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Playtesting Moralityball

A report from the playtest of Moralityball, a new sport inspired by the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Edward McNeill, Blogger

August 19, 2012

5 Min Read

Moralityball is a new sport / social experiment that I submitted to this year's DCGames festival. It was originally created for a "Values at Play" course at Dartmouth College, drawing inspiration from the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons to model a tricky collaborative problem. That was the intention, anyway! In practice, it needed a lot of work, and I was blessed with the chance to playtest and iterate on the game in advance of the festival. Organizing a dozen people to playtest a new athletic game on a hot day is no easy feat, and the DCGames organizers deserve a lot of credit for putting it together.

The original rules for Moralityball were: There are 10-20 players, each of which has a base that is located in a large circle around a big pile of tennis balls. You can carry one ball at a time, and the goal is to make sure there are at least 3 balls in your base at the end of a 5-minute round. You can steal from other players' bases. Also, players wore flag football belts; if your flag was removed, you had to re-attach it while standing at your base before you could resume play (this rule was added to make sure players could defend their base by ripping off attackers' flags).

The idea was that all players could win if they cooperated (and there was a reward (candy) for the winners), but it's always easier to just steal from your neighbors, and this social dynamic rests on a foundation of tag and capture-the-flag.

When we played Moralityball for the first time, it went splendidly for about 30 seconds. Then, everything stopped moving. Players who had gathered 3 balls just stopped collecting, defending their base instead. If other players left their base, they would certainly get stolen from, so even the losing players were disincentivized from gathering more balls. In hopes of stirring things up, I changed the rules mid-game to require 4 balls for victory, but the game reached a new equilibrium soon after. There were other issues as well (defending players could never be moved from their base, and 5 minutes was just too long per round), and the game was cut short.

All the players came together to share ideas about how the game might be fixed, and we settled on a few new directions to try out. The second version of the game was pretty similar to the first, but with some tweaks meant to allow more useful tactics: you could carry stolen flags, you could attach flags that you stole off other players, the game was shortened to 3 minutes, and the higher victory requirement was kept.

Watch game #2 (with apologies for the low quality; I apparently recorded with the wrong camera setting)

As you can see, the game still settles down at about the 1-minute mark. The changes were improvements, but they didn't address the fundamental issue.

The next version of the game divided the players into two teams, each with one large base that was fairly close to the other. The idea was to allow some players to act as a dedicated defense, freeing up other players to gather and steal the balls. This worked to some extent, but it primarily turned into big, confusing groups of people running into each other and tearing off flags. In addition, it completely lost sight of the original core idea of the game (modeling a group resource management dilemma).

Watch game #3

After that, we tried a sort of hybrid of these game types. Players chose a partner, to form teams of 2 that were situated in a smallish semicircle around the starting pile of balls. There was also a separate point that players had to be to re-attach lost flags (to make sure that defending players had to leave the base). We defined two tiers of winners: those that finished with at least 3 balls, and the team that finished with the most balls.

This version was a lot more successful. Since half the team could defend, the other half was free to go hunting. Also, since the team that captured the most balls got a greater reward, teams were incentivized to keep gathering even after reaching the "winning" threshold. We played this version once more, for a fifth and final game.

Watch game #5

The game still slows down after a while, with some teams content to sit on their hoard and defend it, but the tension stays much higher than it did for previous versions. Players gave it fairly good reviews at the end of the day, and the game was ultimately given the thumbs-up to appear at the festival.

There are still a few changes that I'm considering before the rules are finalized, and there were a lot of radical ideas that could really transform the game. Calling out rule changes regularly, making flags the primary resource, or allowing players to freely reposition their base could be very, very interesting. I'd love to playtest more, but I don't have the social wherewithal to organize it myself, so it's straight on to the festival! Wish me luck.

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