The Ethics of Semi-Cooperation

I’ve been chewing on a couple of games, and in turn, they’ve been chewing on me. Both Discover: Lands Unknown and Here’s Negan are intriguing designs full of virtue as well as imperfection. They each lean into a semi-cooperative structure that has players working together one moment and refusing to the next. This goes back to Archipelago, Homeland: The Board Game, and a thousand other meticulously crafted works of art that are derided as often as praised.

The semi-cooperative concept is inherently flawed. Victory conditions and the awarding of points is a psychological tool for behavior incentives. They prod and cajole you down a certain path so that the experience aligns with the designer’s intent. The semi-cooperative game asks you to help one another while looking out for yourself above all else. Often the two will align, but occasionally they won’t. This is where it gets messy.

Asking a player to resolve this conflicting ethos is demanding. It can produce significant moments of drama and turmoil, but it can also ignite frustration and grievance. Furthermore, this style of game often punishes you for altruism.

Dis_CoverLooking for the hatch

In a recent play of Discover I was put in this vice-grip. We were beaten, freezing, and near death. I had a little bit of food scraped together from the bones of a moose, a moose I blew apart with a rocket launcher the previous day. This actually happened.

I didn’t need the food at that moment. I could afford to suffer another point of damage before quietus. My brother could not. The checkered board was out, pieces scattered, and Ingnmar Bergman was scowling.

The food would allow him to heal a bit and stave off annihilation. He’s my brother for god’s sake.

But Discover is not a cooperative game. That little four letter prefix is important, after all. If I gave him my hard-earned moose meat it could cost me the game. We were nearing the end of this particular passage and I needed to get over the hump.

But he’s my brother.

So I gave him the damn gnarled leg.

The game wasn’t wrong for putting me in that position. The issue is that this act of compassion does not feed the reward cycle. Instead the game takes a prejudiced stance, possibly throwing me under the bus and backing up over my corpse.

I’m enthralled by this. The whole semi-cooperative notion is most interesting in its imperfection. In many ways you can ascribe its conflicting ideals and flippant regard for your righteousness as consistent with reality. ‘Nice guys finish last’ as Billie Joe used to say.

The question then becomes whether internal emotions satisfy the equation. Can morality and human nature offer enough of an incentive, and subsequent payout, to nudge behavior towards a virtuous direction?

This is tough. A game should absolutely concern itself with your emotional state of being and how you interact and evolve as a result of these decisions. The challenge is for the player to rightly grapple with these issues and form their own internal consistencies to guide their behavior.

If you completely abandon your moral compass can you absolve that behavior by pointing to the game state and its incentive structure? Is this something we want to accept? That’s difficult and any formalized view is found in the subtext and open to interpretation.

The case for acceptance of moral bankruptcy is pretty clear cut. Games offer an escape and pushing against the restrictions of everyday life can be liberating. When playing Tiefe Taschen and acting the villain, I can later go home and sleep without issue. I may spend a good thirty minutes lying through my teeth but I can make peace with that. This is what we agree to by sitting at the table, it’s explicit and our attendance is as good as a handshake on the matter.

Semi-cooperative games don’t carry that explicit social contract because their ground is untamed. We don’t know the rules because they’re not exact or codified within systems. It’s troublesome at times and it requires the group – a set of diverse personalities and quirks – to adjudicate and find harmony with one another. This is why these titles are criticized and why many head the other way.

But let’s get back to that burnt stump of moose meat.

There’s the opportunity for a wonderful deed blanketed in the dilemma. The game is actually doing us a favor. By making the path of virtue exacting and without reward, it challenges the player at a higher level. Ethics are formulated and affirmed by their ability to withstand rigorous trial.

There are designs that attempt this in a straight cooperative function, but it doesn’t work. If you reward charitable behavior then the player is not responding based on their own belief system, they’re merely playing along with the rules of your game. It’s the inverse of the radical nice guy-turned-asshole in the clutches of Tiefe Taschen. If we can forgive our narcissistic behavior there, then we must downplay our honorable behavior here.

A cooperative design like The Grizzled can inform and inspire as a process of thought. It can provoke emotion and substantial reflection, but it never requires a ponderous decision and the ensuing fallout. This occurs because the moralistic interaction is performed in the third person. The game is making the decision for you by explicitly rewarding said behavior.

A semi-cooperative design presents the ethical quandary from a first person perspective. It allows you the freedom to express nobility or dereliction on your terms.

To put it another way – providing support to another damaged soul in the trench-line says nothing if the game demands it.

The greater act is in offering a gamey shank to a troubled brother.


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  4 comments for “The Ethics of Semi-Cooperation

  1. November 19, 2018 at 5:05 pm

    Really interesting! Makes me think of how computer games employ morality systems generally; things slightly different like Mass Effect, all the way to D&Ds approach with the plain old Evil and Good diochotomy. In all cases, they don’t actually achieve an interesting exploration of morality precisely because they have clear incentives that makes it an optimisation decision. The moral quandry isn’t real for players *because* its been codified.

    Out of interest what *did* you think of Discover? So far I am seeing a near universal panning. I am left wondering if that’s just because the unique game concept was writing checks it couldn’t cash and people are responding with a drubbing for its hubris – or whether it’s just a bit crap!


    • November 19, 2018 at 5:27 pm

      Absolutely, the D&D morality system is farcical in handling its subject matter. It doesn’t offer any real substance to propel dramatic roleplay, rather it offers a cookie-cutter approach to give you something to lean on and remove the stakes of the decision.

      I actually appreciate Discover. I wrote a review for Geek & Sundry (not published yet), and I actually appreciate it as a lighter and more streamlined alternative to 7th Continent. As my 7th Continent piece on here mentions, I enjoyed the scope of that game but found it tedious in the long term. Discover is much more mechanically tempered, and better for it.

      The story is light and the climax of my set wasn’t great, but it was enough to make me finish it. I’d certainly not call it a top shelf game, but it was worth my time.


  2. gamekahuna
    November 24, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    How about if The Grizzled explicitly always allowed you to support yourself? Or would you also require your trench mates to be able to beat you over the head with the tin mug you just gave them and steal your stuff?


    • November 24, 2018 at 10:37 pm

      That may alter things slightly. It still doesn’t square off selfishness with altruism, challenging the latter via incentives.

      I’m not knocking The Grizzled by the way, I’m an enormous fan and looking forward to trying the Anniversary edition.


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