Social Game Theory

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

All of our interactions with others are essentially games. All parties take their role, play the game, and then win or lose. Sometimes the entire group wins, sometimes the entire group loses. Social game theory is something that has fascinated me a lot over the course of the last few years, yet I find it horribly underutilized. I wanted to dedicate this blogpost to jotting down a couple of notes on the topic.

The Game

The goal of the social game is essentially the same goal as any other game; get the highest payoff. There’s many different dimensions of payoff for a social game, but for now we’ll focus on social capital: the relationships or rapport you collect with others over time.

The special thing about social games is that they aren’t zero-sum; there isn’t a definitive “winner” or “loser”. Rather, some people might win, and some people might lose, and some of the time (really most of the time) nothing really happens at all.


There’s a lot of different roles you can play in a social game, but at the end of the day they are based on some variations of listening and talking. If you listen the right amount for whatever role you want to play, and talk the right amount for whatever role you want to play, then you’ll typically win the game. You won’t win always (we’ll get to that in a bit), but you’ll definitely improve your chances.

If you want advice for how to best play your role, too bad. I can’t help you, I can barely play my own. Perhaps the most important piece of the game however is to understand very well what role you want to play going into the game. This will give you the best chance of success.


It is also important to know the hierarchy of the game. Some people will be better at the game not just because they can play their role well, but because they have some external level of power or status. Often enough, that power or status has actually been defined by an accumulation of social capital over time. While these people can be threats to your own ability to win the game (or avoid losing it), most of the time this isn’t going to happen and they’ll actually be more willing to help you obtain your own social capital than you might otherwise think.


Different social roles tend to match well with each other. For example, two introverts typically get along rather well. This is primarily due to the fact that their “style of play” is the same. Other types and roles can get along for similar reasons. In order to have the highest amount of social happiness, you’ll want to develop social capital with people that you synergize with. How do you find these synergies? Once again, you’ll have to consult someone else. But they exist, even if you don’t think you jell well with anyone at all.

Sloop John B

“This is the worst trip, I’ve ever been on.”

However, sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes everything should go so right, and everyone should win… and no one does. In fact, everyone loses.

A Sloop John B is an event that should with practical certainty be immensely positive, and ends up being immensely negative. It is named after the Beach Boys song that describes the occasion perfectly. Everyone’s experienced a Sloop John B at least once in their life, and everyone knows how hard the experience can be. I’ve experienced it quite a few times myself, and I’ve grown a curiosity in it. That being said, I’m still pretty early on in being able to comprehend what it is and why it’s around, so yet again I don’t have all that great of an answer in trying to combat it. But I’d like to continue developing these ideas in further posts, and see how it goes.

Anyway, that’s all for this one. If you want to keep in touch, check out my biweekly newsletter! Following this will give you the low-down of all the new stuff I’m working on, as well as some things I found interesting throughout the biweek. As an added bonus, you’ll also receive the Top 10 Tools I Use on a Daily Basis to help better manage your workload and do higher quality work in a shorter amount of time.

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