The Poetry of Escalation

One of the greatest pieces of relationship advice – argument advice, really – I’d ever gotten came from, of all things, a role-playing game. I know, what are the odds, right? That’s what your surprised face looks like, I’m sure.

Anyway, it comes from a wonderful mechanic in D. Vincent Baker‘s equally wonderful game Dogs In the Vineyard. Many gamers already know it; if you don’t, look it up, it’s one of those great little games that changes the way you look at games afterward. For those that aren’t gamers, or haven’t read it yet, I’ll skip the setting and get right to the good part: Conflict Escalation. You see, when you get into a conflict in Dogs, you gather up some dice based on what type of conflict it is – social, mental, physical – and roll them. You compare them to your opponent’s dice, and if your dice come out ahead, great! If things go against you, however, and you start losing the conflict, you have two choices:

1. Give up

2. Escalate

Giving up is easy – your character loses, admits they’re wrong, gets their butt kicked, or otherwise gets the short end of whatever’s going on. Rough, and hard to accept sometimes, but usually not as bad as what might happen if you stayed in and made things worse. Because if you’re losing and you want to stay in the conflict, you have to escalate it – you have to make the conflict about something more than it was originally. A debate becomes an argument, an argument becomes a fistfight, a fistfight becomes a gunfight, and so on. I thought this was a beautiful game mechanic, because it really makes you consider what’s worth fighting for and what’s worth letting go. Sure, escalating might give you the edge, but it might also make you a bully, and it’s important to remember that the more you throw into a conflict, the more you have to lose.

That’s awesome enough in a game, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was really an interesting point in general. I realized that this tendency is more common than people think, though usually more subtle. Listen to your co-workers if you don’t believe it – keep track of how often a person on the losing side of a debate adds a topic, expands the scope of the discussion or even gets personal in order to stay in the proverbial fight. Pretty much everyone hates being wrong, no question, but it’s surprising how often people try to avoid it by using escalation. If two people are talking who’s the best quarterback in football, for example, and one person presents convincing stats that show their candidate is better, suddenly it’s not about stats, it’s about teams as a whole, or it’s about a particular game, or the other person just sucks and is dumb. Escalating is a great way to save face – by making the argument about something else, you conveniently avoid the need to admit you were wrong about the original subject.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not immune. Sometimes when my wife and I are arguing, and she makes a point I don’t have an answer for, or that inconveniently reminds me that I’m being an idiot, I realize one of the first instincts I have is to escalate by bringing up some other matter, usually totally unrelated, where she was wrong (or at least I looked better). I try to stomp on this instinct whenever I can, but sometimes it’s really tempting to do it, because part of me knows it would get a reaction, and when you’re ticked that’s all you want. Since reading Dogs In the Vineyard, it’s been easier to keep track of this behavior, because whenever I’m tempted to escalate, I remind myself that it’s usually just a way of avoiding the fact that I was wrong in the first place.

Gaming that helps with relationships. Who knew?

One response

  1. Joel

    That’s an astute observation, Peter! Vincent’s written about the “three insights of game design” on his blog:

    Basically, every game you design says something you really think:

    1) about the fictional subject matter: what you think about fantasy, what you think about westerns, etc.

    2) about roleplaying as a practice: what to prioritize, what to drive toward, how to structure players’ interactions.

    3) about real live human nature: what you think about morality, relationships, conflict, etc.

    In that post he gives answers for Dogs in the Vineyard as an example. His answer for #3:

    “I think that you throw a punch because you’re losing an argument but you don’t want to give in. You draw a gun because you’re losing a fight but you don’t want to give in. I think that people escalate because they care about what’s at stake, but they can’t win it or hold onto it using only the tools and techniques already at hand.”

    So I’d say he’s right there with you! Or you’re with him, or whatever. And I’ve found it to be true in my own life too! My relationships have been the better for realizing it.


    September 2, 2011 at 12:50 am

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