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Article - 'A Guide to Choices: Part II' by Mateui

An item about Game Design posted on Jul 27, 2004


Dilemmas are introduced, with some nice diagrams that outline every possible choice within each decision.


A Guide to Choices: Part II
By: Mateui


This is the second part of the article “A Guide to Choices.” In this edition, choices will be discussed in more detail - focusing on the introduction to dilemmas and their usage.

What is a Dilemma? defines dilemma as:

“A situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable or mutually exclusive.”

In other words, a dilemma is a decision in which each choice something is gained, but also lost. Dilemmas are often paradoxical.

So, why are dilemmas important in RPGs, and any other sorts of games for that matter? Simply because they force the player to psychologically weigh the options given to him and the consequences of each action. Dilemmas involve the player having to actually think hard about what choice to make, and this fact resounds in the player’s mind. If a player has stopped playing your game, and they’re still thinking about how to overcome a problem in the most favorable way, then you have succeeded as a Game Designer in that aspect.

But first, you have to actually know how to utilize dilemmas in your game.

Examples of Dilemmas

Before you can make your own dilemma in your game, you should look at a few examples to properly understand the basics.

First of, let’s start with a basic dilemma.

(The following situation is described in the book, Bargaining Games, by J. Keith Murnighan)

Take it or Leave It:

You and an acquaintance, "Pat", are walking down the street when you meet an older couple with a bag of money. The older couple makes the following offer: We wish to give the two of you $100,000 if you can decide how it should be decided between the two of you in the next 3 minutes. You say, "So, Pat, what do you say? How about fifty thousand dollars each". To your dismay, Pat answers, "Gee, I'm really sorry, but my mother needs an expensive operation. So, I'll take eighty thousand dollars and you can have twenty thousand. I won't settle for anything less!"

So, what would you do in that situation? Insist that the money be evenly split, risking that the three minutes may be used up, or happily give Pat the $80,000?

Here’s a picture of all the options that are possible in this situation.

(The image is pretty self-explanatory. The words instead the boxes are the result of the actions.)

There are basically 4 options available, seeing as how you each have two different choices. But, there are only three outcomes:

1) You both get $50,000
2) You get $20,000, while Pat gets $80,000
3) None of you get any money

If you and Pat are both on different pages, and not of you submits to the other’s decision, then you will both miss out, and no one will get anything. Both you and Pat have to decide whether they would try to get the other person to agree with them, or to submit to the other. If no one submits, then you both fail.

It’s quite a dilemma.


Another dilemma quite like this, can be found in when of the challenges in “Making the Cut II: Indonesia.” (SPOILER AHEAD, IF YOU DID NOT READ THE EPISODES WHICH ARE ON GW)

It was the final immunity challenge, with three people fighting to receive immunity – which would grant them a safe passage to the final 2, and the decision to choice one other person to go with them. The task was pretty simple. All the three had to do was unanimously decide who should win. This presented them with a large dilemma.

Here is another matrix describing each possible choice and decision.

(The little square/circle/diamond represent asterisks – they point to the legend on the bottom of the image)

Now, this one is a little harder to understand, since there are 3 different people who each have 2 choices to make.

There are only 4 outcomes though.

1) Player 1 Wins Immunity
2) Player 2 Wins Immunity
3) Player 3 Wins Immunity
4) No agreement is made, and the players are punished in some way.

The dilemma comes from the fact that if two people give up immunity to another player, that player will then have to make a decision of which player of the other 2 should accompany them to the final. Either way, one person will be mad at the player making the decision.

More Complex: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

This is an older, somewhat more famous dilemma. I will briefly outline the situation for you. (The Prisoner's Dilemma was discovered in 1950 by Melvin Drescher and Merrill Flood, who both worked at the RAND Corporation. Albert W. Tucker gave it its name and wrote the first article about it.)

You are a criminal, and you and your partner (for whom you have no feelings one way or the other) have committed an crime. Unluckily, you've both been caught, and you're being held in separate cells in a jail, with no way to talk to each other.

The crown attorney comes to talk to you, and says he's willing to make a deal with you. He's also offering the same deal to your partner, and you both know that. He says, "We have some circumstantial evidence on both of you, and if neither of you tells me anything we can still get both of you a year in jail, the way things stand right now. But - if you confess, and admit your partner was with you, then we'll let you off scot free because you were helpful, and he'll get three years in jail. Of course, if he confesses and you don't, then you're the one who gets the three years and he walks free. Now, if you both confess, then we've got you both dead to rights and you both get two years in jail."

The crown attorney leaves and goes back to his office, after telling you he'll be back in half an hour to get your answer. What do you do?


Here is the matrix for this dilemma.

So now, you have two decisions. You can either “co-operate” with your partner, by not confessing, or chose to defect, by confessing.

If you defect, you either get 0 or 2 years in jail, depending on what your partner does. If you co-operate, you get either 1 or 3. Clearly, defecting is the better strategy.

But, your partner is thinking the exact same thing! And if you both confess you will both get 2 years in jail. If you would have cooperated, by remaining silent, you would only get 1 year in jail.

But if either of you remains silent, while the other confesses, then the silent one will get 3 years, while the confessor goes free!

This is a dilemma because if you both choose your optimal strategy (defecting), you do worse if you would have stayed silent, the more illogically option.

This dilemma becomes even more interesting if it is repeated a number of times. What would be the optimal strategy for that?

Why don’t you try it out for yourself? The site where I got the original story contains a simulation, where you have to decide whether to cooperate with the computer, or defect. It should be an interesting experience, so I urge you to try it out.

The Prisoner's Dilemma Interactive Form
(It’s on the bottom of the page)

After playing against the computer, you will discover what the optimal strategy is. It is called “Tit for Tat.” Basically, one player is the “Tit” and they make the initial choice. The “Tat” starts off by cooperating. Thereafter, they copy the “Tit’s” previous move. If this is done all the way through then the jail time should be less than if this strategy was not employed.

What’s the Point?!

Well, this is interesting, you might say, but what’s the point?! Ask yourself if you’re using any dilemmas in your game. If you are, what are the choices, and the consequences that come forth from those choices? If you aren’t using any dilemmas, can you think of ways to turn some choices into dilemmas?

Now, dilemmas are pretty hard to think up – I had trouble making up the Anti-Collaboration dilemma myself, but don’t give up – having even one dilemma in a game can increase it’s impact on the emotional and psychological character of the player. Hey, he may even learn something about himself from playing your game, and that’s something.

One advice however – don’t have too many dilemmas, as they are a little frustrating, and can lead to hair-pulling. One or two is good enough.

Other than that, I really have nothing else to say, as each dilemma is pretty unique in almost every way.

That’s basically it. ^_^!

- Mat