thread: 2006-10-05 : Escalation

On 2006-10-06, David Wintheiser wrote:

Reading this explanation, I was reminded of the old computer game 'Balance of Power'.

Quick summary for those not familiar with the game: you're the United States, playing against a computerized Soviet Union. You win the game by getting more governments to like you, expressed as a stat called 'prestige'. You can get prestige from a government by helping them out - by sending money or troops (depending on what they think they're most in need of).

Here's where the game intersects with the discussion of escalation - after setting up your moves for a turn, the Russians get to react to your moves. (You get to do the same after their moves as well.) They can ignore your move, or escalate by engaging in 'back-channel discussion'. This is their way of saying "we don't like what you've done here, please cancel that move". If you do cancel, you don't get to make the move, but since it's in back-channel, neither side loses prestige. If you respond by challenging the challenge - excalating, in other words - now the feud becomes public and prestige points start to go on the line. Not many, at first, but as the disagreements escalate through diplomatic speeches up to Def Con 2, the prestige mounts, and the side that steps back loses more the higher the escalation went.

And if you escalate all the way to Def Con 1, the game is over - nuclear war has no winners.

In playing "Balance of Power", there were two ways you could find yourself at Def Con 1:

First, by attempting a move so patently silly that you should never have thought the Soviets would let it fly. Example - sending 100,000 troops into Poland.

Second, by excalating a conflict that, based on your moves in the game thus far, the computer judges as something that isn't in your interest at all and which it determines you'll quickly back down from, but that determinination is, for whatever reason, in error.

When you find yourself escalating to the brink of nuclear war over the fate of $5 million in ecomonic aid to Eritrea, each time asking yourself, 'Why is the computer pushing this so much?' and then realizing that your choice is now to lose the game from international loss of prestige or lose the game by launching the nukes, it gives you an appreciation for trying to understand your counterpart's reasons for escalation.

Anyway, that's kind of a long-winded intro to my follow-up question:

Assuming second-type escalation happens in role-playing, where a player escalates an issue that he thinks is irrelevant to another, and is surprised when it turns out not to be, is this sort of escalation always a sign of dysfunction? (A player taking what he wants in escalation thinking that others won't find it worth the trouble to challenge, for instance, or a character creation system where players aren't allowed to define their characters in terms that allow other players to identify things those characters really care about?) Or is it possible for a well-designed game, with well-intentioned players, to nevertheless have a seemingly innocuous conflict escalate utterly beyond anything expected?


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