The Player’s Dilemma
What can game theory teach us about our business?
“Abraham Lincoln straightened his hat and fixed his stare on the cowboy stood across the table from him. The next decision he made would affect the outcome of the event his team had fought so valiantly to win. But more than that, it could affect his working relationships forever. Would he choose to split the winnings with his opponent, would he attempt to steal them, or would he have everything stolen from him? It was time to choose. The decision was made. The cards were flipped …”
This was the scene at the finale of one of our HackFu events, run by the team at chronyko for MWR InfoSecurity. The scenario facing two players from opposing teams is the classic problem from game theory known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. While it appears to be a fairly simplistic scenario, it can tell us a lot about our employees and in turn about the culture and values of our business.
But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the dilemma it works like this.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
There are two contestants, in our case we had representatives from the two teams that qualified for the final round of the HackFu showdown. At stake was a prize fund of points that could boost their team’s score and ultimately allow them to claim victory overall. The catch was that each contestant might end up with all, half or none of the prize depending on whether they each chose to split or steal it.
In simple terms, if one person steals and the other splits the stealer takes all the points, if they both split they each get half and if they both steal they each get nothing. They get a few minutes to discuss the dilemma with each other and then make a choice in secret about whether to split or steal. Both choices are then revealed to everyone at the same time.
This scenario therefore creates a conundrum, should you be satisfied with half of the points (in this instance it wasn’t enough for either team to take the overall lead in the event), be greedy and try and take all the points (which might mean overall victory), or potentially end up with nothing.
To make this a dilemma there needs to be something at stake. Unless there is a real incentive to take a risk and benefit from what is on offer, then we don’t learn anything from the result. At HackFu this decision mattered to the teams and their representatives because it affected the outcome of the event.
By the time this big showdown occurred at HackFu all the teams and their players were fully invested in the event. They were faced with this dilemma after 48 hours of hard competition and after completing many taxing challenges. Every team was still in the running to win the event and the points on offer really mattered to the overall result.
Whilst there are other more important things that attendance at HackFu brings you, like the learning outcomes that are realised, being in the winning team is still a prestigious accolade.
This dilemma was important to the individuals concerned and stealing all the points would tip the scales in that team’s favour, potentially enabling them to take the champion’s crown. Add to that the fact that the two people involved in this were appointed by their teams to represent them in this showdown, they weren’t acting purely on their own but representing the ambitions of their teammates as well.
In a world inhabited by machines and with no human interaction or relationships to worry about then the optimal approach is clear.
Convince the other party you will share and then steal everything from them.
If you use this approach as an individual who is part of a bigger group, like an employee in a business, this approach turns out to be a very short-term strategy. The reason being that while the immediate benefit of your actions are clear, the long term outcome is a breach of trust with your colleagues.
This negative outcome would be irrelevant if a machine was required to make the optimum choice based on purely optimising the winnings from the game.
So if you consider HackFu as purely a game, or a simple competition to be won, you could argue that the winner takes all approach is the optimum outcome. However, when we consider that this is a dilemma for real people and more importantly for participants who need to work with each other after the event, the steal now and worry later approach becomes less desirable.
At this point it’s important to remind ourselves that HackFu isn’t just a game, it’s a construct through which MWR investigates solutions to strategic challenges in their business and the wider cybersecurity industry. This “bigger picture” includes some tough problems including those that any one person or business can’t solve on their own.
In fact, the strategic challenges facing MWR are also some of the same ones facing the entire cybersecurity industry. Logic should therefore dictate that they should be solved collectively by the industry. For example, the widely acknowledged cybersecurity skills gap cannot be fully closed through individual actions, it requires collaboration and co-operative action by the entire industry. The situation facing the wider industry is therefore one that precludes short term individual gain at the expense of long term collective success. We also face this same situation in our own businesses, where different teams face different challenges and fight for limited resources in order to achieve their targets, but yet are all aligned towards the collective success of the business.
To solve the strategic problems we face, no matter what industry we work in, we need to work with our competitors as well as people with different objectives and philosophies to our own.
In a world where we need to work together a short-term gain at the expense of a breach of trust can seriously hinder our long-term ambitions.
So what happened in the big showdown at HackFu?
You may, or may not, be surprised to hear that the contestants chose to split the points and in the process ultimately sacrificed a gilt edged opportunity of winning the event for their team.
So what? Doesn’t this just show that they aren’t competitive people, or that they didn’t realise that victory was within their grasp? No, not at all.
Talking to the individuals involved after the event it was very clear that this wasn’t the case. The contestants knew each other well and whilst they worked in different departments, they relied on each other to obtain shared success within the business.
It turned out that they each clearly saw that simply pursuing the short-term gains would not adequately offset the cost of the resulting loss in the trust and confidence of their peers in the longer term.
Deep down we all know that doing the right thing in the long-term is what we should be doing, yet we generally find it very difficult to do that at the expense of surefire short-term success.
Your people can learn how to make the right choices if you give them the tools to help them.
What this outcome may have shown us is that if we communicate a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve and develop a framework of shared values to support it, then we can overcome the obstacles to long-term success that short-term thinking can put in our way.
What this tells us
Maybe this single component of a single HackFu event teaches us how to approach the wider challenges facing the cybersecurity industry. Maybe it highlights a positive aspect of the culture in a high performing business. Or maybe it’s just a bit of fun and a simple game with no relevance to the real world.
What we witnessed at HackFu may have been the result of the culture of long-term thinking at MWR or it may have simply been optimised gameplay from the attendees. However, I believe that it provides us with a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the type of people we need in a highly performing business. And all of this as the result of one simple question asked of two employees.
Split or Steal?
What is perhaps more interesting is to consider what would happen if you ran a prisoner’s dilemma in your company, with some real benefit to the participants as an outcome. What would the result be?
What would that result tell you about the culture and values of your company and its people?
What will what you learn from the outcome mean for the future of your business?
Maybe you should ask the question and find out!
Martyn is a founder of chronyko who have over 10 years experience building and running escape games and many other types of immersive training and skills development events. We’ll be sharing lots more of our thoughts and insights on the subject of immersive learning and development in our upcoming articles.