The Impossibly Nerdy Online Game That’s Fixing the Brains of Media Twitter – VICE

The biggest drama in the world of Diplomacy is the unspeakably tense moment when the map drops. That’s when journalist Emily Tamkin recently found herself on the wrong end of a profound betrayal: Her friend and ally Neel Patel, also a journalist, had promised her—sworn to her, she insists—that she could have the territory of Loreto during a game when she was playing as Gran Colombia and he as Spain. But when the map dropped, she saw that Neel seized Loreto for himself, dooming her (and ultimately winning the game). She didn’t mince her words. 
“I said, ‘This is the angriest I have ever been at someone in an extracurricular activity,’” Tamkin recalled. 
In another game played by the same group of Diplomacy players, the journalist Jack Crosbie was betrayed by his IRL friend David Klion, also a journalist. “For the next year after this he regularly addressed me with ‘Fuck you,’” Klion said, “until a more recent stab by someone else caused him to retire the grudge and work with me.” 
Diplomacy is a strategy game in which players control armies and fleets, and where the goal is to scheme, negotiate, and backstab your way into controlling territory on a map, set in worlds based loosely on our own. “Stabs” are an acknowledged—and beloved—part of game-play; they happen when you tell a fellow player you’ll ally with them, or do something to their advantage, and then break your word and betray them. 
This online version of Diplomacy, played in the messaging app Slack, has become an intellectual obsession and freewheeling social space for a group of journalists and policy wonk types. It’s also, they all agree, just a great way to betray and talk shit to each other. 
“When the map drops, you instantly see who lied to whom and who stabbed their longtime ally in the back,” Klion told me. This would include, of course, his infamous betrayal of Crosbie. 
There are several ways to play Diplomacy online, but none quite as sprawling or immersive as the one that Klion and a friend masterminded. Weeks into the pandemic, everyone collectively realized they would need an absorbing new hobby; they found seven people to play an existing online version of the game. They all became, as Klion puts it, “instantly hooked and obsessed.”
As word spread and the community grew, the game moved to Slack, where around 24 people play in each new game. Some people play every round, while others take breaks as work and life demands; there are about 30 to 35 people in the Slack overall. Inevitably, the players started talking about other things too, filling a number of side chat rooms with discussions about things increasingly unrelated to game play. Still, the game dominates their thoughts: as a measure of the precise level of nerd-dom and overall specificity of what we’re dealing with here, the current map is called Metternich, after the 19th century Austrian statesman and diplomat who shaped the world that this particular variant of the game is set in.
The current edition of the Metternich Diplomacy map, courtesy David Klion and Manoli Stecker
(Full disclosure: I know a majority of the Diplomacy players in a casual social way through the media world and, of course, through Twitter. I work with, or have worked with, a handful of them. I told more than one person that I wanted to learn more about “their little nerd game”; no one needed any further clarification. I also unintentionally added yet more drama to the game play; after asking players to recount their most infamous stab moments, several participants told me I’d caused the Slack to devolve into a furious round of relitigating old games.)
The usual goal of each game is for a small group of players to achieve a stable, shared balance of power. In the current game, Motherboard is reliably told, one person stands to win it all, a rare outcome which will surely lead to a great deal of online teeth-gnashing and angry DM-typing. 
Klion has previously written about playing the game, both its board and online versions; in his piece, he described it as “famous for ending friendships.” Players in the Slack version of Diplomacy plot their moves in private messages to each other—where they aren’t obligated to be honest, of course—and then communicate their real moves to a “game master,” a sort of dungeon master type who plots them out and then posts the new map to a public channel. (The game master, Manoli Strecker, is the person who co-created the game with Klion. Unlike the journalists quoted in this piece, he does not work in media and was apparently not eager to humiliate himself in print. Klion affectionately calls him a “sick bastard” who has “become the anchor of this whole community,” adding, “none of this would be possible without his daily hours of unpaid labor.”) 
Map drops show all: who made a huge power grab, who’s moved their armies to a brilliant new tactical position, who’s been stringing you along in the DMs to execute their master plan. 
“You see this all play out at once,” Klion told me. “It’s a big moment; everyone gets really worked up, and there’s a lot of drama in the DMs.” 
The games are incredibly long and bitter campaigns. In a past game, also set in the age of Metternich, Klion told me, “a handful of players thought they could lock up victory worldwide by combining all the colonial powers into one bloc. Stopping them required all the other powers, a much bigger group, to put aside our conflicts and work together. The result was an absolutely grinding, miserable global war that left pretty much everyone angry, culminating in grand betrayals in both blocs. We still have bitter debates about individual turns from that game two years later.” 
The drama is half the fun, Klion said, but it’s also—usually—tongue-in-cheek, more pro wrestling-style kayfabe than actual anger or hurt. (Anyone who’s played Dungeons and Dragons or even Monopoly will understand.) “The ideal is that you get invested and you care if you win or lose,” he said. “But you also understand that a lot of the fun is performing outrage.” 
There’s a real element of chaos to it.”
Carol Schaeffer, a journalist in New York who started playing Diplomacy early on, agreed. She fell in love with the heavy negotiating the game involves, she told me, “the way that the game can sometimes be a 3D chess or a 4D chess. There’s a real element of chaos to it.” 
Not to mention, she added, with evident delight, the shit-talking. “That’s one of the biggest windfalls of the game. You get to go in the chat and kind of gloat. It’s a socially accepted space to be horrible and nasty, but still out of love.” 
Any online social space is its own little kingdom; it has rules, conventions, power alliances, kings, and pawns. Diplomacy is a quite literal, gamified representation of those dynamics. But it also represents something a lot more interesting: the ways in which hopelessly Twitter-obsessed people, like journalists, have increasingly started retreating into more private online social spaces like group chats, non-work Slack rooms, Close Friends Instagram stories, or Twitter Circles (a setting where you tweet to a smaller group of people). Where Twitter represents a chance to talk to the entire world, spaces like Diplomacy offer a chance to talk to a smaller group, who might get your jokes, or at least engage with your arguments in relative good faith; the sniping and back-stabbing are in good fun, contained within the realm of the game.
“Twitter was a radically democratized space where anyone could break in and become known and connect with people who were established,” Klion, who could fairly be described as a Twitter power user, told me. “Because everyone was on it. For a while, a lot of people with important jobs and influence in the world were spending their whole day on Twitter—you could  connect with them directly and get in their heads.”
But Twitter as a platform has shifted, even prior to Elon Musk’s rise, becoming a place where “main characters” and all-day arguments and pile-ons have become ever more routine, and where it’s increasingly less clear to some users what benefit it might have for them. That’s a dynamic that’s only become more pronounced with its new owner, who spends the day making capricious policies, banning journalists, and generally creating a generally unproductive and deeply unfun form of chaos. Diplomacy, as lightweight as it may seem, is an epiphenomenon of a  larger and more serious debate that journalists are having with themselves about Twitter, a platform they once relied on so heavily to make names for themselves and to form a social and professional universe. 
“There were a lot of roles that Twitter probably filled in our lives when it was a livelier and more interesting public space,” Klion said. “But for many of us, there’s been this gradual retreat into private groups of 20 or 30 people. Diplomaslack is our version of that.” (Yes, that’s what they call it.) 
“Many of us are rethinking our relationship with social media, what we put out onto these platforms,” Emily Tamkin said. (Besides being a dedicated Diplomacy player, she’s an author and senior U.S. editor at the New Statesman.) The game has become so core to her social life, she said, that when she recently celebrated a big life milestone, “I had to explain to my parents that there were like six friends from an online board game in their apartment, celebrating me along with cousins and uncles and friends from college.” And during a more recent difficult moment in her life, Diplomaslack sent her a care package. 
“Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if people are spending more time in group chats or Slacks than they are on Twitter,” Tamkin said; despite having met friends, her husband and gotten work through the platform, she’s one of the people pulling away from it slightly. 
“You’re the product,” she said. “So it can only ever be so good to you. At a certain point you have to ask, is this still useful to me in the same way that it perhaps once was?” 
The more dedicated players in Diplomaslack refer to each other as “sickos,” Klion said. “Because you have to be one to enjoy this.”
Diplomacy was originally conceived as a board game, released in the U.S. in 1959. The classic version of the game, set in Europe on the eve of World War, was created by Harvard undergrad turned board game designer Allan Calhamer, for whom Diplomacy was his first outing and, ultimately, his masterwork. Calhamer wrote in 1974 that the game was inspired by a high school debate club, and an argument there in about whether “a world containing several ‘Great Powers’ all roughly equal in strength would offer the best guarantee of peace, because whenever one of them acted aggressively the remainder could unite against them, causing them to back down before a war could break out.” 
That idea, Calhamer added, of a “system of multiple and flexible checks and balances” offered itself as “a possible basis for a strategic parlor game of some depth and color.” (Whether this concept holds any discernible “color,” of course, is very much in the eye of the beholder.) A player can move their armies (on land),  their fleets (in the water), or find themselves at a standoff. The board game requires exactly seven people, and lends itself to a weekend at an English country house, in between rounds of shooting grouse and excusing colonialism; as Klion pointed out in his piece, an in-person game benefits from “a house big enough for multiple players to pair off in separate rooms for scheming.” 
Every version of the game relies heavily on public discussions, treaties, and negotiations, which are often then negated by skullduggery the players choose to do in private. The idea that the game would involve lying and scheming came up almost accidentally, Calhamer wrote.
“The notion that a player may tell all the lies he wants and cross people as he pleases etc., make some people almost euphoric and causes others to ‘shake like a leaf,’ as one new player put it,” he wrote. “[It] came up almost incidentally, because it was the most realistic in international affairs and also far and away the most workable approach.”
The deception is also one of the things that makes Diplomacy relatively unique, said Eric Thurm, a writer, labor organizer and author of a book about board games.
Though Diplomacy is mechanically simple compared to other dense board games that focus on resource management, they said, “it still manages to create a perfect environment for scheming.” 
Thurm finds it stressful, personally: “I am a terrible liar and don’t tend to enjoy games that rely on deception and backstabbing, but even I can appreciate the simplicity of Diplomacy as an opportunity to simultaneously build up friendships and destroy them.” 
The game probably appeals to journalists and politicos for a fairly simple reason, said Edward Ongweso, a Diplomacy player and fellow Motherboard staff writer. 
“This is a game where your words are as important as your arms,” he told me. “People can win with large armies and fleets can do well, because those force you to act one way or another, but people can also tell a good story (with a lie or the truth) and persuade you to do something you probably shouldn't or wouldn't otherwise do. You can convince someone who should destroy your country to let you survive and grow until you can convince someone else to help you destroy them; you can get a big head and have a seemingly impervious position crumble because everyone decided you were too dangerous of a neighbor to have.”
The impulse to “plot and scheme” is enjoyable even for Diplomacy’s worst players— namely my old coworker and gentle frenemy Brendan O’Connor, a journalist and author who’s also getting a graduate degree in something inscrutable.
Every time this happens, I think I’m done with the whole thing because it’s stupid and boring and I hate it when people don’t listen to me. And then a couple days pass and I’m looking forward to the next game. It’s a sickness.”
“I am really terrible at the game,” O’Connor told me, unbidden. “I lose very quickly, almost every time.”
And yet, O’Connor added, “There is a very specific emotional arc to laying a very intricate plan, getting a bunch of people on board, seeing the path to victory — and then having it all get blown up because someone wants to make a spiteful point about some ancient, obscure grievance. Every time this happens, I think I’m done with the whole thing because it’s stupid and boring and I hate it when people don’t listen to me. And then a couple days pass and I’m looking forward to the next game. It’s a sickness.”
As the years have gone by—and as Twitter has become an increasingly unrewarding place to be, first with the inevitable passage of time and then with the rise of Elon Musk—Diplomaslack has come to be, as the players freely acknowledge, a partial substitute for tweeting, a healthier way to live and socialize online. 
“I’ve always said Twitter is basically going to the bar,” player Alex Yablon told me; he’s a former journalist and a policy analyst for the New York City Council. “Sometimes it’s really fun and you’ll meet new people and sometimes you’ll make people laugh harder than you ever have before and you’ll laugh harder than you ever have. And a lot of times it’s a bunch of bullshit and it’s too loud to hear anyway.” 
By contrast, Diplomacy, Yablon said, “reminded me more of a big dinner party. It’s a group of people who are all pretty familiar with each other. We all knew someone in common but didn’t necessarily know each other” when the game began, mutual follows on Twitter but not close friends. An online social space around a shared, incredibly dorky hobby feels different, more intimate. “I feel like I've built a bunch of real friendships through this thing.” 
It also lends itself to a certain kind of iterative humor, Yablon added. “With Twitter, millions of people can blip in and out of your timeline; you see something outrageously funny for someone from New Zealand and then you never see them again. Here, the humor gets layered. It’s like humor among groups of friends. There are lots of inside jokes that don’t make any sense to anyone outside of this.” 
“I enjoy the culture of the Slack a lot,” Ongweso agreed. “It's a pretty fun and supportive group of people. They've been helpful with career advice, we trade a lot of jokes in there, we talk about the news (of course), and have dedicated channels to other topics (Dune, movies, cooking, music).” 
Ongweso can’t exactly say that Diplomaslack has reduced his Twitter use, but does think it’s made it somewhat healthier. “I think I use some parts of Twitter a lot less and some more,” he told me. “I think becoming friends with the people in the Slack definitely led to me turning more of my internet friendships into real life ones, and as a result spending less time in some online communities/groupchats. But I definitely spend the same amount of time on Twitter posting, doomscrolling, reading posts, and sharing them. The real effect it has had on posting/content consumption has been reducing the level of hate reading I do.”
Several of the players have also read, and been heavily influenced by, a book called The Chaos Machine by author Max Fisher, which deals with how platforms like Twitter and Facebook were built to incentivize users towards increasingly extreme statements and opinions, which drive better engagement.
“It reset my relationship with social media in general,” Diplomacy player Eoin Higgins, a journalist in New England, said of the book. But it also furthered a process that had already begun. “I was already feeling like, What am I doing here? This is a dopamine or a stress hit. What’s the point? What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? What’s the game? And it just started to feel a little tired to me.” 
Higgins, who dryly calls Diplomacy “the nerdiest shit ever,” is, of all things, a second-generation Diplomacy player. 
Repurposed panels from Watchmen, edited by Eoin Higgins to lord over his in-game enemies.
“My dad played it a little bit in college and my mom played one game with them,” he said. “A person playing with them got so mad at her they haven’t spoken since then. It’s been 40 years.” (The problem, of course, was a cunningly-staged betrayal.) The taste for blood seems to run in the family: during a game last year, Higgins edited the text panels of several pages from comic book Watchmen to dramatically announce in Slack that he'd double-crossed several people in order to dominate one of the board areas.
As if the game itself were not already, shall we say, enough, the players also compose oral histories of each game after it concludes. 
“This is perhaps the most embarrassing thing that we do,” Tamkin said cheerfully. “People will basically recap their experience from their perspective. Then the editor will take these different narratives and assemble them to get a full recap.” She’s served as editor twice, the only person who’s done so that many times.
“I’ve had as much fun if not more,” she said, as playing the game. “You see who got mad at each other, when someone's account is so dramatic about something that someone else thinks is mundane. You get all the different personalities coming out on paper, which I think is fun.” 
“My wrath knew no bounds,” Crosbie wrote.
In one representative oral history, Jack Crosbie recounted—at length—Klion’s betrayal. “My wrath knew no bounds,” Crosbie wrote. “It swung from fire to ice, from rage to disappointment. Dave, groveling, sniveling in his traitorous indecision, unable to commit to any plan long enough to truly establish himself as a general, offered to reverse it.” 
“Fuck you,” Crosbie wrote that he responded. “If you play like a rat fuck you better swallow your carrion before it chokes you in spite.” 
(“Not everyone,” Klion told me, unconvincingly, “is so bombastic.” He enjoyed Crosbie’s retelling immensely. “​I cackled so loudly my wife kicked me out of bed and made me sit on the floor. You can print that.”)  
As is perhaps not totally surprising by now, the game players tend heavily towards being male, despite, the players say, often trying to recruit more women. Tamkin, one of the handful of regular women players, says she thinks the environment will change over time. “As you bring in more women, other women are more comfortable coming into the space.” Schaeffer agrees; the game appeals primarily to “world history nerds,” she said. “ I do think that’s something you find more promoted among men as an interest,” along with, of course, war games and yelling profanity at your friends.
In the meantime, amidst the chorus of “Fuck yous” and lasting grudges, one of the more surprising and touching things that’s developed in Diplomaslack is a room devoted to talking solely about parenting. It’s becoming, against all odds, a stable and supportive environment for new dads, many of whom don’t have other online spaces to talk about parenthood.  
“It’s hard to find a place to talk to people about it,” one of the participants told me. (He prefers to keep his family life private.) “I don’t want to go to an online group where they’re talking about tactical baby gear. I don’t give a shit about that. For those of us who are in there, it’s a really positive space.” 
Klion joined the group himself earlier this year; when we first spoke for this story, he had a newborn, and sounded bleary and exhilarated at the same time. 
“We have a channel for sharing cute pictures of our kids, but also for talking about real shit,” he said. “I think a lot of dads don’t have a real community like that, and we do.”  
In all, Diplomacy’s curious mix of friendship, mock-battle and legitimate, genuine agita continues to prove addictive to its core players. 
“I don’t want to pretend for a second that I haven't been stressed out by this game,” Schaeffer told me recently. “I have genuinely lost sleep over it, playing the maps over in my mind at night.” She paused, and then started laughing so hard it took her a moment to compose herself. 
“I’ve been stabbed,” she said, chortling. “And it’s taken me to such emotional and deep emotional lows.” She paused for a long time, her gales of laughter slowly subsiding. “And that’s objectively hilarious.” 
For her, whatever else happens to Twitter or any other online space, Diplomacy, at least, feels stable enough to continue. “I don't see the game stopping any time soon,” she said. “I’ll keep playing it.”

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