Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Tag

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..


The Games We Play at Christmas   1 comment

Oh, it’s holiday time!  I’m out in a little town in Washington State near Mount Rainier. It has just started snowing, the live choir at the Gazebo across the street are in the middle of their Christmas concert.  Everyone around me is trying to get into, maintain or handle this holiday season in a nation where we are all concerned and worried about what will happen next.

We want normal.  In game theory we would need to set a level of “normal” and work from there. The problem is, we all have different expectations of “normal”.  I’m going to take a departure here from our journey into game theory and talk to you about the intended and unintended effects of game theory in everyone’s lives during one of the most odd and yet beautiful seasons of our culture.

This time of year we celebrate, Christmas, Ashura, Hannukah, Yule, Bodhi Day… and the New Year in various ways. Families gather or try to and we are all in one house, with different memories, experiences and backgrounds and the dice begins to roll. The thing is… our dice, our personal and family and interpersonal relationship dice are all weighted in someway.  What I mean by that is perhaps, you don’t get along with Aunt Betty.  When Aunt Betty shows up at the holiday party, the dice starts rolling, but if you allow the dice to be weighted, it will only roll the same few actions it has always come up with in regard to whatever Aunt Betty says. The Game is rigged so to speak. It is rigged with your former memories and expectations of what has gone on with Aunt Betty before. Perhaps Aunt Betty did some heinous things to you in the past. Aunt Betty may have felt justified in doing so, now her dice are weighted.  The Game goes on and usually not in a pleasant way and more importantly it goes on the same way again and again.

Sometimes we need weighted dice when we need to protect ourselves. This is when I think of Kun Tu, my Zen Buddhist four paws friend. He lives in the present, but he knows danger when he sees it. He’s so forgiving of me, and when he rolls the dice to interact with me, he loves me, even though I may have left him at home for six hours. Well, yes, he does kvetch at me, but when the ritual is over we’re happy buddies like nothing has happened.  On the other hand, when I am walking with him down a street at night and someone is walking toward us that he senses something in not quite right, his dice will roll and his choices are different. But they are honest choices. You know exactly where Kun Tu is coming from.

This is not a Markov Chain where a future state is only determined by the present state. It is a set of states, like a Bayes Net where the past could determine the future and many times we aren’t even aware of it.  It is a chain, like one we find with Scrooge and his former posse, Bob Marley and friends.

We do make the chains that bind us in life and others forge those chains upon us with or without our permission. It’s only when we become aware of those chains, and choose to react with unweighted or appropriately weighted dice that the changes occur.

This Season, wherever you are and whomever you are, I wish for you the brightest of Games, of Love, Forgiveness, Light and New Ways of Interacting and Health, both emotional and physical.

You can choose to make new rules. The Light we figuratively talk about this time of year, whether in Christendom or Solstice, is about the darkness coming to an end and having the Light come back into our lives.

May the Light’s beauty flood your life and reach all the dark crevasses and lead you forth in the New Year to a better life.

Being at peace where you're at

The Ethicist and the Gamer Part II   4 comments

And when you thought a story was just a story

And when you thought a story was just a story

Welcome to the adventure! Last week there was:

“…culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning…”

That brings another needed task, breaking down the story of Tiku and the One and the Other-One.  This created myth is an amalgam of older myths, but with a twist-a modern element thrown in.  Let’s break it down.

In the pristine, pure beginning we had two people who cared for each other and loved each other regardless of differences.  Then a third character comes in and introduces doubt into the world.  Rather than choosing to ignore the bird and it’s offer, the man thinks they could have more happiness or could be missing something.  This is not necessarily a negative thought, but what is the crux of the story is why this bird out of the blue is offering the Ultimate Life to them.

We find out later that the bird is doing so, because someone did it to them, so of course others must suffer.  But why must others suffer?

In a modern twist (to be discussed in Part III), the man and woman must suffer because of course the Tiku bird must have a reason to rationalize it’s pain and dislike of others.  The rule is:

“If I have suffered, you must suffer too.”

Sound familiar?  Or in the Judeo Christian concept, it is a takeoff of the orignal sin, so the rule is: 

“One person made a mistake, so all must suffer for it”

A Buddhist might think:

“Life is hard, so we must learn to let go of our ego and detach from the suffering, but it is unavoidable”

And we could go on,  the important thing to remember is that these rules evolved from stories, or at least the stories were created to understand the rules.

The hidden rule in this story is that when one person suffers and chooses not to let go of that suffering, then others must suffer to make them feel justified, guilty or not.   The other rule that rose from that rule is that all men for ever and ever will in some way be a slave to women.  Of course in our world the opposite occurred.

Rules, you say?  But these are great epic stories, some the foundation of our religions and societies.  And to that, I say:  “EXACTLY!”

Read the first quote at the beginning of part II.

It is true that some stories have atonement, giving the ability for persons in the story to redeem themselves in someway.   That is another rule. Atonement, by the way, is actually meant as “At onement”. To be at one with Christ’s suffering and to be redeemed.  That’s as close to a religious discussion as we will have here.  Remember we’re looking at the construct of games, society, relationship and rules.

Does society have rules?  Yes and there are hidden as well as unhidden rules.  Rules change according to the culture, but most rules find commonality.  The most common is:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

In game theory this is called the Ethic of Reciprocity.  You have the right to just treatment and you must ensure justice for others.  It is the basic element of all human rights.

Confucianism states:

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself”


“Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you”

and so forth.

Watch how children play, or adults, or if you want to really observe another culture, watch dogs play.  A dog will go into a butt-up/head down play position to attract another companion to play.  If the invitation is not accepted they will perhaps try with a bump to the other dog, and that may work, or the other dog will just saunter off.  If one dog unjustly attacks another dog, that dog will not be played with.

Listen to how children construct their play or remember your friends behavior from playing Monopoly.  What are the rules? How do humans behave?

Next week, a focus on rules and stories.

To be continued . . .

Thank you.

The Ethicist and the Gamer   3 comments


Culture and Games

Culture and Games

I ‘m a ludologist and game theorist.  No, that is not the same as a Luddite.  In fact I principally work with computer or digital games, so being a Luddite is quite out of the question.

People ask and they even ask me from time to time, “What can we do about these violent video games?”  Or traveling on the plane or train,when finding out what I do for a living they become angry  at me and suggest that I not try to censor their freedom of speech.  Which I’m not, by the way, trying to censor anyone that is.  When confronted with comments such as what are the impacts of computer games, we need to step back and take a detached, holistic view.  We need to first ask what is the relationship of games to society, to culture and to the rest of us.

The most perfect concept of a game is from Johan Huizinga, the author of Homo Ludens, (Man the Player).

“…culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning…”

When we were children, regardless of your age, play was the primary component of your life.  Whether you lived in the depression of the late 30’s or years of Pac-Man and now even more sophisticated gaming devices,  the transport of games have changed.

Whereas a game of “kick the can” with your old friends could entertain you with challenges and leave everyone laughing, and hopefully being “good sports”, Pac-Man was a more solitary game, with perhaps a friend or two cheering you on.

Games though, embrace stories, or mythologies.  The ancient Greek games replicated the games of the gods and the games were thought to appease those same gods.

Here we have the human-god-game connection.  Did the belief of playing games to appease the gods come out of Greek culture, or did the playing of games so make the ancient Greeks happy and healthy that of course it must appease the gods?

What is the story here?  Does the story affect the play or the play affect the story?

In that light, let us try a thought experiment.

Have a cup of tea, sit down in a comfortable place, cozy up with your blanket and listen to a story.

Now, relax and listen/read.

A long long time ago, there were two people.  Different they were but of the same species.  They lived happily, gathering food, enjoying the sunshine, living in bliss.  One day, a tiku bird alighted upon a tree in the center of the garden.  It crowed about how the two did not really know what life was about and that they lived in ignorance of the Ultimate Life.

They stopped, being polite as they were, and listened to the tiku bird.  They asked about the Ultimate Life and how it would be different from the one they now lead.  The tiku bird laughed and said that they would understand everything and have so much power that they would enjoy themselves immensely.

One asked, “But weren’t they enjoying themselves immensely now?”

The tiku laughed again and said:  “How would you know if you didn’t experience the Ultimate Life?”

The other one of the species said:  “We will have to think about it.  Thank you honored one and we will go now.”

The one who had asked the first question became curious in a way that was different from other curiosities; like watching a flower bloom, or a turtle swim back into the sea after hatching.  This one worried that they might be missing something, they also worried about this new feeling and they were frightened to mention this to the other-one.  So instead of mentioning this feeling and their concern about it, they kept asking other questions.

“My love” they said “What if we never know what the Ultimate Life is?  What if we live this life, but lack something.  What if we could love each other in a way that is better from the way we do now?”

Finally, the other-one gave in.  “My beloved, if you so want to experience the Ultimate Life, I will think about it.  But like the thunder in the sky before the rain comes to quench our thirst, I wonder if this thunder is warning us instead of a large wind which causes damage.  That is what my heart says.  Yet, if this causes you so much distress we can try the Ultimate Life.”

Next morning they walked back to the tree where they found the tiku bird perching.  The tiku bird was nervously walking back and forth and when the tiku saw the two it quickly alighted on the lower branch.

“So”, it said.  “You have made up your minds.  You want to live the Ultimate Life?”

The other-one, answered. “No, we just want to try the Ultimate Life.”

The tiku bird paced and paced and finally said.  “All right you can just try the Ultimate Life.  Take the mango from the tree and each of you take a bite.”

The one carefully took the mango from the tree and took one bite and offered it to the other-one.  The other-one hesitated, then bit into the sweet fruit and then they suddenly dropped it.  The both looked around and noticed that instead of the sweet sunshine and sometimes rain, the sun looked harsh upon the land and the thunder rumbled deeply in the distance.

The tiku bird laughed.  “Now there is no going back.  Everyday you will have to work to see the world in the way that you once did, that you will have to work to care for each other, but you will notice that there is now harshness in the world.”

“Why?!”  Said the other-one, “Did you do this to us?”

He swooped and laughed, crying out:  “Because someone did this to me!  Now I will not be alone in pain.”

Devastated, the one and the other-one looked at each other and they noticed they were different, the one was male and the other-one was female.  Before their hearts were in harmony and nothing else mattered. Now everything mattered.

“You!  You did this!”  The other-one female yelled.  “I will never forgive you.”

The one-male was hurt and frightened.  “I didn’t mean to.  I felt concerned and worried that we could have more.”

“I will make certain that you will pay for this.  From this day forward you are less than me.  You will be my slave.”

And so it was in some way, forever and ever.

Sound familiar?

Except for the gender switch at the end, this myth like many others, explains a certain culture but also reinforces it.

“Culture arises in and out of play”.  Johan Huizinga.

Now, think about the story above and others like them and how they have impacted society.
Think about how you felt when you didn’t know the genders.

Think about the different societies and about the roles of  men and women.

Think about how different societies embrace their religion.

Does each society have a different story or set of stories attached to it?

To be Continued…