But then, as statecraft in the real world came to favor game theory over traditional diplomacy, the metagame likewise shifted. Online players were no longer calling one another into solaria or billiards rooms to speechify about making the world safe for democracy. Games became shorter. Communication got blunter. Where someone playing Diplomacy by mail in the 1960s might have worked Iago-like angles to turn players against one another, a modern player might just text “CON-BUL?” (For “Constantinople to Bulgaria?”)
This is the current Diplomacy metagame. Game theory calculations undergird most utterances, and even humans communicate in code. Lerer joked that in modern-day online Diplomacy, even human players wouldn’t pass the Turing test. Before Cicero, it seems, humans had already started playing like AIs. Perhaps, for an AI to win at Diplomacy, Diplomacy had to become a less human game.
Kostick, who won a European grand prix Diplomacy event in 2000 and was on the Irish team that took the Diplomacy National World Cup in 2012, misses the old style of gameplay. “The whole purpose of Allan Calhamer’s design of the game,” he told me, “is to create a dynamic where the players all fear a stab and yet must deploy a stab or a lie to be the only person to reach 18.”
Kostick believes that while he “would have been delighted with the practical results of Cicero’s website play,” Meta’s project misses the mark. Cicero’s glitches, Kostick believes, would make it easy to outwit with spam and contradictory inputs. Moreover, in Kostick’s opinion, Cicero doesn’t play real Diplomacy. In the online blitz, low-stab game Cicero does play, the deck is stacked in its favor, because players don’t have to lie, which Cicero does badly. (As Lerer told me, “Cicero didn’t really understand the long-term cost of lying, so we ended up mostly making it not lie.”) Kostick believes Cicero’s metagame is off because it “never knowingly advocates to a human a set of moves that it knows are not in the human’s best interest.” Stabbing, Kostick believes, is integral to the game. “A Diplomacy player who never stabs is like a grandmaster at chess who never checkmates.”
With some trepidation, I mentioned Kostick’s complaint to Goff.
Unsurprisingly, Goff scoffed. He thinks it’s Kostick and his generation who misunderstand the game and give it its unfair reputation for duplicity. “Cicero does stab, just rarely,” Goff said. “I reject outright that [compelling players to stab] was Calhamer’s intent.”
I could tell we were in metagame territory when Goff and Kostick began arguing about the intent of the game’s creator, as if they were a couple of biblical scholars or constitutional originalists. For good measure, Goff bolstered his case by citing an axiom from high-level theory and invoking an elite consensus.
“Regardless of Calhamer’s intent, game theory says, ‘Don’t lie,’” he told me. “This is not controversial among any of the top 20 players in the world.”
For one person or another to claim that their metagame is the “real” one—because the founder wanted it that way, or all the best people agree, or universal academic theory says x or y—is a very human way to try to manage a destabilizing paradigm shift. But, to follow Kuhn, such shifts are actually caused when enough people or players happen to “align” with one vision of reality. Whether you share that vision is contingent on all the vagaries of existence, including your age and temperament and ideology. (Kostick, an anarchist, tends to be suspicious of everything Meta does; Goff, a CFO of a global content company, believes clear, non-duplicitous communications can advance social justice.)