We Are Prisoners
Let me start by saying: goddamn I love RadioLab. This week, their segment made me think about the behavior of some gamers and why so many are so damn nasty to one another.
This week’s show focused on kindness and altruism. The show opened by talking about normal people doing heroic things despite the potential harm to themselves (which was an amazing segment in it’s own right, but not really relevant to this topic at hand). The second half of the show approached the subject from a wider, more human perspective. It was during this segment that they brought up “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”.
This riddle has been around for some time, and maybe you’ve heard of it in some form, but here’s an illuminating example, as presented on the show, for those who aren’t familiar with it or who need a refresher:
Lucky and Joe are two bank-robbers who are casing a bank. The cops pick them up on a tip, bring them to the station for questioning, and divide them into two rooms.
The cops tell Lucky: “We got you, so come clean. If you rat on Joe and he’s silent, you go free and he gets 10 years. If you keep silent and he rats on you, you get 10 years, and he goes free. If you both confess, you each get 5 years, and if you both stay silent, you get six months for loitering.”
The solution is the problem. If the prisoners could communicate, they’d certainly agree to keep quiet for the best mutual outcome, but because they can’t they each have to decide how to act in their own best interest. On the show, the hosts discussed what they would do if they were in Lucky’s shoes. Oddly enough, the first question that arose was “do I know Joe, or is he someone I met in passing?”
When it was agreed that Lucky did not, in fact, know Joe as a friend, but rather as a temporary acquaintance, the answer was immediate: throw Joe under the bus.
This instantly clicked in my mind as a possible explanation for why so many gamers are so quick to trash talk, put one another down, and badmouth the games that they play. These people are Lucky to everyone else’s Joe; they don’t know the people behind the games or avatars. They have absolutely no stake in the potential success of others, but they do have a potential victory in the failure of others. Attempting to make oneself look better by making someone else look bad is a common occurrence that we see play out on forums, in game, or in blog comments. I think that this particular RadioLab segment that talked about The Prisoner’s Dilemma – which was bolstered by the host’s natural inclination to question whether or not the thieves knew one another – sheds a light on how people can treat strangers when there are success and failure options at stake.
Of course, the success and failure in this case aren’t in forms we traditionally recognize. For gamers, failure can be considered being made to “look bad” by being the target of someone’s ridicule on a forum, or of getting tea-bagged in an FPS and posted on YouTube, or mocked in PvP by the other side for a less then stellar performance (or even by members of one’s own team). Success is even more amorphous, but which I compare to plain old bullying: some people measure their self worth by how bad they can make others feel, and believe that their standing amongst their peers is improved through these juvenile “shows of force”.
Sadly, because this was a recent show it’s not available for streaming or downloading as a podcast, but I’ll keep an eye out for it and will let people know when it’s available. Or I’d suggest you just subscribe to the RadioLab podcast itself. They’ve got fantastic topics and amazing productions.