Social Deduction Games: Group dynamics in decision making

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One of the game genres that I find fascinating is Social Deduction. Game folklore says that the genre was accidentally started by a Russian psychology professor named Dmitry Davidoff in 1986 who wanted to make his psychology classes more interesting and created a game called Mafia learn more. The genre now has many popular games such as WereWolf, Secret Hitler and Coup.

Mafia and the core mechanics of social deduction games

In a social deduction game, players are assigned roles at random. There are usually two roles that players take – mafia and villagers.

The mafia members know each other (or at least discover each other as the game progresses), but the villagers don’t know who amongst them are mafia members, how many mafia members there are, nor do they know who the other villagers are.
The play alternates between night and day. At night, mafia members come alive and chose one villager to kill. As morning is announced, the villager who is killed takes position amongst the other killed villagers, they can observe but not talk. The whole village (including the mafia members) now try and identify one mafia member. They need to arrive at a consensus and whoever is identified as a mafia member is killed (even though the player may be a villager)

The game continues till such time that all mafia members are eliminated or there are as many villagers as mafia members (several other possible variations are also popular). The group that survives, wins the game.

Player behaviours

What makes social deduction games so interesting are the various player behaviours that emerge, namely:

  • If you are a mafia member, how do you deflect attention or hide your identity
  • If you are a villager, how do you deduce who is a mafia member with incomplete information
  • If you are a villager, how do you save yourself from being killed just in case anyone has a misplaced suspicion on you being a mafia member

The psychology behind deduction games

Social deduction games can be powerful tools to kick start discussions on the psychology of large groups and teams. They can also be used to explore and reflect on decision making under the lack of information. In the absence of objective evidence, we fill the blanks with our gut feeling which we then confirm or rationalise by selectively bringing up incidental observations, information and data points. Unless of course we can master the art of indirect observation and deduction.

It’s often experienced in social deduction games that players defend their decision by relating how the person is behaving, the person’s body language, whether the person is talking too much or not talking at all. Another realisation that the game creates amongst players is the power of Group Think or if most people agree to something, we also readily agree to it.

Why social deduction games are so unique

Social deduction games in the classroom

We have found social deduction games useful in learning themes related to:

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Cognitive biases and perception
  • Communication and body language
  • Decision making

The best thing about social deduction games is that they require very minimal setup and instructions. A game like the Mafia needs no cards, boards or even detailed instructions. You can play this with groups of 12 to 100 people.

Try out a social deduction game for your next program on decision making and let us know how it went.

Print and Play Social Deduction Games

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