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Media Habits at HBS – Lessons from HBS’s Favorite Game

Applying the lessons and theories from classroom discussion to the real world can be difficult. Luckily HBS students have found a creative way to apply our knowledge

Do you know how to lie? Surely, during LCA, we’ve all debated the merits and demerits of lying (or should I euphemize by referring to it as “bluffing”)?

Either way, the power of information is a theme that cuts across just about every HBS course. From Finance and Strategy to Marketing and Negotiation, we are taught about the intricacies of information asymmetries. Those who know more, have more power. They are able to make intelligent decisions, avoid unattractive markets, set prices, and capture more value.

However, despite the case method’s unique ability to bring the practical aspects of business into the classroom, we are rarely given opportunities to truly exercise our knowledge and put into play some of the theory we’re taught.

Lucky for us, many HBS students engage in a very real activity that fully exploits our desires for power and influence, an activity that privileges some and makes others vulnerable, an activity in which people are lied to, manipulated and even killed. None of us are immune to it and none of us has refrained from it.

Dare I say, most of us relish it. Yes, we relish the opportunity to be the Mafia.

Over the past two years, I’ve observed many groups of HBS students coalesce during section and club retreats, IXPs and Treks, and at other random times to play this game. Some call it Assassin, some call it Werewolf, but most call it Mafia.

The game begins with a random assignment of roles to all the players. Being Mafia is most coveted. However, the role of Detective, Cop, or Policeman on one hand and Doctor, Angel, or Bodyguard on the other are also preferred. Being a townsperson, because it comes with no privileges or powers, is least desirable.

Each successive round of play consists of night and day. During the night, as the townspeople “sleep,” the Mafia murder one person, figuratively of course; the Detectives learn whether another player is part of the Mafia; and the Doctor gets an opportunity to save someone from death. All of this is done through a complex process moderated by the most important player of all: “God.”

During the day, the townspeople are informed of who was killed the night before. If the Doctor arrived in time to save the target, the town is informed of the attempted murder. Although the Detectives have some information, only the Mafia know who committed the crime. Either way, someone must be punished.

And so, the townspeople debate about whom the Mafia are and who should be convicted and executed. Herein dwells the appeal of the game. A majority vote against you means that you must go. And with you, your identity must die too. If you never learned to lie, now is your chance. Because survival is the name of the game.

Each successive round of play brings more information and more risk. That you survived makes you suspect. That you make allegations makes you suspect. That you avoid eye contact makes you suspect.
Only three things are certain. First, you will have to speak because silence signals culpability. Second, you will have to play dumb because smart people are killed quickly. Third, you will have to bluff because you know what others do not.

Asymmetry of information plays an important role here. As Detective, you gain more and more information about who is innocent or guilty. But you have to be careful not to give yourself away, lest the Mafia take you out during the next round. Regardless, you must cajole the townspeople around protecting some and implicating others. As the Mafia, you know who your accomplices are and you want to protect them. But if it becomes obvious that your accomplices are part of the Mafia, you’ll readily betray them. The desire for survival trumps all. After all, in the endgame it will be either the Mafia or the townspeople who survive.

Survival in Mafia is driven by much of what we learn at HBS. Unless we are able to persuade others of our opinions, we will die. Unless we are able to build coalitions, we will die. Unless we are willing to take risks, we will die. Unless we are willing to make decisions with limited information, we will die. Most importantly, unless we are willing to lead, we will die.

These capabilities are equally successful regardless of whether you are Mafia or Townspeople, Doctors or Detectives. At the end of the day, the choice of words and deeds is yours alone. I only ask that you be sure that the lessons from Mafia are used judiciously in life.

February 23, 2009
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