Monday, July 28, 2014

Fixing reality part 2

Let's talk some more about Game Theory, shall we? This is more of the discussion of the really excellent book Reality is Broken that I started talking about in Part 1.

Game theory! I've studied it mostly in the context of math and education and sociology, but there's obviously the other part that's about designing games people like to play and find valuable. In math, game theory is about the set of equations that can predict outcomes of different games. This gets adopted in education and sociology to be used in discussions of why people play games, how we are fooled into thinking we are more likely to win games of chance than we are (hint: you will never win the lottery or in the casino), and how to best use our human nature to our advantage (ie how to win the Prisoner's Dilemma and what "winning" means, extending into the realms of positive psychology where we try to sneakily make people engage in behavior that makes them happier).

The pieces of Game Theory that I think are most important to consider are: that we have been playing games for probably as long as we have been people and that our societal involvement in playing games as opposed to doing other things follows societal change, that we play games because they fulfill a need we have in our lives and when that need goes away the games likewise disappear, and that the New Games movement of the mid-20th century probably changed those of us who have grown up since then substantially from generations before us.

Playing games: the tidbit I really liked from this book is that in the past, playing games increases as our perceived ability to change our life circumstances and have perceived meaningful input into our own working lives decreases. In other words, when we feel like we have no ability to change our working lives, we play more games because it's a realm in which we have a lot of perceived control. When you consider the stereotypical video gamer, this holds up and that stereotypical guy (isn't it always a guy?) is someone smart who is working in a dead-end job that is really boring. I think it was the 18th century in England (but sorry, no paper copy to double-check this) where card games became wildly popular and at the same time, people were very dissatisfied with their work lives.

Defining games: remember, Game Theory is bigger than just video games, although the author of this book is a game designer who has almost exclusively designed video games (perhaps exclusively even). Games range from the prototypical World of Warcraft or Halo to Farmville  and Words With Friends in the online realm to chess and cribbage or Cards Against Humanity and tic-tac-toe in the purely physical realm.

The New Games movement toward collaborative playful games started in the 1970s and is very widely spread now, which is neat. I just bet you have at some point played a parachute game with a beach ball or one of those "everyone in a circle" sort of games where people take turns. I think the important thing to know is that the idea was that games are an innate part of being human and that we can use the fun of games to help us develop skills and work together better. There's research to back up that theory but I haven't read it in quite a number of years. I do suspect it would be fun to read.

Why Game Theory anyway? This is sort of the convergence of positive psychology that studies what makes people happy (like the opposite of what psychology spent most of the 20th century looking at, the things that make people unhappy and/or mentally unstable) and its practical application: getting people to do things that are beneficial for them or that we want them to do for some reason. The premise of Reality is Broken in particular is that since people as a whole are choosing games as a way to spend free time, we should design games that inspire people to do useful work instead of just leveling up our online avatars or winning at 2048 or whatever. In the US alone there are 183 million people who play an online game for 13 hours a week or more. That's nearly 2.4 billion hours a week that is spent outside of physical reality playing games. If we could harness that time to engage people in something fun but also productive in the real world, wouldn't that be amazing?

Speaking as a new Chore Wars player, I am at least three times more likely to do a job now than I was before. I get excited about increasing my lead in points for the month. We set up a system so if we exercise enough times in a month, we can turn in our Exercise Tokens for our fun spending money. $20 a month doesn't seem like much but since I also get to win (sorry family, I am way too competitive to not win...) and have to keep up my lead by continuing to work on things so there's no resting on my laurels either. Here is a game that I play online and that improves my physical reality at the same time.

Sadly, blog posts don't earn me any points toward my next level so I am off to go empty the dishwasher, walk the dogs (even though they aren't mine, I get points just like if I were cleaning the cat box), and then take a walk.


  1. Whoa. Tell me more about Chore Wars please. Now that is something I need help with!

  2. Geez, lost ya' in the craziness that was my life this spring/summer....and you've lost me again with this post. heh.

    1. ...not literally, just my brain can't handle it. :)

    2. I think I'll break it down some more. Very short story: totally read this book because it's got a lot of great ideas to make the world a more fun place! It's an excellent audiobook.