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Playtesting Moralityball
by E McNeill on 08/19/12 12:55:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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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E McNeill
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The balls are the thing you're trying to steal (like the flags in Capture-the-flag). Here, the "flags" are referring to the things on the flag football belts. Originally, if you ripped off someone's flag (which puts that person out of play temporarily), you had to drop it immediately, but later we tried allowing people to carry it around or to attach it to themselves.

Bart Stewart
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Very neat idea.

I'd argue that the first two versions were instructive failures. Setting an artificial "cap" on the number of balls a player needs to order to be scored as a winner seems bound to fail to encourage activity.

For your next version, you might consider adding a central "controller" player who is permitted to take one ball away at any time from any player with three or more balls. The controller can also give one ball to a player in exchange for one flag. At the end of the period, if the number of flags held by the controller is greater than the number held by all players, everyone loses.

(I'm being a little facetious here, but there is a germ of a playable idea here, maybe by letting players earn more balls by trading them among themselves. Economic policy analogies of most kinds could be demonstrated this way.)

One thing I didn't see here was the Prisoner's Dilemma. To demonstrate that, players need to be able to cooperate and defect with each other, and to receive rewards and penalties accordingly.

A way to get this might be to take away the flags, add a controller player, and give each player a red card and a green card.

Gameplay would consist of letting players run around and make deals with one other player, each of whom simultaneously holds up either a red card (signaling defection) or a green card (signaling cooperation) where the controller can see it. (Importantly, so can other players.)

1. If both players hold up a green card, the controller throws a ball to each player.
2. If both players hold up a red card, both players throw a ball to the controller (if they have one).
3. If one player holds up a red card and the other a green card, the controller signals that the green card holder must give one of his balls (if he has one) to the red card holder.

Players are not permitted to have more than one transaction in a row with the same other player.

And finally, each player should keep count of the number of cooperations and defections he chose.

At the end of the period, go through each player and count up the number of balls, cooperations, and defections.

Who wants to bet that the players seen to be most cooperative (with other cooperating players) won't wind up having the most balls?

E McNeill
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It's true, this one isn't quite a Prisoner's Dilemma (so I try to weasel out with "inspired by"). I once made a card game that was more of a straight Prisoner's Dilemma, but this deviated somewhat. Still, it features a group-optimal cooperative solution that is dominated by a more selfish strategy. Good enough, I think.

I'm looking at a few different solutions, but I'd like to hew pretty close to the original mechanics. One idea is to give out one reward for every 3 balls a team collects (so it's maximally efficient for the group to somehow cooperate, usually). Another idea is to have a separate spot where the players are charged with depositing ALL the balls, as an alternative group victory. If all the balls end up there, the game ends immediately and everyone gets a small reward; otherwise, the single team finishing with the most gets a slightly larger reward.

I'd welcome other ideas, but I'd like to keep out cards or other elements existing outside the original set of mechanics.

Michael Joseph
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if you could train a bunch of dogs to do this with each human player commanding their own dog, that would be pretty epic. Watching dogs hoarding and stealing balls on command would be hillarious. Points would be deducted if a dog dropped a ball, took too long to return their base, took a ball without being commanded to do so (that would be viewed as a selfish theft and not serving their master). You could have certain high value balls stored away in a certain hard to access part of the field that only becomes easily accessible during a small window of time (say a gate opens up temporarily) and a dog could be commanded to attempt retrieval. Opponent dogs can be tempted to disobey and defect to another master's side (by some method of luring an opponent dog off the field of play) upon which the master who succeeded can introduce a second of their own dogs to represent the newly captured dog)

For some reason the game just looks like the sort of game that is made for a "master" to command a "slave." I think this is because watching actual humans running around trying to hoard resources and stealing from others just looks too devolved (or maybe too much like real life).