Cooperation vs. Competition

Cooperation is a tenet of our society. It is the underpinning of civilization and the difference between the modern world and antiquity. Grouping of individuals holds cultures together. It is this instinct that enables the populous to thrive, keep food on the table and survive. It is human nature. We want to be on a team.

Conversely, human kind is also fiercely competitive. A basic desire to be the best – and a need for the less capable or skilled individuals to fail is even present subliminally; natural selection is a striking example. It is also human nature. We want to win.

It is the point of intersection between these two evolutionary necessities that I find most interesting.

I believe the best way to highlight these traits is through a cooperative game or puzzle. It is this idea that served as the platform for the responsive web design project.

A combination of human nature and digital technology enabled the development of a skills-based game that showcased the power of media queries’ device-specific content and cooperative-competition (if such a thing exists).

From the very beginning, the development hinged on the fact that most, if not all, of the users would not own every device needed to complete the puzzle from start to finish. The observation of how a game requiring the use of multiple devices was played by a group of participants was an experiment not only in technology, but also of psychology.

It was difficult to predict how participants would behave prior to the game.

In an article from the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1999 discusses the balance between cooperation and competition in not just an economic sense.

“Some pieces of evidence suggest that many people are driven by fairness considerations, other pieces indicate that virtually all people behave as if completely selfish, and still other types of evidence suggest that cooperation motives are crucial.” (Fehr, E. & Schmidt, K. The Quarterly Journal of Economics (1999) 114 (3): 818.)

This statement rang true was in our project, as some participants chose to compete, others to cheat, some to cooperate and many chose to be fair and share. The amount of competition was especially interesting to note, given the fact that the only prize winnings were chocolate eggs.

Since the point was to complete the game in the shortest time possible, participants hurriedly solved the first puzzle. This is when it got interesting. The first puzzle completed by most people was on an iPhone or iPad; two devices that many brought with them.

This meant that sharing was not required. There was a competitive, urgent rush onward – until it was made clear that the use of some uncommon devices was also needed. Some groups were unaware that a communal effort was required while still maintaining the rivalry of individuals. This provided a point of contention for some players. If devices were shared – others would have the ability to catch up. If they weren’t shared – others would be stuck, but there would be the very distinct possibility that no one would be able to complete the entire game.

In addition, devices were snatched and teams ran off to complete a particular puzzle away from the rest of the participants (as to prevent overhearing the correct answer). This tactic was quickly derailed when it was discovered that some devices did not clear the answers after the ‘submit’ button was pressed; thus leaving a hint (or sometimes more) for the next group to use the device. Frustration was a common denominator for many.

An aspect of the sharing/competition quandary found in this experimental project that was not anticipated was the prevalence of cheating (or ‘alternative completion methods’ – for lack of a better term). Some players late in the evening found that the Opera browser’s device emulator allowed for a one-device solution for most of the puzzles. Through desktop-based emulation of many of the devices used for the game, the need for sharing was removed altogether. This was not only a quick way to solve the puzzles, but a sly one – and not something that was thought to be a problem during the development stage of the project. The Opera emulator’s functionality on our site has since been removed.

Another important point of contention for many players has to do with score security. Solutions to puzzles are entered through ‘team name’ and ‘solution’ input boxes. The ‘team name/number’, if entered exactly the same way on every puzzle, shows up on the results page as a single entry with each puzzle completed, an indication of the correct or incorrect answer and the time elapsed. It was quickly determined that any team on any device could re-enter a name/number with an incorrect answer to remove a previous team’s correct answer. This form of sabotage was quietly executed throughout the game and resulted in some upset teams. Also, if a team did not pay attention to exactly how their name/number were entered in the input field, a duplicate entry was created on the results page and a new timer was started.

Overall, the human interaction with our project showed that a fine line between competition and cooperation exists. People tended to not share unless absolutely necessary and many will go to great lengths to win, even if that includes bending the rules. I, for one, did not think that a small group’s studio project would allow for such a psychological observation or elicit such a competitive response from participants.