I am aware of work by at least one hobby veteran who has visited a related topic (Jim Burgess, In Search of the Cult of Personality Part 5 - Play-by-Mail Diplomacy vs. Play-by-Electronic-Mail Diplomacy: Some Differences in Style and Feel, Diplomacy World #79). However, my focus here will be on stylistic differences between Face-to-Face (FTF) Diplomacy and Play-by-Email (PBEM) Diplomacy. Moreover, while I am undoubtedly influenced by my knowledge of the experiences of other players who have both FTF and PBEM experience, I wish to make it clear that the arguments and conclusions I make are uniquely personal and based almost entirely on my own experience, as will be seen through the comments and examples I cite. Further, though my experience in PBEM is greater than most, my FTF experience is more limited. Yet, at the same time, to the best of my knowledge, there are few players who have any significant experience of both areas, at least at the higher echelons of play. To what extent, if any, that qualifies me to embark on this thesis, you, gentle reader, will have to decide. In any event, I hope to describe and explain a phenomenon which will speak to all hobbyists. Nonetheless, caveat lector (let the reader beware).
Noun - The way in which something is said, done, expressed, or performed: a style of speech and writing.
That seems a quite apt definition, particularly the example noting differences of speech and writing. These are the characteristics which are most directly involved in stylistic differences between FTF and PBEM Diplomacy.
In each other's presence; in direct communication: spoke face to face.
The most important part of the definition is "in each other's presence". There a number of ways to engage in direct communication through remote methods but, at present, none of them offer the immediacy and visceral presence that FTF contact does, nor do any of them require the control over physical cues and actions necessary to ensure that the medium doesn't become the message in FTF contact.
Noun - Materials, such as letters, handled in a postal system.
Electronic mail further refines the definition:
Noun - Mail delivered by use of a computer network in electronic form, i.e. not physical, and usually characterized by rapid, near instantaneous delivery.
Thus, PBEM could reasonably be defined as:
Use of an electronic mail system to exchange text-only messages in the conduct of a game.
I played in the FTF Colonial variant championship at WDC VI. In my game, as Holland, I established an early non-aggression pact with Japan (which I didn't violate until he couldn't do anything about it) and a strong alliance with France. At the same time, I laid the groundwork for an alliance with Britain, since I didn't know how things would work out with France and Japan. As the game progressed, however, I consistently lied to Britain, never once following through on my promises, though I didn't actively attack him. Nonetheless, he continued to work with me well past the point where I was in position to make a direct stab, which I ultimately did with great success.
Now, you might write this off as the actions of an inept player but, in fact, this player was reasonably skilled and did well in the overall tournament. So, why then did he continue to trust me and let me set him up for a stab? I discussed this with him after the game. He said that there were two factors that lead him to continue to trust me. One, he was in a tough spot on all fronts; Turkey was bumbling about and acting threatening, France was overtly hostile, and China and Russia were preoccupied with each other. As a result, he was receptive to any friendly overtures. Two, even after I had failed to meet my commitments several times, I had not actively attacked him. Moreover, I almost always spoke to him first after each turn processed, I was frequently up front about my inability or unwillingness to take actions he desired, even when this might gain his enmity, I always had a reasonable excuse for my apparently unfriendly actions, and I always had ready answers to his hard questions, even if those answers weren't always to his taste. As a result, even though he recognized the precarious nature of his position, he felt that I was his best chance.
The key aspects of FTF play that worked to my advantage here were:
In a nutshell, I formed an early alliance with England and we all but eliminated Germany by 1903. At the same time, Austria and Russia went after Turkey, while Italy just sort of tooled around in the Mediterranean. Shortly thereafter, however, Russia stabbed Austria with Italy's help. Italy was convinced that I was friendly and had thrown everything he had to the east, including sending his two fleets towards Turkey in order to get in on the action there.
The situation that developed was that England and I were in need of selecting new targets. I wanted to send most of my forces southeast towards Italy and I asked England to go northeast after Russia. At the same time, we would both move east through Germany and see what happened. England agreed in principle but then got hung up on the disposition of Brest (he wanted a commitment that I wouldn't build there at all) and Belgium (he wanted me to move my army in Belgium east and leave it vacant thereafter). I wasn't happy about the request not to build in Brest but I said I would consider it if he wouldn't build in London. I also said I would happily vacate Belgium if he would vacate Holland or the North Sea.
It was all down hill from there, believe me. We went through a number of counter-proposals, none of which were acceptable to both of us. More importantly, the whole process of trying to decide these issues put a serious strain on our relationship and, ultimately, lead to the dissolution of the EF alliance. In the long run, the game ended in an EFIR draw.
At the time all this was happening, I didn't know the identity of the English player because it was a gunboat game. After the game ended, I saw who it was and, since I knew him, I gave him a call to discuss what had happened. It turns out that both of us were, in fact, seriously committed to the EF alliance at the time. Moreover, while both of us would have happily taken a gift solo, we both were willing to play for a 2-way or 3-way draw. It hadn't happened because we both had misinterpreted each other's intentions and goals expressed through our email. Had either of us been able to better express our goals, recognize the level of distress caused to the other before it was too late, and put the other at ease, we might well have ended in a 2-way EF draw.
The key aspects of PBEM play that worked to my disadvantage here were:
One, FTF offers a broader spectrum of communication opportunities.
Two, PBEM offers a greater opportunity for more thoughtful, considered action.
Which style is preferable will depend your own strengths and weaknesses. For me, there's no question - FTF is my forte. However, advances in electronic communications will likely complicate the issue even further. What will be the effects of videoconferencing or virtual reality modes of play on Diplomacy? Will these pseudo-FTF methods offer the benefits of real FTF? What disadvantages will they have? At present, I have no idea but, if they become readily available, I'll be playing them and another article on the topic won't be far behind.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with these thoughts on style. Take what meaning you can find.
It is most true, stylus virum arguit,--our style betrays us.
Le style est l'homme même (The style is the man himself).
The Big Dipper
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