by Michael Alterio

I started the game knowing I wanted to stab you, my neighbor. Initial negotiations were excellent. We really hit it off. We wrote frequent long messages planning strategy. And more luck — no one else in the game seemed interested in allying with you. They say you should write to every player at the start of a game, but it's funny how seldom the other players bother to do so. So since no one communicated with you but me, it was easy to set you up.

The stab, when it came, was oh so sweet. Or rather, it was sweet to me, but bitter to you. Still, no one wrote to you — I had seen to that with my letters to them, and with the hopelessness of your situation. You were depressed, sure — who isn't, in that situation?

So when you quit, I was not all that surprised. I settled in to wait for your replacement. Days went by. Weeks. A couple months. It was a very long wait. Finally, the new you arrived.

It was really good of you to join the game with such a poor position. You folks who take over abandoned powers are a godsend — you're a better person than I am! I was glad to be back on track, and I wrote to you right away. You wrote back, eager to play for survival. You were happy with my offer of junior partner in a winning alliance. I convinced you we could work together. Everything was going great. And, true to form, the other players hardly gave you the time of day. Certainly, no one warned you against me! So when I stabbed you again, it was even sweeter.

With a couple retreats and removals coming to you, and only a few dots remaining, it's no surprise that you were discouraged. Certainly, with only one set of orders under your belt, you had no devotion or connection to the game. You had done me a favor by taking on this crud-pile of a position, and I had paid you back so poorly. So I was not surprised at all when you quit again. You made your point well in your final letter: "I hope no one takes on this power and this game never ends!"

I settled in for another long wait. Darn it.

What's wrong with this scenario? Most Diplomacy players would say that quitting a game is bad form. That dropping out spoils the game. That it's not fair. One thing is for sure — it does spoil the game… for the other players! It doesn't spoil the game for the quitter, because he's not playing any more. So in the end, the quitter, who may have no other way to hurt the one who stabbed him — at least has the satisfaction of some small revenge. Yes, it costs the quitter some dedication points — but maybe it's worth it if it salves the hurt.

Because let's be frank — it hurts to be stabbed. A player who puts time and energy into a game, who ends up trusting his stabber, feels bad when he is stabbed. "Too bad! Suck it down! Be a sport!" many would say. But the hurt is real, and it sucks.

So what does the stabbee do? He wants to lash out. He wants to hurt his stabber. It's a natural human response. Maybe he can manage to survive and fight. Maybe he hands his dots over to the other players. Maybe he gets discouraged and just self-supports the rest of the game. Or maybe the best way he can hurt his enemy (and avoid being reminded of how he was suckered in) is to resign.

In face-to-face play, there are prices to pay for stabbing and for quitting. Quitting seldom happens. The people in the game are your friends. You see them every day or week or month. You'll be playing with them again next time. The pressure to be a good sport is greatest among your peers. And if you keep quitting, maybe you won't be invited to the next game.

But there is a price to pay for stabbing in face-to-face play too. For one thing, you know that your pal is unhappy. For another, if you get a reputation as a stabber, it'll work against you in future games. At the very least, you can be sure that your stabbee will remember this stab next game, and factor it into his play.

Online, if you are a stabber, those prices disappear. In gunboat games, with or without press, you have no reputation. (Even in non-gunboat games, who knows you from Adam on the world-wide Web?) There's no way your past stabs can be known. So what reason is there NOT to stab? Your stab will never be held against you, and you can stab with impunity next time.

But if you are stabbed and you quit, there is still a price, since your dedication rating goes down. That hardly seems fair. The one who does well in the game, with a successful stab, gets off scot free. He does not see the look in your eye. He has no smear to his reputation. But you, the quitter, have to pay the price in dedication.

So what about those who resign? I cannot bring myself to condemn them. There is very little that the weak can do in Diplomacy to hurt those who have stabbed them, and I don't blame those who take the small recourse open to them. It is a petty vengeance, I suppose, and ignoble; but it can satisfy, and it makes you feel better.

In fact, I think I'll play Devil's Advocate and applaud the quitter! Diplomacy was designed as a face-to-face game, and the penalty for stabbing — especially the blow to your reputation among your fellow players — was part of the game. Online, we've removed that penalty, and changed the game's original design. If we view a resignation as an acceptable penalty for stabbing, maybe we can return to the game's original intent, in which stabbers paid a price. If a stabber risks inspiring a quit, and then has to endure a delay of game, maybe it will deter the stabber. In face-to-face play, a stab is costly for meta-game reasons. If more people quit when stabbed, then it reintroduces a meta-game cost that may deter the stabber. That's more like Diplomacy as it was created.

So get out there and quit!

Michael Alterio

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