March 2, 2009

Win As Much As You Can

I wonder if we are playing a national game of Prisoner’s Dilemma or the variation I often use in leadership workshops, Win As Much As You Can (WAMAYC). Both exercises explore game theory, collaborative or competitive mindsets, and decision-making and group dynamics.

In WAMAYC four teams of individuals make a simple choice each round: X or Y. Scoring is determined by the distribution of choices among the four teams. Everyone gets $1 when all teams pick Y. Everyone loses $1 when all teams select X. When the team choices are mixed among X and Y, the teams choosing X win and the teams choosing Y lose. Some rounds are bonus rounds with the result for that round being multiplied.

Teams make their choices autonomously and can’t speak to the other groups except in the bonus rounds when they may send a rep to a quick conference. Some teams don’t send reps. Some reps agree with the others to have their team make a particular selection in the round that their teammates ultimately overturn. Trust and betrayal issues are not unusual.

Some teams take great delight in “screwing” the others by consistently picking X when all others select Y. Some teams position themselves as the most moral, always picking Y, preferring to go down with dignity rather than succumb to a competitive choice. And it is not unusual to score big by picking X in every round, then secure in their winning position choose Y in the final round where scores are multiplied by 10.

The debrief from this exercise always fascinates me as does the genuine dialogue (not purely partisan posturing) about the President’s proposed budget. If every team picks Y in every round, all four teams conclude the exercise with $25. For some, this equal distribution represents the ideal. For others, it causes them to wonder why even play if no one gets ahead.

Some participants say they chose so that everyone would at least end in positive numbers. The choices made in each round also get a great deal of attention. If all teams choose Y in round one, more collaborative choices seem to follow. But if a team chooses X in the first few rounds, the other teams often believe their stance is unchangeable.

Choosing X or Y may seem more black and white than forming public policy benefiting self or community, but the underlying dynamics are fairly similar. In every nation, in every organization, and in almost any situation, the same considerations are at play. In some respects, our current economic climate needs all of us to choose Y, making whatever purchases we can to help lift the overall financial environment. Some economists suggest that if we all choose X (save as much as we can and defer purchases), recovery is much more difficult.

In any given situation, how would you choose? What choices are the various stakeholders (think staff and volunteers, different departments, etc.) in your own organization making right now? And how can we all have a more transparent and trusting dialogue about the very real consequences at stake?


Lisa Junker said...

I have to say that Win All That You Can was one of the most powerful experiences I had back when I attended Future Leaders (I prefer not to think about how long ago that was!). It really demonstrated to me the ways that silos can divide a larger group and weaken or even destroy it. The neat part was that other participants near me walked away with equally important but different lessons. It was a great learning experience--thank you for sharing it with us, Jeffrey!

FavoredFish said...

Yeah whenever I think about the economy I think about WAMAYC. Actually, international history also smacks of it. But anyway, thanks for posting the rules because I've been trying to re-engineer the game for my students.
The arguement I'm going to make is actually going to be in favor of cooperation, or at least against protectionism.

michael webster said...

This version of the 4 person dilemma game is hard to solve because it does take all 4 people to coordinate. 100% coordination is almost never necessary to solve social dilemmas.

What makes this game hard is that while it is easy to see what joint gains are, it is harder to see how to get people to commit individually to do their part.

What makes most social dilemmas hard is that whatever group needs to form, to gain the benefits of disciplined action, also needs not to be resentful towards those who don't join. Both discipline and the ability not to resent those who are not pitching are the required qualities. Those are hard to find.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Interesting perspective Michael. I'm not sure we need to view the activity (or social dilemmas) through the 100% standard though. WAMAYC doesn't require that everyone cooperate every round in order for groups to all end up with positive scores. Doing so though will cause everyone to end up with the same score. Many will say that's not desirable or realistic.

What I find most valuable about the exercises are the resulting conversations about trust, cooperation, competition, and coordination. And because it can be easy to cheat, some good discussions about ethics and choices also ensure.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

michael webster said...

Jeff, let me be more precise.

In this social dilemma, there is no group with less than 4 members that can coordinate so that each improves upon the Nash equilibrium.

There are 3 groups of 3 that can coordinate so that each receives the same as they would in the Nash equilibrium - 3 pick Y.

That is why this game is hard - and gets harder as you add more players.

Most social dilemmas have some number k, less than the number of players n, such that k is the smallest group which by coordinated action can escape the Nash equilibrium.

(I am doing a short article with a diagram on this point, which when done I will post back here.)

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Michael: I look forward to your article. As I understand Nash equilibrium, a situation does not meet tis criteria if an individual player who knows all of the other players' choices can improve his/hr situation with the choice s/he makes.

The last individual (if there are only four players) or the last group (if there are four groups with various # of players) in WAMAYC indeed can improve on their situation. Unless all groups write down their choices in advance and then reveal them, the fourth group can listen to each of the previous three groups choices and then select a choice that benefits them strategically.

So yes, that's what makes it difficult and that's what makes it so powerful. Does a group selecting in the final position changes its choice to score positively once they hear the choices of the other groups? Or do they stick with their original choice even if it reduces their group gain in score. Lots of wonderful dilemmas around trust, ethics, and strategy emerge.