The Glitcher’s Dilemma: Social Dilemmas in Games

Note: This article is also published in my columns on and

Soon after its release, some players of the online first person shooter Modern Warfare 2 discovered what became known as “the javelin glitch.” Someone, somewhere, somehow figured out that through a bizarre sequence of button presses you could glitch the game so that when you died in multiplayer you would self destruct and murder everyone within 30 feet, often resulting in a net gain in points. It wasn’t long, though, before the method for creating this glitch spread through the Internet and servers were filled with exploding nincompoops. In fact, it quickly got bad enough that developer Infinity Ward had to rush out a patch to fix it.

The javelin glitch presented players in the know with an interesting dilemma: they could either abuse the glitch to boost their own rankings and unlock new perks, or they could abstain and preserve the game’s fair play. Of course, the problem is that if they abstain, someone else may abuse the glitch and dominate the match. The middle ground is when everyone glitches, but the resulting pandemonium isn’t as much fun as fair play for most normal people.

Let’s simplify the discussion by assuming a two-player deathmatch game in Modern Warfare 2. Look, I’ve created a table to summarize the dilemma for you! It’s suitable for framing.

The Glitcher's Dilemma

Figure 1: The Glitcher's Dilemma

So what do you do? Psychologists and economists who study this kind of decision-making call it a “social dilemma.” In these situations, intentional griefing notwithstanding, each person has what’s called a “dominating” alternative where they’re most likely to win (in this example, abusing the glitch) but most people REALLY want the “nondominating” alternative produced when everyone chooses to abstain from it. Especially once the novelty factor wears off.

Back in the 1960s research on these kinds of dilemmas exploded and out of it came what’s known as “the prisoner’s dilemma” based on an anecdote about getting confessions from two prisoners held under suspicion for a bank robbery. In his book, Rational Choice in an Uncertain World 1 Robyn Dawes summarizes the classic scenario thusly:

Two men rob a bank. They are apprehended, but in order to obtain a conviction the district attorney needs confessions. He succeeds by proposing to each robber separately that if he confesses and his accomplice does not, he will go free and his accomplice will be sent to jail for ten years; if both confess, both will be sent to jail for five years, and if neither confesses, both will be sent to jail for one year on charges of carrying a concealed weapon. Further, the district attorney informs each man that he is proposing the same deal to his accomplice.

Here are those choices in table form:

Prisoners Dilemma

Figure 2: The prisoner's dilemma

In this case, both prisoners will probably confess if they’re rational about it. Why? Because each prisoner get a better (or no worse) payoff by confessing no matter what the other guy does. Prisoner A thinks, “I don’t know what B is going to do, so if I confess it’s the best way to keep myself from getting screwed. If he keeps quiet, I go free. If he also confesses, I get 5 years instead of 10.” In other words, confessing is the only way to keep the other guy from being able to screw you over. Notice how this mirrors the javelin glitch dilemma, only with fewer explosions.

Now let’s take another example from the golden years of PC gaming. In the early days of Starcraft, a strategy called “Zerg rushing” emerged where at the beginning of the match players would quickly build lots of cheap Zerg units to overwhelm opponents before defenses could be constructed. Counter strategies developed, 2 but for a good chunk of the player base Starcraft became a game of seeing who could Zerg rush faster, which wasn’t nearly as much fun as choosing from any other number of play styles or even races. So the dilemma was:

Zerg Rush Dilemma

Figure 3: The ...Zerg dilemma?

Again, the dominating strategy was to Zerg rush, because if you didn’t and the other guy did, you lost, which was worse than any of the alternatives. This despite the fact that what you really both want is a varied, fun game. It’s a design issue that still plagues strategy game developers today.

Prisoner’s dilemmas and social dilemmas in general can similarly be used to illustrate the reasons for “ninja looting” in World of Warcraft where one player exploits the “need/greed” loot distribution system to get a piece of equipment:

Loot Dilemma

Figure 4: Oh, you know what? Forget it.

Or you could apply it to “tick throwing” and “fireball trapping” techniques in fighting games. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. My 2×2 table making machine burnt out, anyway.

What’s really more interesting and useful, though, is to look at what psychology has to show us about when people DON’T choose the purely rational option of abusing a glitch or a winning but boring strategy. Generally, people are more likely to do this when:

  • They know they will be playing against their opponents in the future and face retribution
  • They expect to interact with their opponents outside the game
  • They don’t expect to remain anonymous
  • They don’t know how many games will be played with the same person

Under these conditions, many players will adopt a strategy where they cooperate at first (for example, they don’t glitch or rush), then if the other player abuses that trust they retaliate in kind. This is known as the “tit for tat” strategy. Some researchers with lots of time on their hands even organized tournaments where people were invited to write computer programs to play iterated prisoner dilemma games, and the programs that adhered to the “tit for tat” strategy tended to do the best.

This is why things like playing with people on your friend’s list, Steam community group, guild/clan, or a favorite dedicated server is good. And it’s one reason why random matches between strangers or pickup groups can be infuriating. Making it easy to submit ratings to the profiles of people you just played also helps resolve these dilemmas to everyone’s benefits. It’s also the reason that I love the way that Halo 3 lets you remain in a lobby with the people you just played and go straight into another round with them. 3

People being the complicated beings they are it’s not a perfect system, though. Some people are just griefers out to disrupt the game no matter what. Some people won’t abuse a glitch out of a sense of honor. Some will value their ranking on a leaderboard more than a sense of fair play for any individual match. But even if none of the suggestions above is a silver bullet, they help across large numbers of games.


1. Dawes, R. (1988). Rational Choice in an Uncertain World. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Publishers.
2. As well as a game-balancing patch or two, I believe
3. Ringing a bell? You may be thinking about my article on how deindividuation fosters antisocial behavior and how to similarly deal with that

38 thoughts on “The Glitcher’s Dilemma: Social Dilemmas in Games

  1. I think you forgot to mention competitive gaming. I myself attend a lot of fighting games tournies and if there’s anything that can give me an edge inside the game’s rules, I’ll take it. Being abused by a gimmick and finding a way around it is actually the best way to improve.
    Of course there are certain limits, I’d be surprised if the javelin glitch was ever allowed in a tournament, but they can be hard to define. And I know for a fact that a misplaced “sense of honor” in a tournament is the best way to lose and get angry.

    My way of dealing with random internet gamer’s crap is by avoiding random matches whenever possible. I only play random dudes with the hope I’ll find a good sparring partner, but sadly it doesn’t happen that often.

    Oh and by the way, great article as always. Keep up the good work!

  2. The WoW system you have there isn’t wholly accurate. The need/greed system is designed to specifically limit the amount of griefing possible. And it’s only when the built-in tools are forsaken for some kind of draconic system does drama ensue. If gear drops, and it’s an upgrade for you and one other person, you both roll need. Let’s say a leather belt drops. It’s an upgrade for you and a paladin. You roll need. The paladin cannot as he is a plate wearing class. Just as you the rogue could not roll on a cloth skirt or plate shoulders. The only “fairgame” items that everyone can roll on are rings and trinkets, and there’s plenty of other non-drops of those items around via faction rep-grinds or badges.

    Also, if someone rolls need and wins it over you and later have a change of heart and decide that being a dick wasn’t such a smart move, they have a 24 hour window to give you the item

    Come to think of it, the only item that could potentially be a source of griefing is the frozen orbs that drop off the end boss of Northrend heroics. But those are so common that most people don’t care. I myself have about 50 of them in my bank, and it’s more profitable to sell them to a vendor than try and pawn them off on the AH.

  3. @eldruz
    Yeah, I think competitive gaming situations are a different animal, since it’s accepted that winning is the goal above all else. Tournaments have rules (no wall hacks, no controllers with programmable macros), but within those rules the expectation is to win. This isn’t necessarily the case in casual scenes, though.

  4. @Squeaky
    Are you saying that WoW actually won’t allow you to roll on something that your class can’t equip? Has it always been that way? It didn’t seem to be when I was playing.

    If that’s not the case, my point stands. You could easily imagine someone wanting something because they want to disenchant it, give it to an alt, sell it, or give it to a friend. Even still, maybe I should have said “loot without rolling” vs. “rolling” Would have been the same.

  5. @ Jamie Madigan
    The traditional loot system is actually called “Group Loot”, and uses the system you are used to Jamie. However, in a recent update, they made it a lot easier to form groups rapidly between groups of total strangers; even people from other servers! Because of this, they revamped the antiquated Need before Greed system, and it is used by default when creating parties in this manner.

    In this system, higher level gear (beyond level 60 or so) is all classified by armor type and approximate class role. If the character you are playing on does not fit the exact qualifications, you CANNOT roll need on the item (paladins can wear plate, so they can’t need on leather. Hunters do not have a caster spec, so they can roll on mail, but they can’t roll on mail with spellpower or other caster-centric stats.)

    Hope that wasn’t too longwinded of an explanation for you Jamie.

  6. I might bring to your attention the blog/forum of David Sirlin, the lead designer on Street Fighter HD Remix and the guy who literally wrote the book on “Play to Win”. His conclusion is that, if there’s something “cheap” in the game, and you don’t like the game because of it, find another game, because this one is either a) badly designed or b) not “for” you.

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  9. Jamie –

    Nice to see other social psych-aware gamers; as another psych ph.d. (in grad school) I appreciate your insight.

    I wanted to comment on nifboy’s post – the Sirlin website is an interesting look into the competitive vs. less competitive (but beyond casual) mind. I play fighting games, enough to get a minor mention here and there on strategy guides online – and I can say that in order to win against more top-tier people, you have to adopt Sirlin’s point of view. That is, a system, with limits, possibly glitches, and those things need to figure into your strategy. For Sirlin and others, there is no Dilemma, but only the need to win. There is no discussion of cooperate or defect, the answer is always defect. This is a damn shame, I think, but a reality of the ultra-competitive sort that becomes a frustrating thing to deal with for those who aren’t totally ‘in it to win it’.

    That said, if you wanna be an ultra-competitive, arrogant jackass (which by the way can be a huge turnoff to recruiting more people into your gaming fold) then go for it – just don’t expect games to be varied, to foster creativity, or to be anything more than e-peen swinging.

    Please excuse the mind vomit, been a long day of grading.


    Ian Tingen

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  13. You’ve accurately described the short term effects of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. What was not considered is the “long run” effects. In the long run, the results are different if it’s a once-off game.

    I won’t detail it here, but it’s described quite well on wikipedia:

    Thus, your example only deals with the Need/Greed system that will only happen once in your char’s lifetime. However, since there will be other Need/Greeds in the future, the results are quite different.

    Also, in regards to WoW: Blizzard “owns” the game and the ToS is worded in such a way that they can hand out bans for abusing bugs.

  14. Regarding WoW’s new loot system there remains plenty of scope to make decisions based on the motives illustrated in your 2 X 2 chart.

    A Paladin dps (who needs Strength and Attack Power) can roll need on spell power plate just to be greedy and sell it, even against a Paladin healer who needs it. Jewelry is still open game as are crafter materials.

    Many players, especially in cross server groups, will simply Need on everything they can regardless of whether they will ever use it, just to sell it or disenchant it. It’s completely in their interest to do so and most times other people in the group will never know if they needed it to vendor.

    As for Sirlin I agree he’s superb.

    On the main topic of exploiting I think for many players it’s actually a pretty attractive form of gameplay irrespective of other people. People terrain exploit in single player games. Years ago in Bard’s Tale I would make a party, transfer all the gold to one character, delete all the other characters and make new ones for their starting gold.

    I wrote about this in MMOs here:

  15. Fail, I just properly read your whole article where you mentioned “long run” effects.

    Anyways, just wanted to highlight this in my previous post:
    ‘Also, in regards to WoW: Blizzard “owns” the game and the ToS is worded in such a way that they can hand out bans for abusing bugs.’

  16. @Ian Tingen
    This is a rant I hear a lot. But the thing is, playing competitively doesn’t mean you HAVE to be an ass.
    Before I move forward, I’d just like to say that I only speak of my experiences from the competitive fighting game scene, but I have a feeling other genres scenes are quite similar.
    When I’m attending a tournament, and playing a match in that tournament, I’m here for the win and nothing else. This state of mind is mandatory if you want to have a shot at winning a tournament, or to step up your game to the “pro” level. But, and I believe Sirlin stresses this particular point in his book, this is absolutely not THE way to play. It’s only recommended if you actually want to become really good at the game. I often play with friends that are not into the competitive aspect of fighting games, and I adapt my gameplay so we can both enjoy the game. On the other hand, I actually enjoy playing like a ruthless bitch with players that understand and enjoy this kind of play. We’re stepping up our game and we’re loving it.
    The arrogant jackass part really bothers me the most. I have never seen a top player refusing to play with a rookie who wants to try out his skills. Sure they’re probably not going to play for a long time, as it probably isn’t fun for either of them, but there’s no hate or arrogance for the new kid on the block. I saw a lot of strategies shared, combos explained and mind games demystified. Sure, this does not apply to every player out there but that’s mankind’s problem.
    You’re right when you said that being an ass won’t attract a larger base of players, that’s another reason why jackasses aren’t the norm. Every scene needs to grow a larger audience to stay healthy and level up.

    However, although I understand that top-players can appear to be dicks from outer space, most of them truly aren’t. Sure if you face them in a tournament, you better have to be ready for some low-life abuse. But go and ask them how you could have avoided it, there’s a good chance you’ll have your answer.

  17. @Azzur
    Oh yeah, there’s a ton of other stuff to explore about the concept, especially about iterated games/dilemmas. But I was getting long already. If I were writing a book on the subject, this could be a whole chapter, easy.

  18. @eldruz
    Great points. I’m fascinated by the ultra hardcore fighting game scene and the kind of people who live for it. Also, I hereby promise to use the phrase “dicks from outer space” in conversation no fewer than two times today. Maybe three.

  19. Really interesting article. I always ponder when playing assholes online why they play…

    Fighting games are a tricky subject… Tick-throwing in my book is fair game, but like eldruz suggested, it’s not something I’d hit a newcomer with. Or, more likely, I’d tick throw once in a match to make a point about setups and spacing.

    Two Zangiefs constantly trying to get in and tick throw each other actually makes for a very fun, competitive match. The winner is usually the one that knows how to shut down ticks. (But I’d switch to Abel, and use his throw-invincible throws.)

    I got a nasty wake up call in a Smash Brawl tournament at PAX 2008. My Meta Knight was hot shit until someone who had mastered the Ice Climbers’ chain throw technique mopped the floor with me. At the time I thought it was a cheap tactic, but I was simply far too inexperienced to counter it. I took the loss like a man, got back home, and used Ice Climbers until I understood how tricky it is to set up *and* to escape that strategy. It definitely made me a better player.

  20. @ Killa
    Nice post, just a thing that made me glitch… You want to use Abel vs Zangief?! It’s as if you had to take down a giant dragon and switched to your tomato-launcher to show him how it’s done!

    This is my last Street Hijack of the thread, promised.

  21. “There is no discussion of cooperate or defect, the answer is always defect.”

    This is true in most fighting games because the only two entities are the two players, but in games with more than two players, or environmental obstacles to mutually overcome, these dynamics once again enter the equation. Prisoner’s dilemmas can get interesting and very elaborate in these situations. They become incorporated into the game’s strategy.

  22. First time reader, first time commenter 🙂 Really excellent article; I thought I’d share my experience with the Glitcher’s Dilemma.

    I had been playing the browser game Ikariam (essentially a light economy/city building/warfare game) casually with some friends for a few months. We had our own guild and we managed to do alright – there were other more powerful players in the area, but through teamwork we were able to turtle ourselves and ward off attackers and raise some decent armies.

    One player in the area though, ranked #10 or so on the whole server was a hassle to us and really tried to break our defenses. It was all in competitive fun though – he really stretched us to play better and work as a team. Until he found a bug that let him build his troops for free.

    Some of the players in our guild decided that if this player was going to use the exploit, then they would too, and they would have to just to stay competitive and keep from being looted by this bigger player. Others among us felt that it wasn’t right (me being with them) and tried to play on our “honor.” This was a known bug that was promised to get a hot fix so it wasn’t just a clever way of playing.

    At any rate, my honor lasted a couple weeks or so before I was fed up by being raided by every nitwit in range of me who had armies far larger than they had any business having at their levels. So I quit, seeing as how the bug was not being fixed as promised and half the guild stopped playing soon after I left for the same reason (they weren’t following me in a heroic act of solidarity, sadly)

    Anyhow, it was not a great way to leave the game and I have since wondered if I was right to give up on it. My point in the rambling being that I was a dedicated player, but not so much that I wasn’t easily turned off. I wonder how many middle of the road players give up on a game because of these situations – and are they “wrong” to do so?

  23. @Tevin
    Thanks for that example. It pretty much lines up, though I think the ideal solution would have been for you to shun those cheaters and play with someone else. Was this not possible due to the matchmaking system?

  24. Well, it’s in a persistent world so there was no escaping it. I guess I could have tried playing in another server, but I’m sure there were cheaters there as well.
    I guess the “best” way to avoid the cheaters would be stop producing any goods that could have been looted by them and not leave troops in any of my cities to keep them from being killed – but at that point it’s not really playing you know? I’d basically be logging in every day to keep my account active.
    It’s also somewhat (maybe?) interesting to note that our guild also collapsed around the same time due to our (formerly) awesome private chat and forum disappearing due to server issues. We were looking for someone to build another site, but in the mean time we collapsed. It was really interesting to see how many people were playing to play the game and how many of us were really playing to enjoy the fun of playing with one another.

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  26. Great article and great comments. Especially since I link to both you and Sirlin on my site 🙂

    Eldruz’s post above is a perfect explanation of things many people misunderstand – and I hope that high level competitive play isn’t being misinterpreted as not being “fun” for those involved Jamie 🙂 (another common misconception).

    I completely agree there’s no discussion of co-operate or defect as soon as anyone gets competitive – everyone ends up ‘glitching’ or abusing or spamming or tick-throwing or whatever the complaint is. It IS in the game. I’d say a good game for you (to play competitively) is only one that either doesn’t contain these dilemmas, or is one where you LIKE the game as much if not moreso once it’s played competitively. This is why tons of games fail for me – if a game degenerates into these kinds of dilemmas as you get better at it, it’s a bad game.

  27. I’ve always found the Glitcher’s Dilemma really interesting, even without any relevant background in psychology, and by any relevant I mean any. Period.
    Personally, I’ve never understood why some players enjoy breaking the game. It just seems like there’s a serious disconnect between why they would play the game and why they would glitch. Maybe I’m wrong but I always thought that recreational gaming was primarily meant for enjoyment and I just can’t bring myself to understand how glitching the game in order to win can bring any sort of entertainment value. It’s like treasure hunting, it’s super exciting when you’re out searching and working your ass off trying to find some object and reach your final destination. However, if the world was covered in these treasures then you’re not really treasure hunting anymore, you’re just picking up garbage.
    Poor analogies aside, I just don’t see how systematically winning can be enjoyable to anyone unless there is a large group of people who only take pleasure from events that they already know the outcome of.

  28. As a Sirlinite, I’m aware how rapidly even mentioning his work can entirely derail a conversation one way or the other, so I’ll try to keep the Sirlin related bit brief.

    I feel the “dicks from space” view of people who PTW(play to win) largely comes from entry-level or slightly higher competitive play. That attitude actually inhibits them from learning from the higher level players; this leads to big fish in small ponds, and artificially concentrated at lower levels of play, creating it’s own entry barrier to players hoping to enter the competitive scene.

    I agree about games that “degenerate” into these dilemmas, but I think that it’s actually very difficult for released games to get to that point. So long as there are still other options (in fighting games, this is offered by character selection usually, or CCGs this is from the sheer number of cards available, etc) then it simply changes the game. It might not be what you expected, but it’s still far from a degenerate game.

    That said, I 100% agree that you should still stay focused on making sure the game is still fun for you. I think most people would have more fun though if they broke down some walls that artificially inhibit them from experiencing some of that fun. 😉

    I think like anything else that people do, there are different motivations for it. For some, it’s the search for the “glitches” as the treasures themselves. Others, it’s being able to execute the glitch, just like any other action in the game requires some measure of skill. I also suspected some do it for the “power” over the game, or just for a different style of gameplay, like using secret cheat codes.

    Lastly, and probably the one that pertains most to multiplayer games like MW2 or Tevin’s Ikariam, is that most people don’t like the events to be decided before they begin. But someone starts using it because of one of the above reasons, so others feel they have to use it to prevent the game from being scripted. Then it becomes a competition of who is better at abusing the bug, and suddenly not pre-determined again.

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  30. Jamie – As others have already explained. The revamping to the need/greed system was fairly recent. This year or late last year. Blizzard implemented a random dungeon finder. You throw yourself in the queue, go about your daily grind, and when a group is ready, you click accept and get teleported to the dungeon with 4 random people from different servers. In order to minimize loot drama, they disallowed rolling need on gear. Anyone can roll greed on anything. But only cloth wearers can roll need on cloth, leather wearers on leather, and so on. Spec doesn’t actually play into account, as I’ve lost rolls on healing plate to death knights and stuff (so it’s not a PERFECT system, but it’s better than it was by far, and it’s only heroic gear, the good stuff comes from badges or raids, and if you’re not raiding with friends, you get what you deserve). However, they also added a new roll: disenchant. If there is an enchanter in the group, everyone can roll D/E. And if no one rolls need, it goes to greed/DE roll. If you win the DE roll you get the shard for the item automatically in your inventory.

    Most of the loot these days comes from badges. Badges drop in every heroic dungeon and with them you can buy one step down from hot-shit raiding gear. Currently, hot-shit = Icecrown Citidel, and badge gear will get you equivalent of Crusaders Colosseum gear(last-months hot-shit gear).

    There’s been some other minor loot drama surrounding frozen orbs (a crafting item that drops off the last boss in every heroic dungeon). However, blizzard has fixed this by disallowing need rolls on these.

  31. @eldruz and @Jamie Madigan –

    thanks for the kind responses!

    let me clarify one minor point – if we are to use Sirlin et al as an example of what top tier gaming is in fighting games, then we have much to learn about recruiting. go look at the boards at SRK or on Kotaku – people who don’t get the entire separation between play-to-win and play-to-play (e.g. are just see the entire community as one, as opposed to two) are bound to think that there are a bunch of jerks playing the games.

    of course, that said, SRK boards = win generally. kindest folks ever.


  32. I recall an iterated prisoner’s dilemma study showing that “tit for tat plus forgiveness” often outperforms the basic “tit for tat”. A player would forgive a transgression about 5-10% of the time, which could reset opponents’ behavior to cooperate often enough to net a greater overall result than refusing to forgive.

  33. Strange, I always pick the ‘altruistic’ option in these kinds of situations, because I see that it gets the best result overall. That seems totally rational to me.

    I don’t view it as a sense of honor, I view it as getting the best outcome.

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