From Game to Dynamic Simulation: Collective Learning in Maps and Pictures

Simple Model of Basin to support discussion- used for first workshop

As simple model of the situation under study is presented to stakeholders well acquainted with the issue. Here we’re concerned about flooding, and the interaction between agriculture, mining, erosion, rainfall, and dam water releases. The knowledgeable stakeholders discuss among themselves and provide feedback.

Components from Playing 1st Workshop

Now it’s time to play! In this role playing game the participants play as lowland farmers, upland farmers, or dam managers under conditions of normal or heavy rainfall. The lowland farmers plant either rice or vegetables and are vulnerable to flooding caused by erosion from upland farming, and/or unfortunately timed releases from dam.

Map of Low Level Flooding Phonsi Village- workshop 2 p11

Of course that first group didn’t have all the information. Now we go out to the villages, and get them to give input on how they are affected by the floods, e.g. where flooding occurs and negative and positive effects such as destruction of fishing equipment or increases in soil productivity.

Village plus basin combined map from 3rd workshop

Now we’re ready to link the river basin scale and village level dynamics in a game that includes even a wider group of stakeholders (see the white village maps). Here, white stones represent water, and black stones represent sedimentation.

Action cards from 3rd Session

Of course, what drives sedimentation, as well as people’s vulnerability to the impacts of flooding, are human actions. The game allows people to take actions based on those they would take in real life.


Final Presentation of simulation

The common understanding of the drivers and impacts of funding has now been developed and checked multiple times. This understanding is formalized in a computer simulation which helps policy makers plan, analyze, and predict the effects of different management options

Presentation of Game

And for those who want a more dynamic and engaged understanding of the flooding issue, an electronic version of the game is also delivered.


Games, Gamification, Serious Games, and Simulation: Playing with the Terminology

At some point, between a youth misspent playing Dungeons & Dragons and war games, and an adulthood in nominally more adult pursuits such as studying game theory and observing and taking part in real life political games, I acquired a certain body of knowledge. And despite my best efforts, this knowledge has become increasingly useful and relevant. So for those for whom it didn’t seem natural to compose a 7th grade book report On the Red Fern Grows in the form of a game (one player played the ‘coons and naturally tried to escape the other players hounds) I’m going to try to jot down some basics about gaming and related concepts and their potential for worthwhile and less worthwhile activities.

Reflecting for a minute, I can see why there is room for confusion. The term “game” is applied very widely and loosely from anything played with dice and cards, recreational or gambling, Roman gladiatorial games, “Don’t play games with me”, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” to the twitchy first person shooters that put Tipper Gore in a fit.

The truth is, there isn’t a good single definition of what a game is. It’s something some people “play”, and probably has some element of fun, challenge, and or competition to it. It may be trivial (“only a game”) or it may be awful (“playing games with people’s lives”) and may be removed from or intersect the real world in various ways. Gamification, serious games, game theory, and simulation are key concepts for understanding how we can design and take advantage of intersections between the world of gaming and the real world. And I’m going to do this primarily with illustrative examples, as just as with games, they are rather fungible concepts, and resist simple definition.

An Epically Crap Game and Gamification

So Monopoly is a game. No denying it. You roll dice, draw cards, buy and develop properties, take money from your opponents, and hopefully (finally) bankrupt them all and emerge the winner. It is also crap from a design perspective, a board game should be fun but Monopoly games often stretch on forever even after the eventual winner is clear, resulting in frustration and boredom. Still, most people have positive associations with Monopoly. This is because there is something inherently pleasurable about sitting down with your friends and family, opening a box, and setting it up, and then rolling dice, drawing random cards, set making, buying and developing properties, and taking others’ money.

Let’s talk for a moment about set making. A big part of Monopoly is getting sets of properties that are all the same color (e.g. Boardwalk and Park Place) or collecting all the railroads or utilities. This activity is rewarded in the game, as by making a complete set you can extract more money from other players for yourself. Different sets have different values, but any set of properties is better than a mix of unmatched colors. Set making is an activity we see across a number of games, particularly card games. Kids start with Go Fish!, you try to get cards of the same face value, and then some move on to poker where bluffing, probabilities, and money create for a adult experience, but at the end of the day you’re still trying to make sets (e.g. flush, four of a kind, straight).

McDonald’s famous Monopoly campaign used the explicit theme from Monopoly as well as set making to increase customer engagement.

This suggests that there is something about the activity of set making in itself. It’s fun to make a full house or a straight. You feel like you’ve done something. In fact, a big challenge of poker is figuring out how to value this accomplishment vis a vis what your opponent has done. A beginner may very well get overly attached to his or her hand. This set making activity has a certain grip on human psychology, which means it has the potential to influence behavior.

And here we have the basis for gamification. Gamification is only related to pure gaming in that the designer isn’t aiming for pure recreation or competition. Rather he or she takes lessons from what people find fun (or even irritating) to motivate and modify behavior in non-game settings.

Far more productive than Monopoly for this hot and emerging field has been the fantasy role playing game genre. In Dungeons and Dragons for example players collected experience points to “level-up”. Now your online avatar can do the same thing through leaving helpful reviews on Trip Advisor.

Like a mage or warrior in a fantasy role playing game MargaretV earns points to level up on TripAdvisor

Like a mage or warrior in a fantasy role playing game MargaretV earns points to level up on TripAdvisor

Points, levels, badges, leaderboards and little bars that show you are 87% of the way to completing your profile, these have become staples of modern web communities. And community designers know very well that they give users a way to measure their progress, and their status vis a vis other users and that through gamification they (LinkedIn, Yahoo!Answers, can get people to undertake tasks they would not otherwise do on a voluntary basis.

Of course gamification insights don’t have to be used only to drive quarterly profits and shareholder value. Points, competition on leader boards, and card collection can also be used to change behavior in important real world settings. A great example is iChoose, a competition between employees at the Miron Construction Company to improve the sustainability of their daily routines. The routine behaviors were distinctly unsexy in themselves, not turning on the TV, taking re-usable grocery bags to the store, unplugging a second refrigerator. But they created cards that one could keep for completing certain actions, which gave a nice sense of accomplishment. And these cards had point values that were totaled up and displayed on a running online leaderboard so the employees could compare their progress to that of their fellow workers. Through cards and competition, gamification gave context and meaning and a sense of purpose to what would otherwise be mundane actions, and thus created a real world game.

Getting Serious 

And here we start to cross the boundary into so-called “serious games.” Actually, I don’t like the term serious game, as it is somewhat ambiguous as to what is being taken seriously. People play games such as Go and chess very seriously. I’ve known a few people who have paid their bills with poker. What we’re really getting at, as with the Miron iChoose game is that a serious game has some sort of beneficial social impact that we are concerned about outside of the gaming context. The social impact in the iChoose game was to promote more sustainable behaviors around the household. But not all serious games are real world games. Often a board game or a digital game is used as a medium in which players can experiment learn what the designers believe to be socially important lessons. Actually Monopoly itself has its origins as a serious game. The Landlord’s Game was created in 1904 to show players the pitfalls of unequal wealth and the socially destructive nature of monopoly. The original had two versions of play, one in which players pursued only profit and greed. The folly of this version was supposed to be self-evident and highlighted by the second version in which social justice prevailed. The Parker Brothers dropped the socially just version when it took over the rights in 1935.

Greed and rapaciousness may just be more fun.

A Design Interlude

I said above that Monopoly is crap. From a game designers perspective it is “unbalanced,” due to early luck someone can establish an insurmountable lead and there is little others can do to catch up. There is little interesting to do once the properties have been bought, and nothing to do except roll dice if you were unable to acquire a set of properties. And worse of all, it can go on forever. A Monopoly game once went on for 10 weeks. Most players just get bored and quit before reaching that point.

Due to its poor design and popularity any mention of Monopoly is sure to invite eye rolling from your favorite board game geek. If you want to restore your now agitated geek to equilibrium, and demonstrate that you are not completely in the Dark Ages when it comes to gaming culture, you should immediately follow any Monopoly reference with noting how much you enjoy “Settlers.” Settlers of Catan that is, which was dubbed by Wired to be a a “Monopoly Killer” and “the perfect German Game.”

Settlers is not altogether unlike Monopoly, it is also an economic development game and many of the basic elements and mechanics, dice rolling, set making, stealing resources from opponents, that we talked about in terms of gamification and Monopoly, are also in Settlers. But the experience of players is completely different. It can be easily played in an intense hour and a half and every player is usually convinced that he or she would have won if it hadn’t been for a run of poor luck or boneheaded and/or vicious decision from an opponent. With Settlers you don’t have to worry about being bored, but you may have to be prepared to answer a very peeved significant other about why you “robbed” him or her so frequently.

And here we have a certain and central truth. Game design is a design exercise, and we can design a game for any number of purposes, be they recreational or commercial, to lessen the environmental impact of household decisions, for competition, to build a sense of community, to educate, and even to convey truth and beauty.  And we can accomplish more than one of these ends a the same time. A game can be both serious and recreational, in fact if you hope that anyone will play your game it’s a good idea to give them a pleasurable and interesting experience.

Our limitations here are not any clear delineations between serious, real world, and recreational games, we have seen how Monopoly is derived from a serious game. Settlers can be turned into an educational game on the economics, social dynamics, and environmental consequences of fossil fuel exploitation with a nice little free add-on called “Oil Springs.”

What really matters with games, be they serious, recreational, or real world, is the design behind them. While games are better suited to some purposes than others, the limitations aren’t clearly set, but rather depend on the competence of the designer and his or her team and those of the game design discipline itself. And the discipline has in recent years broken through barriers in ways previously thought to be insurmountable and contributed to fundamental medical research (with players of Foldit discovering the riddle of how HIV enzyme is folded in three weeks), and abstract and mathematical game theory in social science research increasingly giving way to games with real people in laboratory settings. But these are only more recent developments, indeed, the most serious and destructive of human enterprises has a long a very developed practice with games.

Practice Battles

There is a fundamental problem with running physical combat scenarios in the real world. Equipment and property get destroyed, and people get killed which makes it devilishly hard to do multiple runs. Nevertheless, war is a high stakes affair and one in which training, planning, tactics, and strategy are of high import. It is also an uncertain affair in which innovation and experimentation can be either fatal or highly rewarding. To deal with these challenges people have been endlessly creative in finding ways to prepare themselves and their armies through the use of activities, games, and simulations.

On a very basic level we can see certain activities and sports, from jousting and fencing to target shooting, as gamifications of the basic physical skills needed to be successful in combat. Competition and rules are introduced in order to motivate investment and focus on activities that would otherwise be overly intense and dangerous (when done for real) or even mundane and dull (putting bullets in targets is more fun if you have others to measure your prowess against).

The two top intellectual board games have martial origins, Go and chess are built around territorial control and the killing and capture of opposing pieces. Both of these games are, however, highly abstract, while they may teach high level concepts around strategy, they yield few practical lessons. Real world castles don’t tend to move around.  But some chess players in the 17th century in current day Germany started to try their hand at building more realistic representations of battle. The modern war game was born when a version, complete with scale maps and dice, was shown to King Friedrich Wilhelm III and he was convinced of its value. Prussia’s decisive victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) assured that war games and simulations became important tools for military planners, from WWII through the Cold War, to the present day. The Pentagon recently played out a war with Russia in the Baltic (with somewhat dispiriting results).

Like all the categories in this piece, the boundary between simulations and games is blurred. One can simulate historical battle, anticipate future battle, or completely fictional battle (say against aliens) on a board or on a computer, either to prepare for an actual battle, to train, or merely to entertain. Many simulations are designed primarily for pure entertainment, one need only look at the popular and commercial “Sims” series to get an idea how many variations they can take (Sim City, Sim Ant, Sim Life). The primary distinction  between a simulation a simulation always tries to represent some external situation.

The power of a simulation is that it allows us to deal with real life situations in a controlled and safe setting. Military trainers and planners discovered this out of necessity quite early on, but there is plenty of room for using simulation in any setting where the stakes are high and so is uncertainty and complexity. And in recent years we’ve seen simulations extended to help with firefighting and emergency response training and for urban, environmental, and landscape planning.

Advances in computing power and ICT mean that we can now simulate far more parameters and contingencies than Prussian military planners did on their maps and dice. Agent based models for example let us set up rules for individual critters or people and then set them loose in a computer environment and observe emergent behavior that arises from their individual decisions and local interactions. Such simulations have lead to a better understanding of the spread of rabies through foxes and more realistic modeling of commuter behavior for transportation planning. The U.S. Navy is trusting that its new flight simulators can provide such a realistic experience that it can use them as substitutes flying in actual aircraft, and thus save money.

As noted above these may or may not be games. The U.S. Navy is looking to create a realistic experience, but advances in realism for training purposes will most likely be applied for entertainment at some point. And while agent based models were developed for scientific purposes, it wasn’t long before someone used a popular modeling language (NetLogo) to create Tetris and the Legend of Zelda. Similarly, the data for the models themselves can be derived from games with real life participants. I’m a big fan and building a company on an approach that uses tabletop role playing games in conjunction with agent based models.

End Game

Well, I hope this has given the reader somewhat of an overview of some very rapidly expanding fields, and more importantly a little familiarity with some very hot but perhaps confusing concepts. While there is plenty writing on the subject from both the scholarly and the design perspectives I’d suggest the interested reader leave all the reading aside for some time, because well, it isn’t all that much fun. Check out what people are doing (a Google search for your industry and the Games for Change Festival are good starts), and try to play games that interest you. Attend a game-a-thon. And most of all try to enjoy what you’re doing. Because for all the talk about “serious” games a central insight to all of this is that fun and playful thinking can bring engagement, understanding, and creativity to very serious topics. So even if games aren’t your thing, they might very well be worth playing around with.




Level up to Systems: From Design to Game Design Thinking

Design thinking has enjoyed incredible success in the for-profit sector and is increasingly extended to products and services aimed at positive social impact. To tackle systemic and persistent “wicked” problems however, design thinking will have to be enhanced with techniques from game design.

Where there are start-ups, there is design thinking, and the reason why is relatively clear. When developing a radically new product or service, there are a lot of risks and a lot of unknowns that mean even brilliant start-up ideas won’t make sense as an ongoing business concern. At least not as it was originally conceived.

Design thinking mitigates such risks, or at least increases the chances of revealing them before you’ve dropped millions of dollars in development.  Empathizing with the user and maintaining a laser-like focus on his or her experience and developing rough and ready prototypes for feedback often means that either an idea fails quickly, in which case you move on to the next one, or that the final product or service offers exactly features and experience that the user wants.

The design thinking approach can be contrasted with the waterfall development, a model rooted in the age of mass manufacturing.

Waterfall Development (c/o Wikipedia)

The waterfall model was originally adopted for software development, and the reasoning was also fairly clear: it follows far more closely our ideal of a rational course of action than design thinking. Figure out what the end user wants up front and then figure out the most efficient way to get it to them. Easy peazy, lemon squeezy.

The hard part is when the user doesn’t know what he or she wants up front. Or thinks that she knows, but changes her mind once she starts using it. Doesn’t like this feature, would really like to have this one. Or even worse, maybe there is just something “off.” Here design becomes less of a rational or linear process, but rather one of empathy, intuition, and experimentation, and this is where design thinking excels.

If we check out the design thinking’s Wikipedia entry we see it is associated with addressing wicked problems, “a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing” (Rittel and Webber 1972). Wicked problems include those such as persistent poverty, which has proven to be more than a match for efficient manufacturing processes and many of our current environmental problems, which the successes of mass production played and continue to play their role in creating.

But while design thinking has shaken up the hotel industry through AirBnB and IDEO, and the leader in the practice is now moving to disrupt the remarkably resilient consulting industry, we have yet to see any exciting new businesses make progress on disrupting the problems we really care about, our persistent and evolving social and environmental problems. And while social impact accelerators and incubators exist and are producing all sorts of exciting companies and ideas, we have not yet seen social start-ups scale to make inroads on the pressing problems of our day, and even the most successful are currently not within any reasonable distance or disrupting or acting as a reasonable complement or alternative to our current, highly inefficient and unsatisfactory political and policy making processes.

The reason is that design thinking was developed primarily for developing consumer products, it gives the consumer what he wants. But there is no single product or service to ensure that water is used in a socially equitable and sustainable way, or to eliminate poverty, i.e. the problems that Rittel found to be truly wicked. Fortunately there was an approach developed explicitly for wicked problems, and it has been used with success by a community of practitioners working in renewable resource management since 2000.

The approach, ComMod, has an orientation that will not be completely foreign to practitioners of design thinking. Empathy is inherent, as is prototyping. The difference is the type of client it is aimed at, and the type of design problems it aims to take on. It is geared towards solving problems in social and ecological systems by assisting with the design of institutions, and thus by necessity it is equipped to deal with a higher degree of complexity and uncertainty than design thinking, as well cope with very diverse values among the clients, i.e the users and managers of the resource system. The client is not an individual consumer, the client is society, or rather the segment of society that is concerned about or involved with a particular wicked problem.

To deal with the complexity endemic to issues such as protecting biodiversity, and promoting best practices of land and water management, ComMod puts researchers at the center of the process. Clear decisions on such issues are of little use if they do not have an adequate scientific and technical basis. But as these are wicked problems, and thus are not clearly formulated, it is not clear from the outset where the researchers should devote their time. Different stakeholders will have different understandings of the underlying problem, as well as what the solutions are likely to be, and thus different takes on which factual matters need further research and which are irrelevant. If the researcher merely begins research without consulting the stakeholders, her work is likely to reflect her disciplinary background research interests which maybe be academically interesting and useful. But if she consults the stakeholders she gets a problem similar to the one our design thinkers deal with, stakeholders will be unable to give a common or coherent view of what the goals and requirements of the research should be.

And this is where the game design and prototyping come in. Starting with one stakeholder group the researchers are able to get one perspective on the underlying problem, and possible solutions, and then are able to represent that understanding of the system of interest through a role playing game. This artifact, the game, can then be played by other stakeholders in the system and critiqued and iteratively improved. Stakeholders with diverse backgrounds are now working from a common object, understanding the assumptions and important facts of others, and seeing their own views incorporated and critiqued.

They also engage with and “play” with the problem and each other, which can allow them to temporarily put aside their own frame of reference, and thus better understand those of others and become more open to creative solutions. This avoids the situation often endemic to wicked problems, where stakeholders continuously argue past each other. It also looks a lot like the “second generation” model of planning advocated by Rittel and Webber, one that is an “argumentative process in the course of which an image of the problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgment, subjected to critical argument” (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

A ComMod river basin game (c/o Paolo Campo)

A ComMod river basin game (c/o Paolo Campo)

Prototyping isn’t everything. The final research product to support decision making is accomplished by simulations based on the final prototype in a computer environment. But this research product is far more likely to be relevant to the important decisions at hand, as well as understood and accepted by the involved parties, because they played a role in creating it.

ComMod has been applied successfully in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and Oceania, it has been used for issues surrounding agriculture, biodiversity, water scarcity and flooding, livestock, fishery and forest management. That it is not more widely used and known is likely a function of language, the approach was developed by French researchers (ComMod standing for Companion Modelling being a somewhat awkward translation from La Modélisation Comme Outil D’Accompagnement) and because the practicing community has remained largely in academia. Both of these are changing however, as new geographic settings bring new linguistic settings, and as private practice is increasing. Lisode is a private firm that serves French language clients, and Sim4Act, which will bring ComMod to English language clients (full disclosure: I am a co-founder of Sim4Act), is currently in its start-up phase.

These are welcome developments, as the increased use of ComMod is important for communities facing traditional wicked and commons problems such as resource scarcity and ecosystem management, or ones trying to grapple with new ones such as climate change adaptation. ComMod promises to be an important tool in the hands of policymakers and citizens trying to deal with politically contentious risk management problems where science is necessary but not sufficient to drive decision making. It fits neatly with the National Research Council’s (NRC) recommendations a number of U.S. entities, including the U.S. Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, EPA, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and American Industrial Health Council, and the Electric Power Research Institute in its report Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. ComMod fits the bill of the “analytic-deliberative” process that the NRC recommends, and offers an excellent alternative to cost benefit analysis, an approach which the NRC openly warns against as being bureaucratically convenient, but often poor at informing the public.

In an era of persistent and multiplying wicked problems, it’s time to take extend design thinking’s successes based on empathy and prototyping our urgent social and environmental problems through game design thinking. It’s time to scale up from individual users to systems.

Rittel, Horst W. J. 1972a. On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the First and Second Generations. Reprinted from: Bedrifts Økonomen (Norway), No. 8, October, 1972. Reprint 107. Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, as cited in Buchanan 1992

Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy sciences 4.2 (1973): 155-169.


Managing Power Inequalities in Policy Making: An Encouraging Case

Those with the power make the rules, and with a few notable exceptions, the rules usually benefit those with the power. This is a general truth in human affairs.

For those of us who live in democratic societies, this often means living with the contradiction of nominal equality before the law and in political power (“one man, one vote”) versus reality: the few who wield economic power have a disproportionate voice in the political process through their lobbyists, and extra protection before the law with the help of their high-end lawyers.

Requiring that everyone have a seat at the table, and thus a voice in the process is a common way to assure that actions in the public arena do not neglect society’s less fortunate. But even if the less fortunate are able to make it to the table, just a seat at the table doesn’t make you an equal, and certainly doesn’t guarantee that your interests will be represented in any final decision. Power dynamics have a way of playing themselves out around a table, too. Continue reading

A (The!) Way Forward for the Social Sciences

In chemistry, at least, you get to just make things up.

Science! So often misunderstood as being cold and complicated. But actually such a human and creative enterprise. So argued Dr. Roald Hoffman in his excellent keynote at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s 2014 Annual Meeting. Indeed, he argued, the technical jargony linguistic style of the academic article, invented to exclude natural philosophers such as Goethe from the field, now serves only to confuse and obscure. And chemistry itself may now move to far more creative heights, instead of simply realistically representing objects found in nature, it may start creating wholly abstract new chemical structures. Structures that may come in use in a new field called combinatorial chemistry. Continue reading

Crimea: Enter the Game Theorists (Late)

“How about a nice game of chess?”

I’ve seen a couple of articles now on how we should view Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea through a game theoretic lens. The articles which appeared in the New York Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which suggest that unfolding events should be understood and managed as stemming from rational actors in a structured situation, need a word of caution attached to them. In the case of Russia’s actions, game theory is one possible narrative or explanation among many, and not necessarily the one best supported by the facts. And accepting game theory uncritically can be dangerous, as it means uncritically accepting concepts such as “credibility” and “deterence,” which in practice often mean laying out and following through on a sequence of increasingly aggressive actions.

I have no beef with game theory. It can be a very useful analytic and research tool for the social sciences and my current research makes use of a couple of game theoretic models. But I am also very aware of the danger of fitting my preferred policy explanations on the very complex situations I’m studying. Whether my work which hangs a lot on “trust” is falsifiable is something I am currently worrying about. And I have the advantage of studying municipal utilities, so I have thousands of potential cases which I can use to test the veracity of my work.

But here we have only one case. If a game theorist had predicted Moscow’s invasion that would be one thing, my apologies if I missed it, but even the day before predictions of invasion were scarce to be found. Furthermore we have an alternative explanation, a psychological one, that clashes with the rational one offered by the game theorists:

An examination of the seismic events that set off the most threatening East-West confrontation since the Cold War era, based on Mr. Putin’s public remarks and interviews with officials, diplomats and analysts here, suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy emerged haphazardly, even misleadingly, over a tense and momentous week, as an emotional Mr. Putin acted out of what the officials described as a deep sense of betrayal and grievance, especially toward the United States and Europe. –New York Times, March 7, 2014

This second explanation, or narrative, strikes me as closer to the facts. Which doesn’t mean that game theory should be ruled out, just that it should, in the absence of scientific verification, accept its place as a competing explanation for a complex and evolving situation. As such scientific verification is unlikely to come, it is up to Western decisionmakers to use their intuition and judgement to decide how applicable game theory is. It is up to them and their advisors to determine whether Putin is in fact behaving rationally (or more likely, when he is, and when he isn’t), and how Putin defines his interests, his allies interests, and Russia’s interest (and whether they can get him to redefine any of these).

That Dr. Cowen uses the word “lens” in the title of his article suggests that he implicitly gets this. Dr. Milinski gives us a harder line (in German), that it “looks” like Putin must have used cost benefit analysis to decide to hold the Crimea. No, it does not look that way to all observers. And one must be careful because what one sees can be determined by the lens one uses. Until evidence suggest otherwise, we need to make use of all the lenses we have.

The Gift of Christmas and Games of Betrayal


Et tu, Holleeday?

The Christian holiday of Christmas is built around a gift of infinite mercy, the only son of the Almighty is made flesh, so that he can suffer and die and redeem a sinful world. The death of the Christchild is not so far removed from the celebration of his birth as the carol ‘What Child is This’ proclaims in its beautiful and melancholy second verse “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me for you.”

And so we have in the back of our mind in the season of peace and good will to all, the culmination of the story, and the story cannot culminate without a heartless and pointless betrayal, that of Judas Iscariot.

In Dante’s Inferno the very worst punishment is reserved for Judas, to be consumed head first eternally in one of Lucifer’s three mouths. But interestingly enough the next worse punishment, being consumed eternally feet first in the other two mouths, Dante reserves for two pagans, Cassius and Brutus for their betrayal of Caeser.

I would thus venture to say (and Milton’s Satan in the Protestant tradition and Benedict Arnold in American history come forward as ready further examples) that betrayal is one of, if not the least forgiveable or acceptable acts that we encounter in human affairs. Betrayal stands on the other side of and against trust, good will, and openness, and a real betrayal, one that we cannot reduce to pure mean calculation, always is to a certain extent incomprehensible.

It may therefore be similarly incomprehensible that some of you may find under you holiday bush, or use to while away some long hours on your glow device, games that add betrayal for a spice of fun or for which betrayal is the main event. We like to experiment with what is dangerous in a safe cardboard setting, though some of you may have already learned, not all relatives know how to separate between play and real life.

Some of these games, Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica, let us enter a world where the majority of players must defend against and ferret out the player or players with a secret and treacherous identity. The lines here are quite clearly drawn, and no one (reasonably) harbors any animosity for the traitors(s) because even if they win, they were just playing the game well.

The classic classic Diplomacy and the modern classic Settlers of Catan reveal an entirely different dynamic. It is possible to become extremely irrationally outraged by the behaviors of other players in these ‘games.’ (In fact I have never lost at either at these games except through the conniving and backstabbing nature and numbing stupidity of some who will not be named. Kiddiinngg.. geez.)

I venture the guess, that this is because we have no recourse to punish such betrayal except through our limited means within the game. And often our means are so limited that a skillful traitor may very well win. Infuriating!

To draw a further perspective we can look at a soon to be modern classic Eclipse, an economic development and conquest game. Here the penalty for treachery is defined, minus two victory points. I can’t say I felt any anger when the heavily armed cruiser and dreadnought of one of my soon to be former allies ended up unannounced in my sector. Yes, I will blow them to smithereens before they return fire, but I don’t fault the guy. He made his calculation, -2 VP for a shot at him, I may have done the same in his situation (though I certainly would not have missed the star base build counterattack, sloppy, sloppy).

When treachery is just an open and mean calculation, our reaction to it is not so fundamental or primal. But when we have no recourse in our means, and when we cannot understand fully the nature of the act, our reaction could not be more visceral.

At this point in the sermon there should be a point to sum this all up, and tell us how we may think about the Christmas season, and the importance of keeping faith and trust in each other, so as to avoid fear, suspicion, hate, and revenge. And a scientific treatment may propose to test the hypothesis above by further looking at depictions of betrayers in different traditions. But this is neither of those, but rather a blog post.