My friend and former classmate, Tanya Short, wrote this article about the “Unique Problems of Cooperative Game Design”. It recalled to me my former article about betrayal mechanics in games as well as Wil Wheaton’s series on good gamemastering. And, as we see with Shut Up & Sit Down’s excellent Tips for the Top 5 Problem Players, there is much more to cooperative gaming than making a mechanically sound and fair system.

Today, we’re going to explore the privilege, framing, and inequality.


Much of Tanya’s discussion deals directly with Privilege. Mismatches of skill and knowledge lead to the total domination of one player over others. Even the issues of Uniformity, Humiliation, and Schadenfreude in her essay stem from this mismatch of power between the players. Quinns also addresses “Quarterbacking” in his video – the most maligned activity in cooperative games – wherein one player uses their privileged position as the most experienced to dominate the discourse in a game.

Some of the problem of this comes from the “Empathy Gap.” Studied heavily by Paul Piff and his colleagues at UC Berkeley, Privilege kinda makes you mean. Actually, it’s not a “kinda” thing. Money, privilege, and other advantages make you outright cruel to people viewed as out-groups. In extreme cases, this will completely remove a person’s ability to empathize.

This can be problematic – at best – when playing a game with someone. Cooperative games, in particular, can be ruined by a lack of empathy. Cooperative games function under a compact that everyone participating is there to have fun and that they will achieve this fun by pursuing a common goal together. This compact is vital to the operation of the game, and empathy – the ability in this case to see whether another player is having fun – is a vital part of it.

However, games have a way of stripping that empathy from us. Often, this is due to barriers in communication – faces are really important to empathy – but there is also a more sinister forces that pulls us apart: privilege.

Any player in a game brings their skill and knowledge with them to that game, and all players will have more or less skill or knowledge than all others. When this inequality of skill becomes obvious, the highly-skilled will quickly identify themselves as a higher contributor. This identification, which is perfectly natural, is the death of empathy and thus the game.

Paul Piff’s research – as well as the research of many others – has shown time and again that advantage breeds not only a lack of empathy for others, but it also breeds greater consumption of resources, aggressiveness, and a form of extreme narcissism. This happens regardless of whether the advantage was granted by some in-born talent or if it was arbitrarily granted by an outside force.

This can make cooperative play incredibly frustrating.

Not all hope is lost – as people who viewed Paul Piff’s TED talk already know – the empathy gap is highly susceptible to framing.


By the simple act of saying that your game is a cooperative game will drastically alter the behaviors of the players participating in it. The more you make it clear that your game is cooperative and community oriented, then the more your players are affected by the Framing Effect.

The effect that framing has on gameplay behavior is incredibly well documented. The classic example has to do with playing the “Public Goods Game” but presenting it to players as either “The Teamwork Game” or “The Business Game”. Now, the Public Goods Game is very special within sociology and psychology because it demonstrates a strong divergence from Nash Equilibrium.

In the Public Goods Game, players are given a sum of goods and are presented the opportunity to donate those goods to the public. When goods are donated, they are multiplied by a value greater than 1 but less than the number of players, and then the goods are evenly distributed to the players. This results in an increase of overall worth within a system, but loss to the donating individual.

The Nash Equilibrium for this scenario is that an individual working under pure self-interest will not donate any goods. This maximizes the guaranteed output of the system. However, that is an experimentally rare outcome and most players donate something.

A study by Kimmo Eriksson and Pontus Strimling found something else important. They studied how neutrally framed public goods games are impacted by the spontaneous framing chosen by their participants. They even went so far as to positively and negatively prime their participants so they expected other players to contribute more or less. It’s a heady and detailed read, but it does bring forward some important points.

For our purposes – talking about maximizing the joy of a cooperative experience – we are interested in how the expectation of the contribution of other players affects an individual’s contribution. Essentially, framing a game as a teamwork game is not enough if all members don’t expect others to contribute as well.

There’s a lot of social pressure to contribute as much as the people around you. Interestingly, Americans are heavily affected by the “better-than-average effect”: which drives them to contribute more than the other players. I surmise this has to do with our cultural association with American Exceptionalism, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The takeaway is that encouraging player investment in a game requires more than just framing a cooperative narrative. It’s going to require a genuine expectation that everyone will contribute.


After all that talking about privilege turning people into empathy-less monsters, you might hope unequal play is a rare experience. Quite the opposite, unequal play is a constant reality.

Most times we choose to introduce a new game to someone, we’ve either experienced it before or are skilled with similar experiences. The inequality of skill is near-mandatory for a cooperative game. That’s why it is so important to work on the framing of cooperative play to ensure that inequalities do not lead to dictatorships. Dictatorships are no fun for the less privileged players, and that lack of fun is usually missed entirely by the dominating player due to the Empathy Gap.

Once you’ve engineered your gameplay and narrative to encourage healthy unequal play, then you can finally focus on the most exciting part of any cooperative experience: the spotlight.

Every good tabletop game master will tell you to give each individual player an opportunity to shine. They may call this “the spotlight”, “featuring”, or “headlining.” There are probably a dozen more words to describe the concept, but they all boil down to the same basic idea. Players want to feel important. They want the adoration of their friends. They want to be the hero.

Now that players are viewing the game in a cooperative frame, we can experiment with bestowing extreme privileges. In many tabletop RPGs, this is done by giving players unique skills and creating situations with hard requirements. Unlocking a secret door may require a thief to use lockpicks or a mage to remove an arcane trap. I’d describe this as “passive spotlighting”. The player isn’t being called upon to perform great deeds, and a less-assertive player can easily forget to take advantage of such opportunities.

Passive Spotlighting is a common practice, but it often leads to problems. Not only does it create trouble for less-assertive players, but it also opens the door for “quarterbacking” from a more experienced player. That player isn’t being malicious, they often do this from a place of desiring to help, but this often leads to the other players feeling like pawns in someone else’s chess game.

Active Spotlighting is considerably more heavy-handed. With Active Spotlighting, the developer makes their will known and force a player to take up a featured position. These actions come in both direct and indirect forms.

Helldivers, an excellent-though-brutal top-down shooter, makes frequent use of Indirect Active Spotlighting. They often place players into a position where one of them must enter a sequence of commands, or trigger a bomb, or carry a suitcase while another player protects them. In Helldivers it never says “you, the player on the right, it is your turn to carry the death bag,” but rather it leaves that decision up to the players.

Important to the indirect method is that these opportunities can be failed. No one feels cool if they perform a task when they cannot lose. In Helldivers, the price of failure is often death. Which is fine – in this case – because player death is so well handled in their system. Resurrection is free, though not exactly easy. Heck, the survivor in these situations gets some spotlighting of their own.

Direct Active Spotlighting is different. It’s commonly seen in tabletop RPGs and LARPs, but it is rarely seen in digital multiplayer games. The classic example is when a character runs up to a specific player and says: “I know you! I need you to do this thing for me!” or “Here’s the magic sword, only you can wield it, Chosen One!”

Direct spotlighting can be contrived or based on some deep secret of the lore. It can be motivated from character backgrounds or from current events. Regardless, the goal is to create a scenario where one player must make a decision or take an action that belongs wholly to them. While it’s great to do this by giving one player the Lance of Elder Dragon Slaying, there is another – more subtle – method.

Another form of direct active featuring comes in the form of the conflict of interest. Usually, this is best for long-form games with some session-to-session persistence, otherwise you slip into Betrayal Games rather than Cooperative. Conflicts of interest in a cooperative game work best when one character is given an objective which does not directly prevent the main objective from being completed, but rather it makes the main objective more difficult. (Though, often the main objective is made more difficult simply by one player being removed from contributing while they pursue the conflict of interest.)

In role playing games, this will often come from the thief being granted an opportunity to steal something valuable during another objective or by leaving wounded soldiers to be rescued by the healer characters.

The frequency and nature of conflicts of interest can drastically alter the nature of the teamwork in your game. Many games will provide a score-based leaderboard for each individual member of the team. This creates a constant conflict of interest and can essentially turn your cooperative adventure into a competitive one.

Instead, it can be much more interesting to give each player a side objective to complete in order to “really win.” This might grant some form of secondary currency or an experience bonus or unlock new content. By designing each level or encounter to feature only one side objective at a time, this creates a dynamic where each player gets one chance to shine without creating a constant feeling that you are not really playing together.

Final Thoughts

Humans are social animals, and we have a great love of play. It follows that we would have a strong desire to play together, but many patterns of our behavior collude to make this an unpleasant experience. To have an enjoyable play experience together, both the players and the game developers have a responsibility to facilitate positive play.

To do this for cooperative games, we need to frame and reframe the narrative of the game to encourage teamwork and cooperation. This will work against the inherent cruelty and lack of empathy that come along with the advantage that high-skilled players will have.

In addition, it is up to the developer to create scenarios which will actively spotlight each player – though particularly the less-skilled players – so that they have an opportunity to shine. Not only does this give them a feeling of investment in their own success, but this will work to chip away at the negative feelings that the more experienced players will have towards them. By periodically bringing up the less advantaged, the advantaged members of a system will cease treating the disadvantaged as unsympathetic others and instead as a peer group.

Further Reading

Framing and the Economic Games

Spontaneous associations and label framing have similar effects in the public goods game (study):

Framing (Wikipedia):

Public Goods Game (Wikipedia):

Ultimatum Game (Wikipedia):

Dictator Game (Wikipedia):

Privilege and Out-Groups

“Does money make you mean?” (TED Talk):

The Money-Empathy Gap (New York Magazine):

Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups (Academic Paper):


Jerks displaying confidence (Subterfuge Trailer):