the middle of a tournament game when I began to wonder how one might rescue an elephant stuck in a swamp. Over the next 45 minutes, I imagined a series of pulleys and levers arranged in various configurations but came to no satisfactory conclusion. Then, seeing that I was running low on time, I looked at the board and played the first sacrifice I saw.

The journalist covering the game reported that, “After 45 minutes of thought, Tal unleashed a deep and powerful sacrifice that resulted in a won game.”

We can, and should, look at the mechanics of our work, but we must never dismiss what the audience takes away from a performance. The show exists in their memory as well as ours.

Remembering What Happens

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As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the real benefits of being an improviser is that you have no lines to memorize. Of course, the bad news is that you need to remember what happened earlier in a scene so you can make useful contributions later on.

Whenever I perform with a longform group, with performances that can last as long as an hour, I’m not afraid to write things down. For example, I often make a point of writing down character names as they are brought up or when the audience assigns them at the beginning of the show. The improvised Shakespeare group I was part of for several years let audience members define each player’s character, so it made sense to make a quick note so things didn’t go sideways during the 45-minute show.

Let’s say you’re playing a short form game such as Replay (do a one minute set up scene and then replay it several times using different suggestions to color the replays) or Forward/Reverse (the classic improv game where you start a scene and a controller can run the action forward or in reverse). The easiest way to remember what is happening is to make a strong physical and/or emotional choice every time there’s a beat in the scene. If all you’re doing is standing on stage talking, there is nothing to distinguish one moment of the scene from another; however, if you pair a statement with an action or emotion, you’ll find it much easier to remember what you said and did. In fact, you might find the words coming out of your mouth before you realize what you’re saying. The link between the brain and the rest of your body is that strong.

In business, you won’t often have to improvise something and then repeat it on demand. Even so, you can use these techniques to develop a presentation and add visual elements to your slide deck or presentation materials to cue you as to what is to happen next. As someone who focuses on Microsoft Excel, I will often build prompts into my spreadsheets to help me remember what I want cover. Friends of mine do the same thing with graphics, using images and edits to those images to guide them through their presentation.

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Part 5

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This is the final post in my series on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Five blog posts might seem like a lot, but many doctoral dissertations have been written on the ramifications of this deceptively simple game.

Robert Axelrod was one of first researchers to study how competing strategies for playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma interacted in a tournament setting. One of Axelrod’s main conclusions is that you can maximize your payoff in a Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament by following a nice strategy. That is, not defecting first. He also noted that it was possible for other strategies to beat the winner, Tit for Tat, by defecting first to get the higher payoff and then defecting every turn thereafter to ensure that the other program could never retaliate effectively. Over time, this strategy does not yield a higher payoff than the nice Tit for Tat; the aggressive strategy did not win either tournament.

But what happens if you put the nice Tit for Tat in an environment with a lot of aggressive programs? The answer is that Tit for Tat will always give up the higher payoff to its opponent in the first round and get the minimum payoff in every subsequent round. Based on those rules, Tit for Tat is guaranteed to lose. If you were to put a set of strategies into a tournament and then eliminate the bottom half of the field, Tit for Tat would always be eliminated, and the other more successful strategies would continue on. Those strategies being the aggressive, not nice, strategy of always defecting first and continuing to do so on every subsequent turn.

This type of attack is called an invasion. If you run a tournament and eliminate the bottom half of the field at the end of each run you’ll find certain strategies win out. If you introduce even a small number of these dominant strategies into a tournament, they will eventually take over. The problem becomes even worse if you create a series of strategies that can recognize kindred spirits, enabling them to work together to maximize their payoff by cooperating.

You can find the same type of behavior in business. In many cases when the group or company starts, you’ll find that everyone cooperates. The problem comes in when someone who doesn’t cooperate starts to get some success in the company. As the aggression is rewarded, other individuals adopt the same strategy. In time, those players can squeeze out the players who play a nice, cooperative strategy within the business. It’s a true management headache, one that is extremely difficult to stamp out once it gets started. Plus, as the aggressive players get promoted higher and higher, the reward structure changes. Now individuals who are willing to work with the aggressive individuals are rewarded with their own promotions and higher responsibilities.

In most cases, the company can continue on with this type of environment, despite the fact that there is a lack of trust among the players. In fact, this type of environment can fuel creativity for those individuals who revel in interpersonal conflict and feel it helps their creativity. At the same time, though, an organization might begin to experience problems associated with a lack of cooperation. Always looking to put one over on the other guy makes it difficult to trust anyone else, especially when you’re looking over your shoulder to see who will get the next promotion. These behaviors can lead to stress, burnout, and high turnover. In a company that requires highly skilled personnel, losing a solid contributor because of a toxic work environment is extremely costly.

In improvisational comedy groups, you find the same thing happens especially at the beginning of the group’s life. As individuals jockey for position within the group and try to have an impact on how things will be run, you will often find that individuals who started in the group either drop out or get kicked out after they try to change the group through aggression or passive aggression by not following directions of the group’s leadership. Well-established organizations with a solid player roster and workshops from which to bring in new players are less susceptible to this sort of issue. The group’s culture is solid, and the workshop process allows management to decide which players will be promoted and included in the team.

Smaller groups, such as touring companies with only four or five players, can be susceptible to problems. The trick, as always, is to select your fellow performers wisely. In many cases, it’s better to join another group or start a new group of your own than it is to continue on in a bad situation. Sometimes leaving a bad job is the best thing you could possibly do.

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Part 4

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I’ve spent the last few posts talking about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where two individuals must decide whether or not to cooperate. There’s a harsh penalty for having one’s trust violated, so the most risk-averse strategy is to violate the other player’s trust. RobertAxelrod’s analysis gives us a number of results that we can use both in the realm of improv and in the realm of business. He enumerated these five principles in The Evolution of Cooperation:

  • Enlarge the shadow of the future
  • Change the payoffs
  • Teach people to care about each other
  • Teach reciprocity
  • Improve negotiation abilities

Enlarging the shadow of the future simply means taking a long view of your interactions. When you form an improvisational comedy group, you should plan to have many performances over a number of months or years. This sort of ongoing interaction, like any other relationship, requires nurturing and mutual trust. Just like saving for retirement, the more you set aside in terms of money or trust at the start, the higher your return and, as the years go by, the interest accumulates. The same principle holds for business interactions. Americans on the West Coast tend to change jobs a lot more often than folks on the East Coast, but many of us stay within the same industry and interact with our colleagues from previous jobs frequently. Within a company, you’ll find that fostering a spirit of cooperation on your team will help you generate better results. Hopefully that conclusion won’t be too surprising.

The next question is how to reward different behaviors. In the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma payoff matrix, the only logical choice is to defect. Doing so limits the damage that would be caused by trusting another individual whose rational calculus would push them to defect. In business, anyone who sees their business as a series of one-time relationships will not be all that keen on building a trusting relationship with their business partners. In the entertainment industry, it said that you haven’t really sold someone until you’ve done business with them twice. If they’re not willing to rehire you, it means that they don’t trust you based on their experience with you.

Teaching people to care about each other can be tricky, particularly if you have individuals who are not prone to trusting relationships with others. Sociopaths, who don’t empathize with other individuals at all, are a particular problem. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t tell you how to deal with them, but there are a number of online resources that you can use to see where to go and what to do. For individuals who do have feelings toward others, you can use teambuilding exercise rewards and the warm afterglow of successful shows or projects to develop a sense of camaraderie.

In the improv world, in which interactions in local groups are reasonably equal, you don’t often have that much trouble with these relationships. Yes, every so often members of the group will disagree intensely, but if everything is in place and the relationship is solid, it’s likely that you will get through the difficulties. In a business in which promotions, internal awards, and raises are at issue, the stakes are quite a bit higher. Managers need to keep everyone’s wants, needs, and desires in mind as they manage their projects.

One of the best ways to ensure people are satisfied is to give them work they care about and reward them for doing good jobs. The nature of those rewards will vary based on your business and the resources available to you, but rewards and recognition, even if only at the personal level, go a long way toward making those relationships more solid.

Axelrod also recommends that you learn to teach reciprocity. A willingness to respond to offers of cooperation allows teams to make much more progress than a loose collection of individuals would be able to. The form that reciprocity takes depends upon your organization. For businesses, providing a bit of after-hours help for others on their part of a project after they have done the same for you is a perfect example. In the improv world, we can try to “set up players for the slam.” Just as volleyball players run through the bump, set, spike sequence to go from defense to offense, improvisers can do their fellow players a favor by giving them straight lines, by allowing them to be the focus of the scene, and by staying off the stage when their presence is not strictly necessary. All these actions are judgment calls that improve with experience, but managers can improve their odds, both in the performance and business worlds, by bringing on individuals who are predisposed toward these behaviors.

Finally, you should improve your negotiation skills. Negotiation is the art of the compromise, and there are very few solutions that will meet everyone’s wants and desires. Some folks have to compromise, some more than others, and good leaders and team members will find ways to negotiate for what they feel is necessary and compromise when it’s called for.

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Part 3

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My previous two posts discussed the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic 2 x 2 game structured so each player feels compelled to violate the trust of the other player. Researcher Robert Axelrod tried to find the best strategy for playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma by holding a tournament among computer programs playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Every program would play every other program, a second copy of itself, and a program Axelrod created that randomly chose whether to cooperate or defect. In that first tournament, which had 14 entrants, a program by Anatol Rapoport named Tit for Tat won.

The strategy behind Tit for Tat is extremely simple: Start out by cooperating, but if the other player defects, defect on the next turn as punishment. If the other player did not defect on the next turn, the program would switch back to cooperating. So why would this program win? As Stevens points out in his course, the best the program can hope to do is to tie. It never tries to take advantage of the other player, so it will never get a higher payoff in any round than the other program. What happened was that Tit for Tat minimized its losses. It punished other programs for defecting, but it only did so once if there was just a single defection. This strategy of minimizing its own losses while minimizing the other programs’ gain due to bad behavior made Tit for Tat the best program of the bunch.

The key to the success of Tit for Tat is that it elicits cooperation. Axelrod noted that the program is nice, provokable, forgiving, and straightforward. Among humans playing the game, or for computer programs with a memory of past turns, playing Tit for Tat lets other player accurately predict the consequences of their actions. In the first Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament, the top eight programs were all nice, which meant that they were never the first to defect.

The participants included a program called JOSS, which was the same as Tit for Tat but threw in the occasional defection at random intervals. The program’s design was meant to take advantage of the occasionally high payoff from an unchallenged defection while retaining the benefits of cooperation. Unfortunately, this strategy resulted in extremely low scores because its actions weren’t predictable. One very negative consequence was that it created a series of moves versus Tit for Tat, and variations of Tit for Tat, in which each program defected on alternate turns and led to dismally low scores.

In Axelrod’s analysis of the first tournament, he noted that there were three strategies not included in the tournament but that, if submitted, would have won. With these results made available to potential entrants, along with randomizing the number of rounds each pair of strategies competed against each other to invalidate “late round” tactics, he ran a second tournament. This new competition attracted 62 entries. Tit for Tat won again. From the results, it’s easy to see that there is a penalty for being the first to defect. Axelrod wrote:

What seems to have happened is an interesting interaction between people who drew one lesson and people who drew another from the first round. Lesson One was: “Be nice and forgiving.” Lesson Two was more exploitative: “If others are going to be nice and forgiving, it pays to try to take advantage of them.” The people who drew Lesson One suffered in the second round from those who drew Lesson Two….The reason is that in trying to exploit other rules, they often eventually got punished enough to make the whole game less rewarding for both players than pure mutual cooperation would have been.

The lessons for improv and business are obvious, so I won’t belabor them. I would point out that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an inherently grim scenario, so it’s best not to get into this type of situation in the first place. Because each player faces potential catastrophe if they don’t protect themselves, you can allow the players to communicate and not guarantee cooperation.

Next up: further insights into the nature of competition in the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario.