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Games are more than just empty entertainment, they can also be very revealing about the human mind. Because games take place in a controlled environment detached from 'real life', they can be used to investigate sensitive aspects of human behavior that would be tricky to research in real life. Generally, games reward players who engage in conflict, although it doesn't always have to the the case.

One of the darkest aspects of human relationships is the prospect of betrayal. Unlike plain old deception or more straightforward antisocial behavior, betrayal happens when someone turns against somebody with which they already have some kind of trusted bond. Obviously, asking people to betray their friends, colleagues and loved ones in real life as part of a scientific research project would be awkward to say the least.

Strategy Game Players Indulge Their Dark Side

Screenshot from 'Diplomacy' [Paradox Interactive]
Screenshot from 'Diplomacy' [Paradox Interactive]

Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, a computer scientist at Cornell University with an interest in what language reveals about our relationships, turned to a classic strategy game to investigate the connection between language and betrayal.

Diplomacy is a complex multiplayer game that has been around for decades, first published as a play-by-post in 1959, and now mainly played online. It's also been released as a video game several times, most recently by Paradox Interactive in 2005.

Board game box cover [Hasbro}
Board game box cover [Hasbro}

The game is set in the early 20th century and has players attempting to dominate the European continent via diplomatic and strategic moves. Double dealings, secret treaties and broken promises are all possible and considered a vital part of the game by seasoned players.

John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger were reported fans of this tense strategic game, and players seem to relish the role of power-hungry Machiavellian despots. There's no dice rolling or turn-taking in Diplomacy. The meat of the game is in it's negotiation phase, when players converse and make their arrangements in private conversations, followed by a movement phase where every player's decisions are revealed and executed simultaneously.

By studying the language of communication between the players as they attempted to form alliances and plot treachery, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil found some trends that could be used to predict betrayal. But figuring out what exactly caused the betrayal and who is most at fault is a more difficult matter.

The Forked Tongue Of Treachery

Backstabbing is a feature, not a bug
Backstabbing is a feature, not a bug

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and colleagues examined 145,000 messages exchanged by players over the course of 249 games of Diplomacy, and used computer analysis to contrast exchanges between players whose relationships ended in betrayal with those whose alliances lasted. This method revealed some subtle signals of impending betrayal.

One harbinger of treachery was a shift in politeness. Players who were generally excessively polite to everyone were more likely to betray their agreements, but people who suddenly become more polite were more likely to become victims of betrayal. Here's an example from the study of some sweet talking before a wicked backstab:

Germany: Can I suggest you move your armies east and then I will support you? Then next year you move [there] and dismantle Turkey. I will deal with England and France, you take out Italy.

Austria: Sounds like a perfect plan! Happy to follow through. And—thank you Bruder!

Next move, Austria was invading German territory, despite their warm words of brotherhood.

Another indicator of impending betrayal was an increase in planning-related language by a potential victim, which usually indicated that they would suffer betrayal in the next few rounds. The language of soon-to-be betrayers also contained more sunny and positive in the lead-up to their act of treachery.

Sugar on the tongue, salt in the wound {Disney–ABC}
Sugar on the tongue, salt in the wound {Disney–ABC}

Using these indicators, a computer program could predict future betrayal 57 percent of the time. This is some impressive accuracy, especially compared to human players who never saw the knife behind the back until it was too late.

From Video Games To Real Life

Civilization VI has been the source of my most bitter video game betrayals {2K Games}
Civilization VI has been the source of my most bitter video game betrayals {2K Games}

Many gamers who've tried their hand at multiplayer games know the bitter taste of betrayal. There's no rage quite like exacting revenge for a betrayal in Civilization VI, where I've learned which leaders are the most trustworthy, or to punish a team-killer in a multiplayer FPS. At least in games, these things sting but they're also part of the fun, adding tension that we'd rather do without in our real lives.

The Diplomacy study showed that the behavioral shift in the relationship turns out to be more important than the linguistic warnings. When the regular balance of positive or negative sentiment becomes upset, the threat of betrayal looms. While language can't be used effectively as the sole basis for decision-making in real life relationships, it's to your advantage if you know how to interpret these clues.

Speaking of betrayal, gamers are used to being buttered up with sweet trailer and then backstabbed with a shabby product. Check it out:

What's the worst betrayal you've ever suffered in a game? Or the wickedest one that you managed to pull off?


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