Archive for March 2010

The Gamer and The Ethicist: Little Evils   Leave a comment

Needless to say, Dante was pissed.

The Divine Comedy or Dante’s Inferno is the result of his observations and anger. He picked sides, Pope over the Emperor of Rome. After the war, he returned home, and became angry over the backbiting politics of his people and government. Sound familiar?

But he did so much in such an epic poetic way that today the words ring true.

“Yet an experiment, were you to try it, could free you from your cavil and the source of your arts’ course springs from experiment.” (Lines 94-96, Canto II)

Humans can practically be split into two types, those who want to experiment and try something new and those who want things to stay the same, because regardless of how dysfunctional the system might be, because what you know seems less risky then what you don’t know.

Hence the creation of “Little Evils”.

Talking about such a thing as Little Evils pushes certain questions and answers. I am going to avoid the general and go for a different angle here.

Dante’s Divine Comedy pokes fun at everyone. More importantly he brought to light the injustices, yes, the “Little Evils” which can create fertile ground for “Greater Evils”.

Before I go on, however, let’s go back to game theory refresher for a moment.

First of all a game is defined as any social situation involving two or more individuals. The individuals are called players. Here’s an interesting twist, a player is considered a rational decision maker if she/he makes decisions in pursuit of their own objectives.

Now, let’s hearken back, but not too far back to your microeconomics class. A player is expected to maximize their own payoff, measured in some utility scale. Because of this maximization of payoff, the result of this decision is called the expected-utility maximization theorem.

Whew, talk about another concept of the “Selfish Gene”. Here we have it. Each individual player in a social environment is expected to act in such a way as to maximize the payoff or the utility to their own benefit. Selfish? Maybe. A trait leftover from evolution, definitely. Which brings in entropy.

Ah, entropy, hmm… do you hear it, swirling about the evolutionary DNA drain-star pool? If you thought American Idol was rough, try ensuring actions that keep species procreating and creating replicas of themselves for survival. Just talk to the dinosaurs on that one. Which begs the question, are there usually more than two decision makers in any situation (and unpredictable events)?

What happens when we have two or more decision makers? Let’s look at Sally and Harry.

Sally and Harry are in a relationship. They have several choices, or factors. One factor, let’s say, is unknown to Harry, but is known to Sally. Harry wants to keep the relationship going, but he must be able to assess the probability of Sally’s possible choices. So Harry, in order to understand Sally’s decision-making behavior tries to imagine himself in her position. Harry suddenly realizes that while he is trying to imagine himself in Sally’s position, he realizes that Sally may also be trying to assess his behavior and imagine herself in his position. So, that the rational solution in Harry and Sally’s individual decision/problem depends on the solution to the other’s problem.

You can stop running and take a breath now.

Now here’s another twist. Game Theorists say that a player in a game is intelligent if he/she knows everything that we know about the game and they can make any inferences about the situation that we can make.

What is interesting here is we assume that all individuals are perfectly rational and intelligent, and we may never be able to perfect that in a real life situation. We would be suspicious of theories that wouldn’t predict this. However, if we believe that Harry would always be duped by Sally in their relationship, then that theory would lose it’s validity, because Harry would eventually learn from experience or read a published article on Sally found in a tabloid magazine and better understand the situation and change his decision making behavior to maximize his behavioral utility.

As I said before, Dante was pissed.

At the age of 35 or so in the wild and wacky 1300’s, Dante began the poem on Good Friday. In the real world, Dante is feeling at a loss to craziness around him. Besides the hatred between and in the various political groups and no one seemed to be thinking about the welfare of the country or his fellow compatriots.

To relieve his tension, anger and sadness, he began to write, because he felt, he was losing his way. In his imaginary world, Virgil, a Roman poet, finds him and they both enter into Hell, where hangs a sign: “Abandon all Hope Ye who Enter Here.” From here Dante dissects the personages of society into different groups. Yet it is in this novel, this exegeses of his life and his observations around him, that you know Dante has hope, or he wouldn’t be writing the Inferno at all.

A friend of mine, couldn’t understand why he and his girlfriend would go through this yin and yang of anger and eventual forgiveness. At times it was tiring to him and exacted a pound or two of his psychic flesh. I looked at him, and said: “If she didn’t love you, you wouldn’t get a reaction at all.” Because in truth, he and I both agreed that hatred isn’t the opposite of love, apathy is the true opposite.

So we have two people, who are reacting to the games created in their own world. They could choose to take a risk, with each other and create new rules to work out problems. But in this, their small world, they would have to approach each other through the evolution of their individual self-interest, and work to care about each other’s welfare.

Is it possible? Sure it is. Is it probable, and it’s up to the individual and their friends to try and get through and understand the many layers of factors that can bias our decisions. Every decision we make, is based upon our previous experiences, the influence of society around us.

Digital games are popular, not because it’s a game, but that it offers rules that we know will be the same all the time, that we can pick and chose our roles and that offers some comfort to us while we are living an encapsulated adventure.

Even in those encapsulated adventures, self-interest can turn into concern for the welfare of another.

In that is the real game. Getting past the Little Evils, of sole self interest, thinking about and anticipating the possibilities to make another person and yourself happy.

You see, the reason Dante was pissed, was because he loved his people so much.

To be Continued… for real… see you in two weeks..