Social Dilemmas

Social Dilemmas

The players tend to compete against each other even though cooperation would be beneficial for all players involved.

Two main Social Dilemmas, The Prisoners' Dilemma and The Tragedy of the Commons, are treated here as they share some interesting characteristics from the game design point of view but also differ in interesting ways.

The Prisoners' Dilemma is the classic example of Social Dilemmas used in game theory. The story behind this dilemma is that there are two prisoners who are accused of conspiring in two crimes, one minor crime for which their guilt can be proven without any confession, and a major crime for which the guilt can be proven only with one or more confessions. The prosecutor gives both the prisoners the same deal: if both confess, they both go to jail for five years; if only one of them confesses, he goes free and the other goes to jail for 10 years. Finally, if both refuse to confess, they both go to jail for one year. The dilemma here is that even though the option where both refuse to confess is better for all parties involved, there is a chance that one prisoner tries to get free by confessing, and this leads to a situation where both prisoners in the end confess and both end up in jail for five years. The original Prisoners' Dilemma did not allow communication between the prisoners before making the choice. Allowing communication complicates the situation, but the issue of trust, thus the Social Dilemma, still remains.

The Tragedy of the Commons [Hardin68] describes a situation where the pasture is free to use for all herdsmen of the village but where the overherding will in the end diminish the capacity of the common pasture. The dilemma arises because the benefits for each herdsman of increasing his flock of cattle is individual but the penalties of overherding are shared between all the herdsmen, and this will usually lead to a situation where overherding will result in the collapse of the whole herding business.

The main thrust of Social Dilemmas from the game design point of view is that, even though cooperation would be beneficial in the long run for the participating players, having a possibility to reap shorter term rewards by betraying the trust of the other players will lead to situations where the players have to evaluate the trustworthiness of the other players almost constantly.

Using the pattern

Designing Social Dilemmas requires designing actions with Individual Rewards for the player who performs the action but with Shared Penalties to the other players. If the Penalties are perceived as Individual Penalties or the game state can make the Penalties only affect one player, the actions are not guaranteed to be Social Dilemmas. An example is when players have agreed to accept Tied Results but one player can perform actions leading to that player receiving all the Rewards; in this case, the dilemma is either due to the chance of gaining more Rewards than otherwise or due to making the other players received the Penalties of not receiving the anticipated Rewards. Another example is Social Organizations where the main Penalty may be social rejection and the Reward is to be able to spend time and effort on other activities. A third is Enemies that are Enemies due to misunderstandings that the players are aware of.

When using Social Dilemma in the game, one has to consider what kinds of methods for Social Interaction there are in the game, as most uses of Social Dilemma require that players have to negotiate with other players.

Situations similar to The Prisoners' Dilemma arise when there at least two players who are dependant upon the Cooperation between the players. If Cooperation is sustained without Betrayal, all the participating players progress quite well in the game. The crux of the dilemma is that the first player to stop the Cooperation receives a large pay-off at the expense of those players who are still cooperating, and if all players stop the Cooperation, all players do worse than when cooperating. To work well, the Prisoners' Dilemma requires Delayed Effects of some kind from the actions that determine Cooperation, as this will create more Tension between the players.

The Tragedy of the Commons requires that there is a Renewable and Shared Resource, which has an upper limit for the renewal rate, and that initially the use of the resource is potentially unlimited for each participating player. Of course, the use of this resource should lead to something the players perceive as a reward. One common method, and also true to the original dilemma, is to use a Converter to create higher level Individual Rewards for the players. For example, a player belonging to an Alliance in a military strategy game can use the shared cities to create troops for himself.


Social Dilemmas give players a Freedom of Choice to do actions that have Individual Rewards and Shared Penalties, but the Rewards outweigh the Penalties for the individual player. Since performing the actions is likely to cause animosity from other players, Social Dilemmas can create Emotional Immersion for all partners involved. When other players are aware of a player's Social Dilemma, even if it is only potentially a dilemma, this affects these players' Perceived Chance to Succeed with actions as well as their Risk/Reward choices.

The case of The Tragedy of the Commons where the players are able to communicate with each other, but also able to perceive that the consumption rate of the Shared Resource is higher than the renewal rate, seems in most cases to lead to a situation where Social Organizations arise spontaneously or Resources become depleted. Shared Resources and the possibility of communication by themselves support Social Interaction, of course, but this kind of dilemma situation can increase it even more. The situation at least in the first phases and without strong outside threat, will also lead to dynamics of Cooperation and Competition within the group in the form of Dynamic Alliances. It is probable that the introduction of an outside threat in this phase will stabilize the group into a Social Organization.


Instantiates: Emotional Immersion, Social Interaction, Tension, Social Organizations

Modulates: Competition, Alliances, Cooperation, Dynamic Alliances, Perceived Chance to Succeed, Risk/Reward, Tied Results

Instantiated by: Shared Resources, Shared Penalties, Individual Rewards, Delayed Reciprocity, Betrayal, Freedom of Choice, Enemies, Social Organizations

Modulated by: Conflict, Renewable Resources, Rewards

Potentially conflicting with: Individual Penalties