To my own shock and horror, I realised this weekend that most of us love a traitor. And it got me thinking – why is that?

Don’t Hate the Player

This whole line of thought started with a board game, or more accurately three board games. On Saturday I was at Stabcon, my local twice-yearly gaming convention. I spent most of the day playing games of back-stabbing and treachery, and relishing every moment.

Despite the box, my friends insisted that I play with my shirt on. Apparently writing ‘abs’ on my chest in biro isn’t the same as having the real thing.

First some friends and I played Spartacus, the game of the TV show, in which you play Roman families trying to outmanoeuvre each other for profit while casually throwing gladiators and slaves to their deaths.

Then it was One Night Werewolf, the speedy version of the classic game of bluffing, gruesome murder and rushed lynchings, in which players are either werewolves or villagers, and your only aim is to live through the night.

Finally I sat down to play Battlestar Galactica, based on the modern version of the sci-fi show. It’s a cooperative game, in which the remnants of humanity look for a promised land – sounds much nicer, right? Except that one or two of you are secretly cylons, murderous robots trying not to get caught while you plot your comrades’ downfall. We survived, to the immense relief of most of the players, but it’s a tense game in which one false move can see you locked forever in the brig or mankind doomed to starvation.

Pick Me! I’ll Be The Baddy!

Two things about these games made me ponder the appeal of treachery.

First is the obvious the games are all driven by trickery and double dealing, and they’re all fun to play. Even as my friend Matt destroyed my Roman household’s reputation, I took great relish in declaring my intention to take bloody revenge (in the game, of course – there were no beatings in the hotel car park).

But the choices of characters people made were also revealing. In Werewolf, nobody chooses to be the werewolves, but everyone knows they’re the most fun. If you’re playing Battlestar, Gaius Baltar is always one of the first characters picked, because fans of the show love the conniving and egotistical scientist who accidentally doomed mankind. Similarly in Spartacus, anyone who’s watched the show wants to be Batiatus, even though he’s one of the hardest characters to play. After all, he’s the fun one.

For The Love Of Conflict

But I don’t think this is just about our love of villains. I think it’s about the value of conflict.

These games are fun not because every single action is a fight for dominance, but because even acts of cooperation could have schemes and conflicts hidden beneath them. It means that every moment is exciting, because every moment is filled with suspicion.

Similarly, these favourite characters are constantly in conflict with the others in their stories. That makes them more fun to watch and to be. In real life, we strive to be helpful people. But in stories and games, when it’s all about aesthetics, picking fights is way more fun. It’s why I swore vengeance on Matt – if I couldn’t win, I could at least have fun going down fighting.

So there you have it – my theory of why treachery makes for great stories. From the classic example of Long John Silver selling out both sides in Treasure Island, to Littlefinger’s duplicitous shenanigans in Game of Thrones, treachery means we see conflict even where there is none, and that makes everything exciting.

What do you think? And who are your favourite traitors, historical or fictional? Share your thoughts in the comments.

  1. glenatron says:

    The thing that games about treachery teach us is that being treacherous is both stressful and difficult to do successfully. To have sufficiently strong convictions – in either direction – that would lead one to behave in a way that gains trust and at the same time turn against it, requires either a very conflicted character or one that is devious and possibly sociopathic. In either case, a believable and treacherous character is going to be an immediately interesting element to a story and certainly likely to draw your audience. The challenge is perhaps to ensure that your other characters are interesting enough to support them.

    Or, in at least one particularly brilliant example, to conceal their actions in plain sight until the final big reveal…

    It could be argued that the thing that makes Jesus Christ Superstar so approachable is that it starts with Judas’ point of view.

    • Great point about the lesson from these games, which I hadn’t considered. Treacherous schemes may be fun, but they’re also exhausting to maintain. I don’t know how Littlefinger manages it.

  2. I’m pretty sure this goes along with liking trickster characters, in that they’re interesting/entertaining to watch from a distance or while they’re plaguing someone else, but you wouldn’t want to be friends with them in real life. Because they’re jerks.

    • Definitely. I think it’s part of why I like to play them in games as well – you can give in to that temptation to behave like a jerk without actually hurting or upsetting anyone.

      That said, my friend Si still hates Battlestar Galactica because of the brilliant betrayal two of us pulled on him once. He’d have been fine if the other humans weren’t so stupid, which I guess is how the cylons succeed in the TV show too.

      • People trying to play honest roles are at a severe disadvantage against a trickster/traitor, because unless they take a trickster route themselves (which is difficult — manipulating people for good!), they’re kind of forced to put the truth out there, while no one else is. You can have nothing to hide but still get dragged down by group opinion if someone is clever at slandering you. So that can definitely sting.

        The One Night Werewolf game sounds a lot like Mafia or Town of Salem (which I watch a lot of on youtube). Players often complain that the good-guy ‘town’ side is stupid, but the thing is — in that kind of situation, the good guys can’t trust anyone, not even each other, while the bad guys are in cahoots or bent solely on killing everyone. It’s easy to be swayed by fear when anyone could be an enemy.

        • Spot on about Werewolf and similar games, and that’s definitely part of their power – if everyone thinks they could be in conflict with everyone, you can get a lot of tension with very little effort. Of course whether it’s worth it depends on what you want from a game. I remember watching a review of a game based on the underground railroad for escaped slaves. Apparently it was very good at evoking the tension and terrible choices involved in making that work, but this was not exactly a bundle of fun.

  3. […] fragile seeds of our modern society emerged. I love it in the same way that I love villains and traitors – it’s a great subject for stories, but I’m bloody glad I wasn’t there. […]

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