Cooperative Games: Everyone wins or no one does

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If you are like me, you probably grew up playing competitive games and competitive sports. From Cricket, Chess, Monopoly, Ludo, and Seven Tiles, everything I have played since childhood has been competitive. One side loses, while the other side wins; at least wins more than the other. A draw is considered a half-win. In fact, most games often have elaborate rules to avoid a draw at any cost (Think Tennis and Cricket) Players return with a feeling of sadness, even defeat when a draw is achieved. Don’t get me wrong, most games require teamwork and cooperation, but the cooperation is strictly within the team and the ultimate aim is to win over the opponent.

No surprises then, when I started designing games my instinct was to design competitive games. Competitive games are ones in which the victory condition is achieved when one team/player captures/collects/build most resources than other players or completely eliminates other players. 

The downside of competitive games

While competition is easy to produce (throw in points/score and a leaderboard) and can generate hours of engagement, they do have a downside. Competitive games infuse a ‘winners take it all’ spirit amongst players. ‘No one remembers the runners up’, my coach would quip during our pre-match Cricket practice sessions. In this regard, games mimic the real world.

From the schooling system to universities and corporations, to popular video games and board games that we love to play, we live in a world driven by competition. No wonder, we are so poor at collaboration.

Come to think of it, the most pressing problems in the world today can be solved through collaboration, but every individual, organization, and nation-state are engaged in a competition. Let’s think about some of the problems we face in the world today.

  • From Amazonian rainforests in Brazil to the Western Ghats in India, countries can either think narrowly about their own GDP and developmental goals or think of these biodiversity hotspots as shared resources for all humans.
  • The world has fixed resources – water, minerals, air. We can compete to cut the pie into halves, or collaborate to increase the pie for everyone. Do rivers belong to nation-states or to all of humanity? What about groundwater?

How about cooperative games?

The simplest definition of a cooperative game is – a game where the only way to win is for everyone to win. This sounds like a simple objective to achieve, however, I realized that it takes a completely different mindset to design cooperative games.

To begin with, here is a list of a few behaviours that players would need to exhibit in collaborative games in comparison to competitive games

Competitive GamesCooperative Games
DividingCombining
Competing, AvoidingCollaborating 
AggressionCooperation
Win-LoseWin-Win
Impeding/BlockingFacilitating
Gaining Positional
Advantage
Understanding Interests
RefusingNegotiating
MistrustTrust
ApathyEmpathy

While there are hundreds of mechanics and design patterns that generate competition in a game, are there any mechanics that can generate collaboration? Rocha et al. identified six cooperative game design patterns:

  1. Complementarity: It implies that players play different character roles to complement each others’ activities within the games
  2. Synergies between abilities: Allows one character type to assist or change the abilities of another.
  3. Abilities that can only be used on another player: Allows one player to help another player.
  4. Shared goals: is a pattern used to force players to work together, such as in World of Warcraft, where a group of players is given a single quest with a shared goal.
  5. Synergies between goals: Forces players to co-operate together through synchronized goals. 
  6. Special rules: Denote rules that are used to enforce cooperation within teams.

See the complete list here – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315114570_Game_Mechanics_for_Cooperative_Games

Examples of cooperative board games

Here are some top cooperative board games. Focus on the mechanics and gameplay for each of these games.

Based on our experience in designing cooperative games at Skills Cafe’, we have identified the following mechanisms that can force players to collaborate and abandon competition.

  • Shrinking time and resource constraints
  • An adversary so powerful that defeating it would take the collective courage and resources of all players
  • Solving a mystery or deducing from information that is randomly distributed amongst players
  • Building something together where each player has unique powers and resources

Discord – a cooperative game developed by Skills Cafe’

Discord is the first cooperative board game that we designed at Skills Café. It’s a game in which teams start by competing (or avoiding conflict) with each other only to realise that the only way to win the game is for all teams to win. This requires them to switch tactics and share information, collaborate and find a unique solution to the problem.

You can view the game mechanics and details here – https://skills.cafe/boardgames/discord.html

Discord Players

The game has been able to evoke intense discussions and reflections on team culture and the degree of collaboration within teams. While no before and after measurements have been conducted yet, the game has acted as a provocation for team members to start talking about the need for greater collaboration within teams.

Questions

At Skills Cafe’ as we continue this journey of studying, designing, and playing cooperative games, here are a few questions that act as guideposts for us:

  • Can playing cooperative games result in improved collaboration within organisations, functions, and teams?
  • Can cooperative games be used in schools and educational settings to nudge students to chose cooperation and collaboration over competition?
  • Should we all play more cooperative games?

Research and resources on cooperative games (a growing list)