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SMALLab

Fear of a Black Swan

Colleen Macklin forwarded Kyle Li and I this excellent post on Raph Koster's blog about the Ludic Fallacy. In essence, the ludic fallacy is when people "mistake the model for reality." Koster's take was that this can drive younger people, who have been raised on the lessons in games, to be too likely to assume that real world choices hew closely to those provided to them in games. Koster's view of the consequences:

Recently I had a discussion with a management and leadership consultant, and we were discussing the generational characteristics of Millenials versus Gen X in the workforce, and we were talking about how a gamer mentality may have affected the way Gen Y behaves in the workplace: more likely to follow the rules, more likely to work in teams, more needful of reassurance, less creative and risk-taking, less likely to see the full scope of irreversible consequences of a choice, and less likely to see things in shades of gray. In a way, these sound like thinking trained by games.

The ludic fallacy comes from the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb who also popularized the term "black swan". The Black Swan theory describes events that are highly improbable and have a large impact (and that we, retrospectively, try to assume were predictable). Black Swans are particularly dangerous for people who have been trained to think they don't exist (frankly, that's pretty much all of us.) As Taleb writes in his book:

...we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance-like a child playing with a chemistry kit.

By assuming that we can predict outliers (we can't) and that these events they precipitate are of no great consequence (they are), we allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that our lives are run in the same contained set of rules that might apply even in an advanced game simulation.

The cure? My read on Koster is that we should consider throwing Black Swans into educational games... or all games. By creating a set of circumstances where student players know that catastrophic events are possible (if unlikely), we will, hopefully, encourage kids (and adults) to think more conservatively and more long-term when making their choices. Having to plan for the 100-year flood (or the 500-year flood) makes the player prepare for eventualities that they may never experience themselves. The student players are therefore made to consider their game worlds as places where the rules apply only 99% (or more) of the time--enough that they can't totally rely on them as models for reality.

The catch? Randomness is not fun. Sort of. Nick Fortugno and others have taught me there are appropriate uses of randomness. For example, randomizing the terrain of the game tends to work. Players must then make their own choices on this playing field. But randomizing the choices themselves usually is a miserable failure. Try playing a game where all your moves are based solely on the roll of a die, like Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders. They're awful, unless you're a four year old.

It seems, then, that the Black Swans have to be carefully inserted into games in the form of "terrain" changes--the sudden appearance of ridiculously powerful enemies, the total elimination (or tripling) of one's resources, the widespread reformatting of a game's map. They effect the field on which the player makes choices, without inhibiting or supplementing the ability to make them in the first place. The resulting choices will be difficult and victories will be rare and hard won, but the core of gaming remains.

These events also need to be real outliers, going beyond the single super-powerful card in the deck (which savvy players would be able to predict). For example, the "Your Parents Never Met" card in Chrononauts is an okay example, but, I think, it'd have to be even more unlikely than it is now. You should be aware, in the back of your mind, that something truly awful can happen down the line, but you shouldn't be able to count cards or analyze models well enough to predict it.

Will this work? Will it cure the Gen Ys (or, as they're known in Taiwan, "strawberries") of their reliance on limited game rules in real life? Will it still leave them with their confidence, their tactical good sense, their teamwork--positive consequences of game training, according to Koster? I dunno. But it's worth a shot. And, who knows, we might even... WAAARGH! THREE-HEADED ALIENS ARE ATTACKING!

Notes on a Stakeholder Engine

I just finished reading Nicholas Lemann's article "Conflict of Interest" in the latest New Yorker. It crystallized a lot of the thinking I've done in the past few years about politics, all the way back to when I was an organizer for Democracy for America here in Hudson County.

I couldn't call my participation in the DFA effort as anything more than a failure, but it taught me a lot about the push and pull of real politics. As it turns out, I don't have a taste for that kind of work--I think I'm temperamentally unsuited for it. But it did drop the scales from my eyes. I stopping seeing the act of governing as a battle between good and evil, and, rather, saw it as the net result of conflicting and cooperating interests.

The Lemann article sums it up well, and I'd encourage anyone with an interest in the subject (or the engine) to read it. For me, it helped to gel a number of key components that ought to factor into games like this:

  • Players should either represent an interest and compete for the attention of policy makers and the general public (Bentley's organizational interests)
  • OR players should represent a policy maker who is beholden to interests--or, rather, requires the backing of a number of interests, none of which need be permanent or essential. A game of political survival rather than idealism.
  • The game will involve, at its core, the pushing and pulling of different levers on a system.
  • BUT this is NOT the game, no more than resetting a series of timers is Diner Dash
  • Therefore, a game mechanic is needed that creates a sense of expressiveness, in Bogost's terms.
  • And a narrative that explains the affordances of the "lever pushing" in the same way that waiting tables explains the timers in Nick's game.

That's what I have for now. More questions than answers at this point, but it makes sense for me to start taking apart some of the work from this spring's "iPod Game" and working out a mechanic for that kind system and logical interface.

Copyright Mike Edwards 2006-2009. All content available under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, unless otherwise noted.