The Traitor Effect: Does Trust Impact Heroics?

August 1, 2010 · Leave a Comment

The games that interest me most…

…are those that enable me to practice commutable skills – skills I can use in non-game scenarios. Skills like communication, critical thinking, short- and long-term strategy development, increasing the accuracy of my predictions, and adapting more quickly to new situations, information, and resources.

Shadows over Camelot (SoC) engages me on all these fronts. Much more on that in a minute.

Because I favor playing "practical" games, I often think about how directly in-game situations relate to real-life situations.

So, yesterday: I played two games of Shadows over Camelot with my good friends. In SoC, before you start, each player draws a Loyalty card that determines his/her secret loyalty.

If you're Loyal, you want the whole team to win – and if they do, you share in the win, even if your guy dies.

If you're the Traitor, you want to undermine the team's efforts to win – and when they lose, you win by yourself.

In the second game, Jimmy accused me of being the Traitor. (I was not.)

When I asked him why he had accused me, he and Beth both agreed that I appeared to be playing the second game differently than I had played the first.  And that made me look suspicious.

I thought about it, and yes – I definitely played that second game differently.

The first game, we treated as a training game. Amber and Jamie hadn't played before – so, we took the Traitor card out of the mix.  That way, they could learn the mechanics of the game without the added pressure of 1) recognizing a Traitor, 2) accusing a Traitor, 3) fighting a Traitor, or 4) acting as the Traitor themselves.

The second game was full-on: a Traitor card was available to be pulled, and with six people playing, odds were good that someone at the table was a Traitor.

And knowing that – knowing that it was very likely that someone at the table wanted the team to fail – that knowledge affected the way I played.

In the first game, I played with abandon. I burned through life points like they were candy. I held nothing back. I was willing to sacrifice myself to make sure the team won.

In the second game – knowing that there was, probably, one person at the table trying to undermine us all and make sure we failed – I played much more conservatively.

I conserved my life points, paranoid that I would need them to power extra heroics that would fight off a Traitor's sabotage.

I took longer weighing my decisions about which evil I ought to commit during the mandatory "do evil" phase.

I snuck glances at people to see if I could get a read off of them.

In short, I acted much less heroically.

All this unheroic behavior set off my companions' radar, and in their minds, marked me as the Traitor.

Which fascinates me. Because I wonder how commutable this situation is to non-game social situations.

For example: let's say you work for a great boss.

She has your back. She prevents shit from rolling downhill past her and onto you. She tells you when she has successfully prevented such rollings, and when she is unable to prevent them, she apologizes and explains why. She helps people understand what you do, so they respect and treat you better and they cooperate with you more readily. She leads from the front. She cultivates trust.

She inspires loyalty.

Now – what won't you do for her? What won't you do to make sure she succeeds, the team succeeds? What won't you do to live up to and protect the image of the team that she's built in the clients' minds?

Nothing. You'll do it all. You'll throw yourself on your sword.

You'll work to the point of mental and physical exhaustion, and further. You'll become a better version of yourself – faster, stronger, friendlier, more responsible, cooperative, diligent, communicative, supportive.

You'll willingly suffer if you know it will help the team win.

But what if you know (or suspect) that someone on your team – maybe the boss, maybe a coworker – wants bad things for you? Wants to see you fail, or see the team fail? What if you suspect a teammate is not telling you the truth, is working on some private agenda that will end up hurting you, hurting the team?

What will you do?

You'll hold back. Won't you? You'll keep something in reserve.

You'll mentally rehearse scenarios where you have to respond quickly to defend yourself or the team – from damage to morale, reputation, effectiveness, health – and you will conserve whatever resources you think you will need to mount such a defense.

You'll take longer to weigh your options.

You'll weigh your words more carefully before speaking.

You'll watch and wait for attacks.

You'll get more than a little paranoid about what might happen next.

Which actions, when observed by your teammates, will make them suspect your motives and wonder if you are a traitor that they need to defend against.

The idea I'm putting forth is this:

When one person acts in a disloyal manner, their teammates ready for defense, ultimately causing everyone to underperform.

I'm calling this the Traitor Effect.

Here are my questions to you:

Does the Traitor Effect happen in real life?

Once the Traitor-Effect snowball starts rolling downhill, can you stop it? How?

On an affected team, can any member of that team rise above it and perform at the level of his or her heroic potential?

Categories: Certainty · Connection · Contribution · Games