2.3 The Social Games We Play

The debate over whether cooperation is an exclusively human trait, whether cooperation is a biological strategy employed to ensure genetic reproduction and whether noble concepts of altruism simply cloak an innate but subtle selfishness is too wide for the scope of this work. However the tension between self-interest and cooperation is crucial in understanding how we socially interact.

[Please refer to my Bibliography for the sources of quotes.]

In conversation with Howard Rheingold, Marc A. Smith, research sociologist at Microsoft, suggests ‘If you follow the strands of cooperation, public goods, presentation of self, and reputation you might find they all tie together. …Biologists, economists, even nuclear warfare strategists became interested in social games.’ (2002: 31) The ‘public goods’ that Smith highlights are resources ‘…from which all may benefit, regardless of whether they helped create [them]’ (31). It is the balancing of public goods against our own self-interest that provides the collective action dilemma. Those people who ignore the balance and choose to benefit from a public good without contributing, or risk depletion through over consumption, are ‘free riders’ or ‘free loaders’. If we all free ride then the public good is not created or is over consumed, in which case we all suffer, as Smith notes: ‘What’s good for you can be bad for us’ (31). The result of an entire population of free riders is the ultimate consumption of public goods, a situation labelled ‘the tragedy of the commons’ by Garret Hardin (1968).

Other people’s performances and weighing up collective action dilemmas combine in a heady mix of ‘bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do’ (Bronowski, 1973, cited in Rheingold, 2002: 41). It is the constant enactment of these tactical games that makes us good ‘mind readers’ (Johnson, 2001) and is described by Game Theory, devised by John von Neumann a contemporary of Einstein at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and the Manhattan Project.

There were four elements of von Neumann games devised by researchers at the RAND Corporation, in the 1950s: Chicken, Deadlock, Prisoner’s Dilemma and Stag Hunt. These games, told as stories but equally represented by complex mathematical formulae, were used, and have been developed, in fields as diverse as economics, predicting markets, and nuclear warfare simulation.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma game has been integrated into a multitude of research practices since its initial definition and is the most relevant to social navigation. The game can be described thus: Two men have been charged with a joint violation of the law and they are held separately and are unable to communicate. Each ‘prisoner’ is told that the prisoner who testifies will be released and their partner will be sentenced to three years. If both prisoners testify the will both receive a two-year sentence. If neither testifies they will both receive a one-year sentence. Part of the theory of the game is that each player is only interested in his own welfare. Therefore the two prisoners are faced with a choice of cooperation or defection. (Rheingold, 2002: 42) There is then a mathematical relationship between the payoffs for the players. The temptation payoff (T) for defecting is greater than the reward payoff (R) for mutual cooperation; which is greater than the punishment payoff (P) for mutual defection; all of which are greater than the ‘sucker’s’ (S) payoff for cooperating when the other player defects. Equated thus T>R>P>S, the relationship is usually presented in a table, see Figure 2.1.

B cooperates B defects
A cooperates 2,2 0,3
A defects 3,0 1,1

Figure 2.1 (Rheingold, 2002: 43) The outcomes of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each outcome results in a sentence given, in years, in the form A,B.

The application of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to how we make our decisions on when to cooperate and when to be selfish demonstrates how we weigh up collective action dilemmas. Prisoner’s Dilemmas are rarely played once; iterative versions of the game are crucial to learning who is trustworthy.

When considering new collaborative systems, such as those made possible by cybrid spaces, the Prisoner’s Dilemma becomes crucial in defining the terms of interaction to promote the emergence of cooperation. Systems in which cooperation is not fostered become weak and can easily be compromised. The majority of users of peer-to-peer file sharing networks, such as Kazaa and Gnutella, free ride, leeching free music from a small minority. This has meant that covert ‘saboteur’ accounts set up by record companies have been extremely successful in propagating ‘dummy’ files, making it very difficult to be certain of the quality of what is being downloaded. Greater payoffs for cooperation or design systems that take advantage of selfish behaviour will be an important consideration in designing applications for the augmentation of face-to-face encounters.

Collaboration is not only about cooperation, when considering larger numbers of participants it is also about coordination. Coordination problems in large social groups do not involve Prisoner’s Dilemmas they involve collective monitoring and sanctioning. Chewe (2001) claims that public rituals are not just about top-down communication but also about many-to-many communication. Everyone in a group then knows who else is contributing, free riding and even policing to solve the coordination problems.

Such coordination problems are mirrored in nature as demonstrated by Steven Johnson’s ‘Emergence’ (2001). Complex behaviours such as insect swarms and bird flocks are simply the result of many individual decisions based on simple common rules, such as avoiding collision and travelling in roughly the same direction. Similar behaviour is exhibited in human crowds such as football supporters in a large stadium chanting the same words or stamping their feet in time.

In societies where there will be increasing numbers of opportunities to cooperate with others through personal communication technologies forming ad hoc cybrid links we will be making judgements on who to trust constantly. Of course once we have decided whom we trust we share that information with those we know. Networks of reputation form as a result of our judgements, making reputation an important part of a cybrid society.

Posted by Sam at April 19, 2004 05:36 PM

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