by Thorin Munro

Editor's Note: Thorin Munro started and continues to run the "owls" series of games, originally inspired by Frank Rivers' book The Way of the Owl: Succeeding with Integrity in a Conflicted World. As of this writing, the series consists of well over 150 games of standard Diplomacy — making it by far the most prolific series on the DPjudge!

The following article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Thorin's own Owls Diplomacy News. We reproduce it here with his permission, and look forward to sharing more of Thorin's observations in future issues of the Pouch.

The act of lying in the game of Diplomacy has intrigued me for a long time. Particularly as I have thought about the Owlish mantra of succeeding in conflict with integrity. How can it be possible to reconcile telling a lie as an act of integrity? I intend to explore and resolve this paradox in the following article. Undoubtedly some will disagree with these arguments, so I look forward to your feedback!

What is a lie? The Wikipedia definition "a lie is a statement made by someone who believes or suspects it to be false, in the expectation that the hearers may believe it. A lie can be a genuine falsehood or a selective truth, a lie by omission or even the truth if the intention is to deceive or to cause an action not in the listener's interests." At the heart of the lie is the intent to mislead another.

In the context of the game of Diplomacy the most obvious use for the lie is to mask a coming attack but equally the lie may be used to discredit or create tensions amongst other powers or for a multitude of other nefarious purposes by a wily Diplomat. Lying by omission is often considered to be less heinous than an outright lie. That is allowing another to believe something one knows to be false, by failing to reveal the truth.

My thesis is that in the context of the game of Diplomacy (and it arguably applies to Real Life) misdirection, omission, subterfuge, even the bald lie are a valid and necessary part of the Diplomats ‘toolkit’. The game’s rules clearly indicate this "These discussions and written agreements, however, do not bind any player to anything s/he may say. Deciding whom to trust as situations arise is an important part of the game." (Diplomacy Rulebook, 4th Edition: Page 3).

Imagine playing Poker and never bluffing! In either Diplomacy or Poker you are likely to be beaten consistently by the players who are prepared to utilise the full range of options available to them. The definition of integrity that is most relevant is "The quality or condition of being whole or undivided; completeness." And from that point of view, the use of the full range of game elements is a whole or complete approach, and I argue, therefore an act of integrity.

How to lie? In my experience it takes considerable skill to craft a believable lie and then execute it. For me the most effective lies are built around the truth. Actually my most successful lies are the ones I tell that could simply be the truth, were I to follow through. The classic example is offering support into a SC to two different parties. You’ll have to let one (or both!) down. But until the deadline passes, both offers are potentially true. So were they lies when you made the offer? Or only after the deadline! (Here we could get into an interesting meta-physical debate about Heisenberg’s ‘cat in the box’ Quantum thought experiment).

The paradox is that for most of the game, Diplomacy really is about trust. I suspect that for the bulk of the game most players are engaged in working to build sound relationships with other players. Gaining an early reputation as unreliable or even a liar is unlikely to produce much long-term success. At least one, and more likely a number, of alliances will be necessary for any player who aims at solo victory. The alliance is the platform needed for a single power up against six other potentially hostile powers, to grow and flourish. Deciding when to break your word is one of the most important strategic decisions you will make.

Expect to be lied to in the game of Diplomacy! This way you are likely to be prepared in some form and it’s less likely you’ll be psychologically thrown off balance and spiral downward. A piece of wisdom I collected from Homer Simpson is that it takes two to lie. One to lie and the other to believe the lie! Test all information critically, keep an open mind, communicate with a range of players to corroborate.

Having read many EOG discussions, I often observe one party accusing another of being a liar about some point or act in the game and attempting to take the high moral ground by claiming to ‘never lie’ themselves and what a rotten human the liar is. Usually this relates to an alliance or agreement that has ended with a stab and then fractured relations. As proposed earlier, I suspect anyone who has ‘never told a lie’ in Diplomacy is either fibbing, or missing the opportunity to play the game to its full potential.

Forgiveness is an important consideration in the discussion of lying. When the situation calls for it, superior players often take a very pragmatic approach and forgive past lie/s and will return to work with the liar if it is in their best interest. It takes a high level of diplomatic maturity for a player to operate this way. Too often the lie precipitates irreparable damage to a relationship (usually in the form of hurt ego or pride) and one or both the players can never move beyond it even in the face of losing the game. Then again, beware the serial offender! If forgiveness results in further lies, then the Chinese proverb "Fool me once Shame on you; Fool me twice Shame on me." Is directly applicable!

Once you lie, then what? Immediately following having lied, skilled players will write to the victim making some excuse, rationale, new offer etc. This takes considerable balance, to front up and attempt to explore what can be negotiated from the new position. A Fledgling victim will most likely react in a knee-jerk fashion following the betrayal, turning aggressive, shedding tears or giving the liar the silent treatment. The Owl will be able to respond in any of these ways depending on her assessment of the situation and what is likely to produce the best result for her! She will negotiate from a position of inner balance. Tears, rage and silence are all appropriate in context but the trick is, they will be the result of a calculated psychological assessment of the situation!

I have often wondered if being a skilled liar in Diplomacy implies you are a skilled liar in real life? I can only observe that real life capabilities play a significant role in success in the game of Diplomacy whether they are tactical, strategic, negotiation, creative writing, or even humour. So if you have skill at misdirection in Diplomacy, then I suspect you also have that skill available outside the game! (The hope is that like Superman, we choose to use our skills for good!) I’d also posit that being skilled in lying makes you more adept at reading lies by others. That can be a very handy capability as it leaves you far less vulnerable to harm both in a Diplomacy game and in real life…

So returning to the original question. Can lying in Diplomacy be reconciled with playing the game with integrity? I have argued that the well-timed lie is a vital tool for a Diplomat who aims for solo victory. Using the full range of tools at the Diplomats disposal IS an act of integrity in the context of the game. Learning to be skilled and understanding that for most of the game the truth is far more critical, means your strategic lies will be sharp, clean cuts rather than clumsy hacks!

Thorin Munro

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