Social Dilemmas

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Choices players need to make that either set their own individual gains against each others or against the gains of a social group they belong to.

Games where players belong to teams, alliances, or other types of groups that are supposed to cooperate can cause problems for those players because they might exist actions that would benefit them individual but harm the larger group. This creates a Social Dilemmas for the players in that even though cooperation would be beneficial in the long run for all involved parties, the players' have the possibility to reaping a shorter term rewards by acting egoistically or betraying the other players.


Social Dilemmas have been the focus of several board and card games. In The Republic of Rome, players compete against each other to have the largest faction in the Rome, but at the same time have to stop barbarians from invading the empire. In Intrigue and So Long Sucker players do not have to cooperate but they game mechanics force them to entry alliances and pacts to be able to perform actions, and Intrigue is balanced so they are likely to have and break deals later.

Using the pattern

Creating Social Dilemmas consist creating Incompatible Goals that pair Individual Rewards or Penalties against Shared Rewards or Penalties - this often takes the form of Asynchronous Collaborative Actions. These are often combined with Risk/Reward, Imperfect Information, and Delayed Effects to add Tension by postponing or making it more difficult or impossible to notice how other players have acted.

Quite obviously games that are supposed to have Social Dilemmas need to have others populating the social groups; this provides a way to change the relations between players in Multiplayer Games but can also be designed for players by using Factions with Non-Player Characters. There are several well-known basic types of Social Dilemmas: Delayed Reciprocity (see for example Intrigue and So Long Sucker), the Prisoners' Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Prisoners' Dilemma is the classic example used in game theory and its name comes from the fictional situation of two prisoners accused of conspiring in two crimes, one minor crime for which their guilt can be proven without any confession, and a major crime for which the guilt can be proven only with one or more confessions. The prosecutor gives both prisoners the same deal: if both confess (which can be seen as an example of Betrayal), they both go to jail for five years (a Shared Penalty); if only one of them confesses, he goes free and the other goes to jail for 10 years (a Individual Reward and Individual Penalty respectively). Finally, if both refuse to confess, they both go to jail for one year (also a Shared Penalty). The core of the dilemma is that even though the option where both prisoners refuse to confess is better for them, for each of them there is a risk that the other will confess, and playing it safe by confessing leads to a situation where both prisoners end up in jail for five years. The design of Prisoner's Dilemma is shows how players can be tempted to not accept a certain Shared Penalty for the possibility of an Individual Reward but can also receive an Individual Penalty for misplacing trust in another player. If both confess, they receive a worse Shared Penalty than if they cooperated and this makes the choice one of Risk/Reward. The original Prisoners' Dilemma did not allow communication between the prisoners before making the choice. Allowing Communication Channels complicates the situation, and introduces Negotiation, but the issue of trust and thus the Social Dilemma, still remains.

The Tragedy of the Commons[1] revolves around avoiding Shared Penalties of having Renewable and Shared Resources from being overused and thereby becoming depleted. These Continuous Goals become dilemmas when players either cannot stop each other from consuming the resources or may not notice the consumption. The name stems from the case where a pasture is free to use for all herdsmen of a village but where over-herding would diminish its future capacity.

The construction of the social group that helps define the Social Dilemmas can be done in a couple of different ways. Although the reason for having Shared Penalties can be arbitrary in games having Social Dilemmas as the core gameplay mechanic, in others the use of Teams can lessen the will for egoistic actions. Games where Beat the Leader opportunities appear create ephemeral Social Dilemmas in if one should spend efforts against the current leader which benefits all other players or if one should focus on bettering one's own position and hope others will work against the leader instead. Other social groups may rely on Delayed Reciprocity, e.g. Guilds, and thereby have Social Dilemmas inherent in their structures. By making the Social Dilemmas not resolvable in one step, as in the case of managing Shared Resources, the dilemmas themselves create the basis for social groups as these are needed to handle what in practice are Continuous Goals. For any grouping that can make players have a sense of Loyalty, Social Dilemmas can be added by introducing Internal Rivalry. The Republic of Rome shows how Internal Rivalry can be combined with Mutual Enemies to create Social Dilemmas as well. Another option is combining Internal Rivalry with Mutual Goals.

Both Tied Results and Tiebreakers can be used to create Social Dilemmas; Tied Results allows players to have to share Rewards or not be given them at all when ties occur (Las Vegas is an example of this rule but only creates weak Social Dilemmas since the social groups are not explicit). Tiebreakers can in contrast make it impossible to share Rewards or Penalties even when players want to. Which of these two patterns are appropriate for a specific design however depends on the other factors related to the Rewards, Penalties, and how one can win the game.

Diegetic Aspects

Character Alignments can be used to motivate and thematize Social Dilemmas when the agents which are to have these Social Dilemmas are at least partly defined by said Character Alignments.

Interface Aspects

The way players treat Social Dilemmas can be influenced by what type of Social Interaction they can have with each other. This makes it possible to modulate their behavior by providing Communication Channels, hindering Unmediated Social Interaction or having Enforced Player Anonymity.

Narrative Aspects

When Social Dilemmas depict Characters actions rather than players', they can easily become important events in the Narration Structures or Predetermined Story Structures as Character Defining Actions.


Social Dilemmas give players a Freedom of Choice to do actions for egoistic or utilitarian reasons - but these may be influenced by Guilting evoked by the relations the players' have to the other players' affected. Since performing some of the actions possible in Social Dilemmas are likely to cause animosity from other players, these situations can create Internal Conflicts and Tension and well as Emotional Engrossment; this is likely to make the player suffering from the Social Dilemma have to choose an explicit Social Role. When players are aware of other players' Social Dilemmas, even if they only potentially are dilemmas, this affects these players' Perceived Chance to Succeed as well as create Risk/Reward situations for them due to Inherent Mistrust. The possibilities for Tension and Inherent Mistrust makes Social Dilemmas problematic to combine with Casual Gameplay. When players resolve Social Dilemmas so they do not directly benefit themselves comparably with others, this may be regarded as examples of Altruistic Actions even when they are actually No-Ops.

When other players are aware of dilemmas and they have Communication Channels to those having the dilemmas, it is quite natural for Negotiation and Social Interaction to occur. This may also support the rise of Cooperation, Dynamic Alliances, and Social Organizations when the Social Dilemmas are not resolved immediately due to being part of Continuous Goals, e.g. managing Shared Resources as in common in the Tragedy of the Commons case.

Betrayal can occur in several ways when Social Dilemmas exist: choosing Individual Rewards over Shared Rewards, making others receive Penalties while avoiding them oneself, or failing to fulfill obligations related to Delayed Reciprocity.

Since Social Dilemmas exists both as part of gameplay and in other situations, providing it in gameplay can quite easily point to similar cases in other contexts and through this Social Dilemmas offers a basis for Critical Gameplay Design.


Can Instantiate

Altruistic Actions, Betrayal, Critical Gameplay Design, Dynamic Alliances, Emotional Engrossment, Freedom of Choice, Guilting, Inherent Mistrust, Internal Conflicts, Negotiation, Predetermined Story Structures, Risk/Reward, Social Roles, Tension

with Characters

Character Defining Actions

with Communication Channels or Unmediated Social Interaction

Negotiation, Social Interaction

with Continuous Goals and Negotiation

Cooperation, Dynamic Alliances, Social Organizations

Can Modulate

Multiplayer Games, Narration Structures, Perceived Chance to Succeed

Can Be Instantiated By

Asynchronous Collaborative Actions, Beat the Leader, Character Alignments, Collaborative Actions, Delayed Reciprocity, Factions, Guilds, Incompatible Goals, Individual Penalties, Individual Rewards, Shared Penalties, Shared Resources, Shared Rewards, Renewable Resources, Tiebreakers, Tied Results, Tragedy of the Commons

Internal Rivalry together with Loyalty or Mutual Enemies or Mutual Goals

Can Be Modulated By

Communication Channels, Continuous Goals, Delayed Effects, Imperfect Information, No-Ops, Enforced Player Anonymity, Risk/Reward, Teams, Unmediated Social Interaction,

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Casual Gameplay


An updated version of the pattern Social Dilemmas that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].


  1. Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162,1243-1248.
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.