I recommend readers take a look at the original article as it offers some interesting analysis I will try not to repeat here. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this scenario, however, I will follow James' lead with this description of the prisoner's dilemma from psychologist Robyn Dawes:
"Two men rob a bank. They are apprehended, but in order to obtain a conviction the district attorney needs confessions. He succeeds by proposing to each robber separately that if he confesses and his accomplice does not, he will go free and his accomplice will be sent to jail for ten years; if both confess, both will be sent to jail for five years, and if neither confesses, both will be sent to jail for one year on charges of carrying a concealed weapon. Further, the district attorney informs each man that he is proposing the same deal to his accomplice."
The scenario mapped above is relatively simple. If the goal of each criminal is to minimize the length of time spent in prison, the most logical decision is to confess. The confessing prisoner will either free himself entirely or mitigate the potential result of even more time spent in jail while his partner goes free. In this scenario, two rational actors reach sub-optimal outcomes.As James mentions (see his image above), this situation mirrors numerous videogame dilemmas, from javelin glitching in Modern Warfare 2 to Zerg rushing in Starcraft 2. Every time a potentially fun environment is ruined by gamers exploiting glitches or loop holes the dilemma is played out on a small scale.
For many political scientists and peace theorists, the prisoner's dilemma is incredibly problematic as a predictive tool. To many, exploring its efficacy and overcoming its parameters is of great importance. After all, this simple scenario has been used by some to justify nuclear arms buildup and preemptive warfare. Despite the frequency of cooperation, and the irrationality of human beings, many people point to the prisoner's dilemma to explain why people do not get along.
Cooperation does occur, and is more frequent, as Jame's rightly points out, when players participate in an unknown or infinite number of games. Over time, despite the tit-for-tat scenarios discussed in the original piece, cooperation tends to normalize between actors. Theoretically, this scenario is met while playing any online game. There is no way to tell if you'll meet the same group of players during online matches, or to know how many matches you will play with those same individuals in the future. Yet the dilemma still occurs with startling frequency. Why?
The answer might lie in another critique of the prisoner's dilemma. The scenario as described by Dawes is predicated on neither prisoner being able to communicate with the other. At least on the international stage, this is unrealistic. The significance of communication is simple. Most actors, be they nation states or gamers, are not so irrational as to pursue sub-optimal outcomes for cruel or vindictive reasons. People, in general, actually want to get along. Rather, without communication, misperceptions occur.
Let's take the current Starcraft 3 beta for example. The dominant strategy plaguing the beta is early rushing, not allowing the opponent to experience all the game has to offer. Rushing is the most certain way to win a match. Now imagine two players who would rather play a longer, more fulfilling game. They want a good match, but above all else, they do not want to lose against a rushing opponent. Despite shared interests, they both believe the other's goal is merely to rush and win.
This same scenario can be applied to nuclear armament. Psychologist Scott Plous does just that, calling the situation the "Perceptual Dilemma." Incorrect perceptions create poor decisions and sub-optimal outcomes - which is why communication is so important. Talking is a way actors inform others of their intentions and preferences, dispelling misunderstandings.
On the other hand, a frustrated player may misunderstand a puzzle, perceive the game itself as being unfair, and act upon a misconceived slight. I do not think it is much of a stretch to draw comparisons with the perceptual dilemma here. In this case, unclear communication between player and developer is to blame. The player chooses sub-optimal outcomes for themselves because they consider the game intentionally and resolutely unfair.
So what does this mean for game design? First, and most obvious, games should not be built with fatal exploits. Secondly, anonymity is undoubtedly a factor. That being said, the effects of anonymity are diminished when online identities are permanent. With permanent online identities, players will know when they interact with the same individuals.
Similarly, mutual enjoyment is also more likely when players interact with one another repeatedly. I think designers are under the assumption that more players, and bigger player pools, is better. In actuality, we can diminish poor decision outcomes within smaller pools of player interaction, not more. Perhaps massively-multiplayer games should be less massive.
Above all else, games should foster communication. This includes single-player games. Player's should know why sub-optimal outcomes occur, be it from they computer or player based. Many online games limit communication between enemies for a myriad of reasons, some of them justified. However, we should find ways to foster communication between players before, during, and after a competitive match. This can take the form of text or voice chat, easily understood symbols or gestures, a mailing system, or even a streamlined messaging UI. It may open the door to a few bad apples eager to verbally assault other players, but it is better than the alternative.
This is the ultimate source of paranoia. Many gamers have come to fear online play because of a handful of immature and irrational players. The mass exodus of reasonable players from this online space, to some extent, exacerbates rude online gaming culture. Many of us now associate competitive online games as venues for immaturity.
We continue to fuel our own perceptual dilemma's by giving credence to extremist players, the few who actually enjoy traditionally sub-optimal outcomes: griefers. Third parties and ban-hammer wielding moderators can handle some of the worst offenders. In a transparent environment free of irrational actors, with open channels of communication, it becomes easier to mitigate the prisoner's dilemma. Nation states do it every day, why can't we?