Reflective futures, or Mafia begins and wins

March’s issue of Wired published large (and I should add, long-waited) piece on the Mafia game (otherwise known as Werewolf) – How a parlour game became a tech phenomenon. The rules of the games are simple, deceptively simple even, to the extent that many people believe that such a game couldn’t be invented, and should have ‘always existed’.

Contrary to this widespread belief, the game has an author, Russia (or rather Kazakhstan)-born Dimitry Davidoff who invented it back in the 1980s, when studying psychology in the Moscow State University. The game is often describes as a (bloody) contest between “an informed minority and an uninformed majority“. There are multiple versions of the basic ruleset, and some of them are getting really complex, often including new roles etc. But the core idea is as simple as follows: The group of players is divided into two subgroups (mafia and innocent citizens), with only difference that Mafia people know who is who, and innocent citizens, well, remain innocent. The goal of Mafia is to kill honest citizens (or eat them in Werwolf reincarnation of the game); the goal of the latter is – if not kill, then at least jail the Mafia members.

As with every great game, this simple set of rules results in a incredibly complex group dynamics, with dynamically evolving strategies of revealing and concealing. Davidoff himself argues that “the best possible strategy is honesty – both for citizens and Mafia gangs”, the statement rarely accepted by the players. As with every game, it’s not enough to play it once, the true sense of this game emerges after – and because – multiple rounds, especially if played with same people.

it’s interesting (and a bit sad) the the paper hardly mentions the whole phenomenon of reflexivity, the key psychological skill required for (and developed by) the game. That, and also the skills of grounding (capacity to imagine what people think about what you think about what they think about what you think) are the examples of the key ‘future skills’ we often talk at Summ()n. And the game is therefore an excellent tool to hone them further.

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