Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 2 Number 11, Nov. 2003
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:email@example.com
War Games, Money Games, New Games and Meta Games
"The successful people are the ones who can think up
things for the rest of the world to keep busy at."
-- Don Marquis
Report from the Annual Conference of the International Association of
Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) in Orlando, Nov. 17-21, 2003
Joseph E. Persico, in 1994, wrote "The historian's silent partner is
serendipity." Indeed, I have found it to be the silent partner of
any good researcher. In its simplest form, this principle frequently
enables me to find books pertinent to my research on the "re-shelve"
carts of libraries; in its more profound manifestations, it has guided
me to bonanzas of research materials, such as the happy coincidence
that this year's IAAPA convention coincided with a family vacation
I'd planned six months ago. It provides a great lead-in to the ideas
of this month's e-Zine.
( iaapa.org/ )
The last time I attended IAAPA was in Los Angeles in 1993, and since
then it has exploded in size and breadth. I took a few photos
this year (see:
for samples; also see:
for IAAPA's own gallery) but I found I couldn't capture my overwhelming
sense of the show on film, so I retreated to written notes. Here is a
list of some of the things I saw, in a modified alphabetical order:
3D UV murals
3D cups (drink cups with 3D pictures printed on them)
"acid spitter" in a 55 gallon drum
animated impaled vampire ($1,895)
architects specializing in theme parks
automatic organ grinders
theme bounce houses
cameras with your logo
chewable toothbrushes (!)
climbing walls with waterfalls
coconut drinking glasses (made from real coconuts)
crate creature (*)
dancing retail shelves
Diet Vanilla Pepsi
"Dunk an Alien" game
electric chair animatrons
liquid fireworks (actually fountains with colored lights)
fountains controlled by your hands
games of skill
giant ice cream cones
giant kid-eating clown
giant plastic tubes
go-cart track design services
theme park design services
water park design services
inflatable haunted houses
inflatables of all kinds
kids' toilet seats
lifeguard uniforms and equipment
living angel statue
lottery ball machines
Mardi Gras coins
mobile card readers
mobile security watchtowers
3D photo booths (?)
plastic pony rides
plastic sheet repair kits
polyurethane and epoxy products
Pringles vending machines
projecting onto waterfalls
remote control models
rhinoceri and other jungle animals (statues and animatrons)
sky flier rides
Sponge Bob ride (in 3D)
tree suits (so you can impersonate a tree)
underwater video ("the lifeguard's friend")
"Wheel of Death" knife throwing target
As I was briskly moving through the show (I only had a few hours
and as it was I only saw about 75% of it) I found it tough to find
flat surfaces to write on, to jot my notes before the impressions
faded from memory. At one point I stopped at a booth that had
some animatronic monsters, hosted by a pirate wench, to write on the
top of a large crate that was chained to the ground. As soon as
I leaned on it, the crate made a snarling noise and jumped at me,
scaring the bejeezus out of me. The pirate wench smiled. I had
been "fished in" by the creature crate (marked with * above).
I was quite pleased to discover the announcement of "Don Bluth Presents
Ultimate Dragon's Lair 20th Anniversary Edition" at a video game booth.
( www.dragonslair3d.com )
I had enjoyed the Dragon's lair arcade game when it first came out,
and later got to know some of the developers, and also had a friend who
bought a used arcade game as a home novelty.
I spent some time in the IAAPA bookstore area perusing the new
releases, and bought a copy of "Walt's Revolution by the Numbers"
(2003) by Harrison "Buzz" Price.
( www.ripleys.com/cgi-bin/ripleys/store/commerce.cgi?product=book22&cart_id=9105570_9993 )
Walt Disney's original idea for Disneyland was for a small park called
"Mickey Mouse Park" in an empty lot adjacent to his Burbank studio.
( www.bertino.com/blueprints/bpdlbbk.jpg )
But Walt's dream quickly outgrew the triangular lot, which today
houses portions of the Los Angeles River channel, the Ventura (134)
Freeway, and the Disney Animation Building -- including Roy E. Disney's
office inside the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" wizard hat (until today,
see below). So Walt hired the Stanford Research Institute (SRI)
to pick a new site for Disneyland, and they ended up recommending
an orange grove in Anaheim based on the shifting trend of the LA basin's
population center south from downtown towards Orange County, as well as
the proximity of the as-yet-uncompleted I-5 freeway.
( www.justdisney.com/images/Disneyland/pre-dl-land.jpg )
Harrison "Buzz" Price was at SRI azt the time and worked on this study,
and later formed his own consulting company, Economic Research
Associates (ERA), and did additional work for Walt, including site
selection for Walt Disney World in Florida.
I haven't read Buzz's book yet, but I ma looking forward to it,
because he offers the first economic analysis I am aware of of the
theme park industry. For a taste of Buzz's talent, see his article,
"Theme Park CAPEX Management -- Searching for Predictability" (Autumn
2000) on the web site of Pannell Kerr Forster Consulting, Australia.
( www.pkfconsulting.com.au/pkfweb.nsf/0/2353ea73241ad0db4a256aa400401954/$FILE/Brave5.pdf )
It shows a wise balance of intuition and statistical tools applied
to the question of how much reinvestment is right for a theme park.
I have been a close watcher of the Walt Disney Company since my youth;
someday I'll tell the story of my fascination in detail. In 1976
I worked for ten weeks as an employee at Walt Disney World; I like
to say I took the job to get the employee training program, which is
not available any other way. Also, on the day after the stockmarket
crash of 1987 I bought one share of Disney stock, which has since split
twice to become four shares. In this case I like to say I bought
the stock to get a lifetime subscription to the annual report.
( https://www.oneshare.com/order/stock.asp?catagorycompanyid=5 )
While taking a break from writing this issue, I happened upon the news
that Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, resigned from the company's board
today, citing differences with chairman Michael Eisner.
( news.google.com/news?num=30&hl=en&edition=us&q=cluster:www%2enytimes%2ecom%2f2003%2f11%2f30%2fbusiness%2fmedia%2f30CND%2dDISN%2ehtml%3fex%3d1070859600%26amp%3ben%3d6221e5a0d3403ccb%26amp%3bei%3d5062%26amp%3bpartner%3dGOOGLE )
(If the above link fails, go to news.google.com and search for
"Roy E. Disney" for a list of relevant news stories.) The complete text
of his resignation letter is currently on the Drudge Report as a lead
( www.drudgereport.com/flash1a.htm )
I have "cached" a copy as well.
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/roy_letter.txt )
Before I set aside this Disney mania (for now), let me recommend a
science fiction book I first learned of from bloggers via the
"Weblog Bookwatch" web site -- which scans "blogs" (web logs) for
book links, counts them and produces a weekly top ten --
( www.onfocus.com/bookwatch )
and enjoyed in advance of my trip to Orlando: "Down and Out in the Magic
Kingdom" (2003) by Cory Doctorow.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0765304368/hip-20 )
It is the story of immortals in the far future who maintain the
Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World as a historic reconstruction.
More on it in a later issue of this e-Zine.
I'd say there are two pieces of news from IAAPA that may be of interest
to cybernetics fans: #1, on the vendor side the amusement business is
booming. Since general indicators are that tourist travel is on the
rise, they must be anticipating a boom in theme parks very soon.
#2, there is an incessant shift from "rides and shows" (a mainstay of
theme parks and even the name of a group in Disney's "Imagineering"
division) to games and interactive experiences. I would guess that
the "Nintendo generation" is growing less and less enamored of the
scripted, always-the-same-shows and rides, and that amusement parks
are grasping for ways to pry them away from their Xboxes with something
besides an arcade. Even Disney has made a big deal about the "every
ride is different" feature of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"
ride at Disneyland (the cars are without tracks, computer controlled,
and make random choices), as well as the "Twilight Zone Tower of Terror"
free-fall ride at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, which has been adding
drops annually for a while, and now boasts a random set of drops for
each ride. And of course "Innoventions" at Disneyland and at EPCOT
in Orlando is all-interactive.
I have even seen this trend at a local Halloween attraction in my area,
the annual Pumpkin Patch at the Bates Nut Farm,
( www.batesnutfarm.biz/history.html )
which has always offered hayrides and country western music shows, but
more recently has added a straw maze made of stacked bales, with a game
to see who can be first to find the hidden mailboxes, each with a rubber
stamp, and stamp a card with them all.
An interesting observation from Orlando: we were advised by a friend
who works for Walt Disney World that the best time of year to visit
is in November, the week before Thanksgiving week. We confirmed
this is a great time, and noticed that on our last full day, Sunday
23 November, the crowds swelled dramatically. We reasoned that many
people would take off the first three days of Thanksgiving week in order
to get a nine-day vacation while using up only three vacation days,
and that Saturday 22 November would be a travel day for them, so
the following day was their first day of fun-seeking. That final Sunday
we had a hard time finding dinner -- the wait at the Rainforest Cafe
was two hours by 7:00 PM. (We ended up dining at Olivia's Cafe at the
little-known Disney's Old Key West Resort.) On the down side, we found
several attractions we were looking forward to, the Jurassic Park
Visitors Center, the Triceratops Encounter, and the flying Pteradon
Ride, all at Universal Islands of Adventure, were closed on Saturday
the 22nd (the day we visited) but were opening for the Thanksgiving/
Christmas holiday season on the following day.
Before I leave the topic of Orlando I must put in my standard plug
for the Adventurer's Club at Disney's Pleasure Island nightclub complex,
( www.etixland.com/ADVCLUB/ACMain/ACmain.htm )
the most innovative example of "interactive entertainment" I have
ever experienced and a must-see attraction. I would have been there
every night on our trip if there had been no constraints. Why? Because
of (cyberneticists take note) all the FEEDBACK.
As always, it was good to see some the actors I know there, who I
once cajoled into speaking on a 1994 SIGGRAPH panel on interactive
entertainment and "virtual actor" (VActor) technology, called "The
VActor and the Human Factor." (One day I will tell this tale in
detail.) I also was able to visit with one of my favorite puppets,
Colonel Critchlow Suchbench, the Adventurer's Club's head of security
and gleemeister, in his Boer War era "snowdrop" helmet and "redcoat"
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/031123_06.jpg )
I was reminded him a few days later when for our weekly family video
my ten-year-old daughter selected Shirley Temple's tale of a Boer War
colonel and his apparently orphaned daughter, "The Little Princess"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005B1WQ/hip-20 )
The above material gleaned from IAAPA Orlando 2003 provides
a fortuitous preface to the subject of this month's e-Zine:
the theory of games.
In high school I took Honors Algebra I in ninth grade from
Mr. Donnelly. (It was he who, recognizing my interests in
math, gave me a reprint of a Scientific American article on
Kurt Godel's incompleteness theorem that year, and piqued
my interest in advanced mathematical logic.) By twelfth grade
I had found a way to skip a year of math curriculum and take
calculus at the local community college, along with my classmate
Bruce Webster. To my delight my instructor was once again Mr.
Donnelly, who had moved on from high school to community college
teaching. Bruce and I used to arrive early for class and sit in
his office, which he graciously allowed us to do as long as we didn't
disturb his last-minute preparations. We amused ourselves by
browsing his bookshelf. One book I returned to repeatedly was
"Theory of Games and Economic Behavior" (1944) by John Von Neumann
and Oskar Morgenstern.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0691003629/hip-20 )
Until that time, the fall of 1970, I was unaware that a field
called "game theory" existed. I now see that it belonged to
that unprestigous domain called (usually sneeringly) "applied
mathematics," which lacked the classy uselessness of the "pure"
variety. But I was fascinated. Von Neumann and Morgenstern set
out to explain the behavior of people engaged in various types
of competition for resources, whenever the outcome was determined
by tactical decisions and limited by lack of knowledge of the opponent's
tactics, without chance playing a factor. Their fundamental tool
was the "payoff matrix" showing what each competitor won or lost
by making each tactical choice in the face of their opponent's choices.
For example, in a sealed auction for a painting worth $100 in which
all bidding is in $40 increments, and a tie means no sale, each of two
bidders has the option of bidding low ($40) or high ($80) or not
bidding. If they don't bid or bid low when the other bids high they
gain nothing. If they don't bid when the other bids low they also
gain nothing. If they bid high when the other bids high, or low when
the other bids low, they still gain nothing. But if they bid high
when the other bids low they gain $20, and if they bid low when the
other doesn't bid they gain $60. So the payoff matrix for each player
this player bid
v n $40 $80 <-- other player bid
n | $0| $0| $0|
$40 |$60| $0| $0|
$80 |$20|$20| $0|
The other player's matrix looks the same. Combining the two into
one matrix (leaving off the dollar signs) gives:
this player bid
v n 40 80 <-- other player bid
n | 0/ 0| 0/60| 0/20|
40 | 60/ 0| 0/ 0| 0/20|
80 | 20/ 0| 20/ 0| 0/ 0|
Since the pairs of numbers inside each box do not add to zero (which
only possible if one loses as much as the other wins, as in most
gambling games) this is called a "non-zero sum game." Here is the
matrix for a "zero-sum game," the familiar "matching pennies" contest
in which each player secretly makes a coin heads or tails, and then
when they are simultaneously revealed, if they both match one player
wins the coins, while if they don't match the other player wins the
this player selects
v H T <-- other player selects
H | 2/-2|-2/ 2|
T |-2/ 2| 2/-2|
Using the payout matrix and a few simple but powerful theorems,
game theory provides winning strategies for a wide variety of
games, ASSUMING RATIONAL PLAY (MAXIMIZING GAIN) BY BOTH PLAYERS.
One of the most useful concepts in game theory is the "dominant
choice," which is a choice that maximizes a player's gain no
matter what choice the other player makes. Not every payoff
matrix has a dominant choice, but when one exists it establishes
the so-called winning strategy.
Is is not my intention here to teach the intricacies of game theory;
for that see "Interactive Tutorials in Game Theory" hosted by the
Economics Centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN).
( www.economics.ltsn.ac.uk/teaching/interactive/gametheory.htm )
Instead, what I want to explore briefly here is how and why game theory
sometimes fails. The two most widely-known failures of game theory are
in "games" known as The Tragedy of the Commons and The Prisoner's
The canonical example of the Tragedy of the Commons is a village with
a central "green" where any villager may graze sheep. If each villager
uses game theory to decide how much to graze their own sheep, they will
each graze as much as possible, since individual gain outweighs their
share of collective loss, and so the common village green will be
overgrazed down to bare dirt, to the loss of all. This paradox was
well-described in the 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" by
( dieoff.com/page95.htm )
He takes his title from a phrase in "a little-known Pamphlet in 1833 by
a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd." Hardin suggests
that the solution to this problem is "mutual coercion mutually agreed
upon." (The above link also contains the 1969 essay "The Tragedy of the
Common Revisited" by Beryl Crowe which sort of rebuts this idea.)
The Prisoner's Dilemma involves the "thought experiment" of two
suspects being interrogated separately about their involvement in the
same crime. Both are guilty, and each is offered immunity and a reward
for confessing, as long as the other does not. Here is an example
from Charles Earl, a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
( people.cs.uchicago.edu/~earl/cs115/prisoner/node5.html )
(I would have chosen the payoff values differently, but this
example works to illustrate the concept.)
C = cooperates
D = defects
v C D <-- other player selects
C | 3/3 | 0/5 |
D | 5/0 | 1/1 |
In this case, Players A and B both have a dominant choice --
namely, defection. No matter what Player B does, Player A improves
his own score by defecting, and vice versa.
However, there is something odd about this game. It seems as
though the two players would benefit by choosing to cooperate.
Instead of winning only one point each, they could win three
points each. So the "rational" choice of mutual defection
has a puzzling self-destructive flavor.
This paradox had been studied extensively, and there have even been
"Prisoner's Dilemma" tournaments, between both humans and computer
programs. A very erudite discussion of both of these paradoxes
appears in "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" (2002) by Howard
Rheingold, in the context of social changes brought about by new cheap
and easy communication technologies such as Instant Messaging (IM).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0738206083/hip-20 )
As Rheingold points out, these quandaries are not mathematical oddities;
they bear on important social problems such as pollution and email
"spam" (Tragedies of the Commons) as well as adultery and embezzlement
My own analysis of the emergence of these paradoxes is as follows:
Game theory makes two assumptions that aren't always true of human
"games," that each player acts always and only to maximize their
own personal economic gain, and that each game can be considered
distinct in time, and analyzed for maximum payoff based on one play,
and then these plays can be strung together indefinitely without
impacting the strategy. Analysis of both the Tragedy of the Commons
and the Prisoner's Dilemma with EITHER of these assumptions removed
causes the paradoxes to vanish.
This matches the data from real life, in which many villages have
had healthy village greens with only moderate grazing, and many
cabals of criminals (or terrorists, or freedom fighters) have
maintained silence when offered immunity under interrogation.
Another way of challenging these assumptions is to ask, what is
the unit of "self" that "gains" economically? In writing on the
problems of Darwinian evolutionary theory Gregory Bateson pointed
out that "survival of the fittest" is often taken to be a meaningless
tautology -- if "it" survives, it must be "fit" by definition -- but
then becomes non-trivial when we ask, "The fittest what? What is
the unit of evolution?" If we assume that the individual, the
population, the ecosystem, the biosphere, or for the matter the cell
or the gene, are the unit of evolution, we get vastly different
answers. If we assume they ALL are units of evolution we begin to
comprehend the tangled hierarchy of values involved in evolution.
Applying this to game theory, we see that we will get different
results if we assume the village, or the pair of criminals, each
constitute a single "player" in a "game."
"The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton."
-- attributed to the
Duke of Wellington
"More war toys."
-- Stewart Brand's
plan for ending war
War games have been with us for a long time. The Olympics began
as a kind of war game, bolstering the strength of Athens' youth
in peacetime through competition. The familiar carousel of wooden
horses and a brass ring to grab began as a military simulator, to
teach knights to hit a target (the ring) with a lance while riding
a galloping horse.
When I began a stint of consulting on visualizing bio-terrorism
threats in the fall of 2001, I felt a need to learn more about
the antecedent events that created a world in which suicide bombers
could and would threaten the only remaining superpower with the largest
slaying of citizens (military or civilian) in its history. I first
went to the Middle East history, rereading the encylopedic but
brief "Near East: 10,0000 Years of History" (1968) by Isaac Asimov.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0395065623/hip-20 )
It reminded me that parts of this conflict go back to before there
were people that we now identify ethnically as either Arabs or Semites,
let alone religiously as Moslems or Jews.
Then I got to thinking, and remembered that a roommate of mine
once suggested, that since I was a "smart guy" and liked complicated
things, I might enjoy researching the so-called "Eastern Question"
in British foreign policy in the 1870s. Almost 30 years later
I decided to take that advice. (Another roommate offered an identical
argument when he recommended I read "Finnegan's Wake" by James Joyce;
it's advice I also decided to take almost 30 years later, but that's
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0141181265/hip-20 )
I also remember watching a movie -- I think it was the Peter Sellers
comedy classic "The Mouse That Roared" (1959) --
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00009MEKJ/hip-20 )
with the same "Eastern Question" roommate and there being a scene
in which a group of diplomats is waiting outside a Duchess' castle
for an audience, and they amuse themselves in their chauffeur-driven
car by playing the board game "Diplomacy."
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005EBA0/hip-20 )
In this game exactly seven players, representing the nations
England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary and
Turkey, re-negotiate the volatile conditions leading up to World
War One in Europe, and then set to fighting. Unlike the similar
board game "Risk" about global war, this game incorporates
diplomatic strategy into the play of an otherwise military war
game. My roommate laughed, and told me the game dealt with the
"Eastern Question" he'd mentioned.
More recently I've learned that this "Eastern Question" dealt with
the planned division of the Middle East and the Balkans among European
powers following the anticipated breakup of the Ottoman Empire of
Turkey, which had ruled those regions for a millennium. At last I
have dived into the subject matter, begin a read of the turgid
history "Disraeli, Gladstone, and the Eastern Question; A Study in
Diplomacy and Party Politics" (1935) by Robert William Seton-Watson.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393005941/hip-20 )
The author looks back with the hindsight gained from having personal
papers from leaders of the several sides available for study.
One thing I am learning is that in London, Disraeli believed
that keeping Turkey strong and Serbia in the hands of the Turks
(along with the rest of the Balkans) would prevent Russia from
overrunning the region (and gaining a Mediterranean military port),
while his political rival Gladstone believed that the Serbs and
other Balkan nations could defend themselves from Russia (with
the help of British allies) if they became self-governing, and
would be loyal and stable allies as well. Nearly everone in
British foreign policy underestimated the loyalty and aid (by
way of espionage) given to Russia by Christians in the Ottoman
Empire, who were persecuted by the Turks and often helped by the
Tzar of Russia, sometimes at a great sacrifice. This all came
to a head in 1875, when the Serbs revolted and later that year
a Sultan sold to Britain his minority stake in the otherwise-
French-owned Suez canal in Egypt, which connected the Persian
Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. (When the text gets too dense
for me to bear, I imagine it being read aloud by Colonel
And that's as far as I've read. My roommate was right, it is
fascinating. (Did you know that in 1956 the Egyptians nationalized
the Suez Canal, and the French and British sent in paratroopers to
take it back, until the Americans made them stop? I didn't until
2002 when I stumbled upon this fact in an old encyclopedia.)
Of course I do know that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand
and his wife Sofia of Austria by a Serbian anarchist while they
were in a parade in Sarajevo triggered the events that lead to World
War One (or, as it was called before they knew there's be a number
two, "the Great War"). Historians have picked apart the "July
Crisis" which followed, and lead to a chain reaction of mobilization
of war, much of which occurred between 3:00 and 7:00 PM on the 1st of
( www.firstworldwar.com/origins/julycrisis.htm )
The hour-by-hour events of that day have been scrutinized by historians
and strategists (both diplomatic and military) in extreme detail,
much like the post-mortem analysis following the northeastern blackouts
of 1965 and 2003, and the southern California firestorms of a few weeks
ago, the latter captured in a by-the-hours burn map I saw last week
in the town of Julian, California.
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/031126_02.jpg )
The war, which was expected to be over by Christmas, took an unexpected
turn at the Battle of Marne at which the French halted the German
advance, creating a three-and-a-half year stalemate.
( www.firstworldwar.com/battles/marne1.htm )
Of course, even though the mistakes of leaders then could send millions
of soldiers to their deaths, the scale of folly pales in comparison
to the near-annihilation of civilization which occurred during the
Cuban missile crisis. In 1992 and again in 2002 many of the
participants in that crisis from both sides got together at
historical conferences to compare notes and figure out what really
happened. At the 40th anniversary conference in Havana, October 2002,
Robert McNamara, the American secretary of defense during the
crisis, said "I conclude from this discussion that we're damn
lucky to be here." The hindsight of history has revealed
that if the advice of Air Force General Curtis Lemay -- who "knew"
the Soviets would back down -- had been taken, and US President
Kennedy had ordered the bombing of the Soviet missile silos in Cuba,
the Soviet military leadership would have responded with a nuclear
strike, even without Premier Kruschev's authorization.
( www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/ )
We know now that, even if Kennedy had not responded in kind (which
is hard to conceive), nuclear winter would have ravaged humanity.
Luckily, at that point human beings were still making the
decisions, and they usually had days or hours, not minutes or seconds,
in which to respond to events. While I was his student Gregory Bateson
pointed out that there was a very real danger that our military
experts, and those of our opponents, would analyze our
nuclear "game theory" strategies AS THEY UNDERSTOOD THEM
and then program these assumptions into computers, thereby
transforming their perceptions into an inflexible reality.
Serendipity has once again aided my research. My daughter had
requested that I bring the DVD of the movie "WarGames" (1983)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0792838467/hip-20 )
with us to Orlando, so she could watch it on my laptop on the
plane, and she did so on the return trip. Peeking over her
shoulder, I was reminded of the movie's relevance to this column.
In this extrapolation of then-current events, control the US nuclear
arsenal is turned over to a supercomputer after missile silo crews
prove unreliable in tests. A teenage boy with a modem hacks into
the computer, exploiting a backdoor left open by the now-retired
designer of the system. By accessing an Artificial Intelligence (AI)
program left in the computer, modeled after the designer's
dead son, the teenager inadvertently triggers a "war game" that
looks likely to culminate in World War Three. In the gripping
climax the teenager and the designer manage to cajole the AI
into playing a game of tic-tac-toe. The ranking military
officer, unable to stop thinking in game-theory terms of finding
a winning strategy, blurts out "Take the center square!"
After a few games, they get the computer to play itself,
and at CPU speeds it quickly determines the game is unwinnable.
Following the analogy, the computer attempts to play out all
possible nuclear war strategies, and ends up concluding:
what a strange game
the only winning move is not to play
(Of course, if we ever hook up our missiles directly to computers
I don't think we can count on an Artificial Intelligence with
that much curiosity and wisdom saving us from ourselves.)
The stock markets, bond markets, commodities markets, and
indeed the entire domain of business in the global economy
can be viewed as a set of interlocking Von Neumann "games"
that allocate and sometimes redistribute resources and
"wealth." It is a legitimate function of government (and
in my extreme libertarian views, one of the few legitimate
functions of government) to ensure that rules of the money games
are fair. Much research has shown that the growth of
material abundance in a nation is highly correlated with
property rights which are codified in written law, stable,
and justly enforced. For example, in the first graph in this
paper from the website of the MacArthur Foundation, the Institute
of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley:
economic growth for a number of nations is shown correlated with
the Business Environment and Enterprise Performance (BEEPS) index,
a measure of property rights and other governance factors by the
World Bank Group.
( www.worldbank.org/wbi/governance/beepsinteractive.htm )
Once property rights are assured, the next step is closing loopholes
and preventing fraud. The awesome "raw economic power" of the United
States, and to lesser degree most of the developed nations, depends
on this type of fairness. Insider trading, board packing, accounting
scandals, antitrust violations, and many other recent headline-grabbing
business misdeeds at companies like Enron, Worldcom, Global Crossing,
Peregrine and Merrill Lynch are all about unfairness in the ways the
money games are played. Even the criticisms of Michael Eisner and
his current board of directors by just-resigned vice-chairman Roy E.
Disney fall into this category. (As I write this Stanley Gold has
also resigned the Disney board in protest!)
As a teenager in the Presbyterian Church I attended weekly youth
program meetings and three-times-a-year youth retreats. If memory
served our retreats were held at Camp Wynola in Julian, California,
( www.campwynola.com )
which was threatened but ultimately not harmed by the catastrophic
Cedars Fire last month. It was there that I first got a taste of
"simulation games," educational experiences in game form. One of
these was a game about discrimination and social injustice.
We were formed into teams that competed at a simple negotiating
game in which it was easier to win tokens if you already had more
tokens than your opponent. (It was also easier to win if you
lied.) After a few rounds referees reorganized the teams with the
best players concentrated in one team. Of course that team began
to win excessively. Next the referees decreed that the winning
team could make rule changes. The began by skewing the rules
so that it was even easier for them to win, but when the losing teams
began to pool their tokens and give them to their most talented
remaining players, the winning team changed the rules so that they
simply always won.
Of course the losers (of which I was one) were outraged. This game
taught me more about the consequences of injustice than any textbook
could. Many years later a coworker pointed me at the research of
Leda Cosmides, especially her paper "The logic of social exchange:
Has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason
selection task" ["Cognition," 31 (1989) 187-276], which confirmed
that we learn and comprehend concepts of justice in social contracts
at a very early age. I have been unable to find Cosmides' work on
the web (though there are many, many citations) but I found a good
summary in the article "Have auditors evolved?" by Martin G. Evans,
Faculty of Management, University of Toronto, Canada.
( www.rotman.utoronto.ca/~evans/evol/acct.htm )
In a startling series of papers [Cosmides, 1989; Cosmides &
Tooby, 1989, 1994] she has argued that humankind during its
evolutionary period in the Pleistocene, some 20 million years,
developed a built in "cheater detector."
The argument is that in order to survive in an environment in
which the availability of food and water was "lumpy" one
needed to cooperate with others and that this cooperation
entailed the sharing of food and water. Someone, or some clan,
that was successful on one occasion would share with others;
the others were expected to reciprocate when they got lucky.
In the situation of reciprocal altruism, reproductive fitness
would be enhanced for those members of the species who could
detect (and punish) defection. In other words, if I did you a
good turn, I needed to be aware if you failed to reciprocate.
Those with this detection facility were less likely to die
young and hence more likely to reproduce than those lacking
the "cheater detector."
The contemporary evidence for this remarkable assertion lies
in a series of studies of that most mundane of psychological
phenomena: logical reasoning. Since the development of the
modern research program on reasoning (Johnson-Laird & Wason,
1970), there has been a good deal of controversy about the
explanation for the context effect found in the Wason reasoning
task. This task has been described best by Kirby (p 2):
In Wason's four card selection task subjects are presented
with four cards that are constrained to have instances from
the sets P or not-P on one side and Q or not-Q on the other
side. A conditional statement describes an alleged relation
between the fronts and the backs of the cards: if a P is on
one side of the card, then a Q is on the other. Subjects'
task is to select which of the cards should be turned over
to determine whether the conditional relation is true or
false. ... subjects are usually considered in error when
they fail to select the P or not-Q, or when they select the
not-P or Q cards, which are logically incapable of violating
It is usual to find that when the task is represented simply as a
logical syllogism few subjects (about 10%) solve the problem. When
the task is given the trappings of a familiar situation, hit rates
go to about 25%. However this result is not always found, and in
some situations (e.g., (Griggs & Cox, 1982) "bar scene2" the hit
rate can be as high as 75%. It was Cosmides' (1989) insight that
showed that high hit rates were only found when the descriptive
story had the trappings of a social contract (i.e., not being
allowed to drink until one attained a certain age). Support and
refinement of this position has come from (Gigerenzer & Hug, 1992)
who established that it is not enough for the phrasing to be in
terms of a social contract, there must be an attempt to violate
this contract, rather than merely establish the existence of such
In other words, our radar is more attuned to "cheaters" than just
about anything else.
In my late 20s I took a seminar called "Money and You" presented
by enlightened business practices guru Marshall Thurber.
( www.metaquality.com/mtbio.htm )
It was a total immersion in the methodology of simulation games.
For about 14 hours a day we spent 50 minutes learning followed
by a 10 minute break, and almost never got tired. Each 50 minutes
was divided into about 30 minutes of playing a simulation game
followed by about 20 minutes of discussion of what we'd learned.
It was fabulous. One of the games we played early on Marshall
called "sharks and minnows," and it was a version of the Prisoner's
Dilemma. At the beginning he broke us into small groups and
announced that "high score wins." Each small group played only
each other within the group. We thought and acted like we were
playing as individuals. I have since learned that tournaments and
computer simulations have verified that a long-term winning strategy
is "tit for tat," where each turn you Cooperate or Defect based on
what your opponent did last time. We learned this experimentally
in this exercise, with a lot of angst involved, before finally
stabilizing on an all-cooperation mode. The final round was for
much higher stakes, and one of our group who had never Defected
before did so, and "cleaned up" on points, much to outrage of the
rest of us. After the game was over, Marshall totaled the points
won in each GROUP, and announced the "winner" was the group with the
highest total. Many people were chagrined. We learned experientially
the meaning of changing the definition of the "unit of evolution,"
and we remembered it much better than if we'd read it in a book.
It also made it clear to me why it is so important to create an
overriding context for cooperation.
A few months later I was invited along with some other "Money and
You" graduates to an evening of gameplay, on the occasion of Marshall's
organization testing some new games for possible addition to the
seminar. One stuck with me: we were broken into two large teams,
and each team was briefed on the rules separately. My team was
taught how to play a simple negotiating game for tokens. (Shades
of the youth retreat game!) We played with each other for a while
to get the hang of it, and then we were turned loose on the other
team. Things went awry immediately. Nobody would play, and after a
few attempts to engage them, none of them would talk to us. We spent
the rest of the game attempting to engage and being snubbed. In the
post-game discussions, we discovered the other team had been given
elaborate protocols for communication, including the importance of
introducing strangers ton the tribal elders before any other
communication could occur, on pain of excommunication. Of course
with our totally different goals and values the two teams were
unable to relate. I mentioned how Bateson once said that, from
inside a culture there is no such thing as "outside the culture."
This is why the Japanese viewed the first English explorers as
untouchables, and why the other team in this game viewed us as
I have become convinced that simulation games are one of the most
powerful educational tools available. They were mostly introduced
in the 1960s in paper and cardboard form, but now we have some
computerized simulation games as well. In the minicomputer era
there were text-based games that ran on teletypes (!) that ranged
from Lunar Lander, with the challenge of gently landing without
crashing too fast or running out of fuel, to Hammurabi, in which you
were ruler of an ancient empire and had to manage agriculture and
administer justice. But in the PC era, the grandaddy of simulation
games in "Sim City," currently available as "Sim City 4 Deluxe Edition,"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000C0YW2/hip-20 )
though I still prefer the classic black-and-white game.
( search.ebay.com/search/search.dll?cgiurl=http%3A%2F%2Fcgi.ebay.com%2Fws%2F&krd=1&from=R8&MfcISAPICommand=GetResult&ht=1&SortProperty=MetaEndSort&query=sim+city+classic )
This game teaches many lessons. A review by Stewart Brand in the
"Whole Earth Review" said (if memory serves) "now I know why there
is never enough money for education."
( www.wholeearthmag.com/ )
The first time my wife played the game, she was up from about 10 PM
until dawn's first light -- and she normally doesn't like computer
games! She said it was like gardening: you zone, build
infrastructure, and then see what grows. She later said she learned
why light rail is so important to easing urban traffic. (She also
blew up churches until she realized they weren't removing land from
the tax base.) My friend Bruce Webster said the game taught him that
power plants always have to be near water, and he began noticing that
in the real world. In the early 1990s the city of Long Beach had a
budget crisis, and I read that the city council was holed up on the
top floor of the city's skyscraper "city hall" escaping from the
problem by playing Sim City! (Like life imitating art, I was
reminded of the diplomats playing "Diplomacy.") I still have an
old Mac that runs the original game, and I sometimes build '"pocket
cities" on an island: power plant, two or three industrial and
residential zones, one commercial zone, some short power lines
and a stub of road and rail. Then I would let it run untouched
overnight, or even for a few days. When I checked it, I would
find a huge budget surplus, a high approval rating, and citizens
complaining about a shortage of jobs and housing. This reminded
me of those mini-ecosystems in a glass bubble with red shrimp,
algae and bacteria in seawater. (It also helps explain my
fondness for government deadlocks and shutdowns.)
In the early 1990s I met a man at a trade show who said he was the
president of the company that sold Sim City. (Alas, I no longer
remember his name or the name of his company. These days the game
is developed and marketed by Electronic Arts.)
( simcity.ea.com/ )
He said they had big plans for a series of simulation games on a
variety of topics. Later, Sim Earth came out and I found it to be
a disappointment -- all choices seemed to lead to a few predetermined
outcomes: eden or eco-collapse, in a heavy-handed (and inaccurate)
attempt to promote ecological diversity. I still find myself thinking
that the right simulation games could help us train better foresters,
business managers and politicians. What if a presidential candidate
had to disclose their Sim Nation score?
These days the big hit in the "Sim" family is the blockbuster hit
"The Sims" along with its numerous expansion packs, which is more
or less an electronic dollhouse.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000C0YSB/hip-20 )
While I'm glad to see a game become a hit which is not a shoot-em-up,
and which appeals to women, I find it is an unsatisfying divergence
from the original vision of simulation games.
(Another coincidence: I just received an email about "the Third Annual
Government Convention on Emerging Technologies taking place January 7-9,
2004 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This year the event focuses on Partnerships
for Homeland Security. The Convention will break from the typical agenda
in the afternoons to feature an interactive exercise that will engage
participants in a Live Threat Simulation: Terrorex 2004. Attendees
determine the outcomes through their decisions in response to mock
incidents that will occur throughout the three-day event. By working
together and utilizing the available technologies, participants are
encouraged to find innovative solutions and test their skill to thwart
and respond to the unfolding scenarios.")
"If life doesn't offer a game worth playing, then invent a new one."
-- Anthony J. D'Angelo, 1997
"The College Blue Book"
Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, decided
in the 1970s that we need some new games. When I taught a student-
directed-seminar at U.C. Santa Cruz on "Understanding Whole Systems"
and Brand was a guest speaker he told the story. The Vietnam Veterans
Against the War were having a gathering and asked Brand to arrange some
entertainment. He reasoned that these soldiers-turned-pacifists
needed some stress release, so invented a very violent but not harmful
game he called "Slaughter." I don't remember the exact rules but
it involved players on their knees trying to lift opponents off
the ground or drag them out of bounds in order to "kill" them,
while trying to score goals with multiple balls. It was a big hit.
Later, Brand created a foundation to create, collect and teach new
games. The results of their work is available in "The New Games
Book" (1976) by the New Games Foundation,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/038512516X/hip-20 )
and its sequel, "More New Games! And Playful Ideas from the New
Games Foundation" (1981).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385175140/hip-20 )
Brand also told the story of one experimental game he played
in which players were told that the center of the room was a dream,
and when they touched the wall they woke up. A group of dreamers
ended up dancing out of the room and everyone followed; they lost
interest and went non to another game. He said he was still in the
dream, since he'd never touched the wall. This helped me understand
how games recontextualize our experience.
Games Versus Being Serious
"Daughter: ...People who cheat just don't know how to
play. They treat a game as though it were serious."
-- Gregory Bateson, 1953
"On Games and Being Serious"
(a Metalogue) reprinted in
"Steps to an Ecology of
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0226039056/hip-20 )
When I worked for Rockwell International and we trying to win
the space station construction contract, there was a lull in
the work between our final proposal submission to NASA and the
contract award two months later, so I was loaned to the Computer
Aided Design (CAD) department because of my computer graphics
experience, and asked to do a study on user interface advances.
In my final report I recommended keeping an eye on computer game
developments because I thought that was where the user interface
was evolving fastest, and specifically recommended looking at
Pinball Construction Set from Electronic Arts and Sundog from FTL
Games for ideas (both of them still unrivaled in their innovation,
in my opinion). I still remember watching my manager read my report,
and hearing him chortle when he came to the part about the games.
He thought I'd put it in as a joke, and when I insisted I was in
earnest, he advised that I take it out or the whole report would
be dismissed by upper management. This was not the first time
I'd encountered this attitude (which seeks to boil down to
"we are so 'serious' about achieving our goals that if we can be
helped by innovations from a sphere of activity we view as 'frivolous'
we will decline the support"), but it was one of the more jarring
reminders that it can still prevail wherever millions of dollars are
on the line.
Indeed, I observed the minicomputer and later the PC being dismissed
as "just a toy" by companies that later went out of business because
the upstarts had taken their markets. Early computer graphics were
rejected as being "just cartoons" a few years before they made optical
special effects in movies obsolete. I don't know how many people
noticed in the mid 1980s when video games exceeded theatrical films
in revenue, but I sure did. I still find it disconcerting that comics
are viewed by most Americans as "kid stuff" when they know better in
Japan. I believe that medium is vastly underused, especially in the
fields of technical documentation and defining software specifications.
There are signs of improvements in attitudes; for years military
leaders have complained that the situation rooms depicted in
Hollywood movies like the 007 thriller "Doctor No" (1963)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004RG62/hip-20 )
and the afore-mentioned "WarGames" (1983) were better that the
real displays they used to protect their citizens from attack,
and in 2002 I heard a rumor that the new situation room at
the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) of the US defense department
was designed by former Disney "Imagineers."
( www.nro.gov )
Of course, while some refuse to take games seriously, others
are way too serious about games. After my first visit to a "meet"
of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) at which players
engage in mock medieval combat to determine royalty rank, I decided
they were much too serious for my tastes, and have since attended
Renaissance Faires instead whenever I was in then mood for some
creative anachronism, and I've heard tales of marriages
performed in Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) games. Last year when the
superbowl was about to be held here in San Diego I took my morning
walk past the "NFL Experience" pavilion as it was being set up,
and saw stands selling $100 sweatshirts and $500 jackets with
superbowl logos. I thought this might be a case of a game being
taken too seriously.
But I still laugh when I hear people deride the new combination
PDA and cell phones as "toys," which I sure will soon displace PCs
in many applications.
"You may knock your opponent down with the chessboard,
but that does not prove that you are the better player."
-- Source Unknown
There are games that transcend games. Gregory Bateson liked to point
out that the question, "Would you like to play chess?" is not a move
in chess. But it can be a move in another, larger game. The Ingmar
Bergman film "The Seventh Seal" (1958) had a man playing chess with
Death for his life. (He lost.)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305174083/hip-20 )
Somewhere -- I've forgotten now where -- I read of a metaphor
for the universe in which God plays chess with Satan, but in a
strange twist, God makes all the moves, and Stan simply introduces
errors, which God must counter with more moves, and Satan introduces
errors into these as well, and so on.
In a sketch on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, we see the screen
of the old video game "Pong" as two young men are playing and talking
at the same time. As one slowly reveals to the other that he's stolen
his girlfriend, the other player becomes increasingly flustered and
eventually loses. This is a classic example of the "meta game"
called "one-upmanship" by Stephen Potter in his "Gamesmanship" series
of books (1931 and later).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1559212233/hip-20 )
In the play "Rosencrantz & Guidenstern Are Dead" (1967) by Tom Stoppard
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0802132758/hip-20 )
the two principles play an extended game of "pitch and toss" (betting
on coin flips) and after an extremely extended run of heads conclude
that they must be characters in a work of fiction.
The game "matching pennies" described above is a game of pure
strategy, and if you try to guess what your opponent is guessing
about what you are guessing, and so on, you end up with a psychological
"hall of mirrors" effect. Conventional wisdom holds that the best
strategy is a random choice, breaking even on average, but of course
if you can read your opponent's mind (or are playing a program you
have source code for, or have correctly reverse-engineered) you
could win 100% of the time. It make for an interesting challenge...
Don Woods, co-creator (with Will Crowther) of the original "Colossal
Cave" text-based adventure game, recommends a game called "Psychological
JuJitsu," or "the Game of Pure Strategy," on his web site.
( www.icynic.com/~don/ )
I have played it, and found it fascinating. Children often beat adults.
It resembles a game of matching pennies modulo 13.
It also reminds me of the the "Foxholes Game" described by Martin
Gardner in "Mathematical Magic Show" (1965), chapter three.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394726235/hip-20 )
He describes it as a "simple, idealized war game that [Rufus]
Isaacs uses to explain mixed military strategies to military personnel."
The game is for a soldier to hide in one of five foxholes,
labeled one through five, while a gunner fires at one of the
gaps between foxholes, labeled A through D, like this:
(1) A (2) B (3) C (4) D (5)
If the gunner fires at a gap adjacent to the hole where
the soldier hides, the gunner wins the round, otherwise the soldier
wins the rounds. I recommend playing this game with someone -- it's
less trivial than it appears. (Simply have each player write their
move on a hidden piece of paper, then both reveal for each round.
Record the score as hash marks. It makes a great travel game
for kids.) The "guessing what your opponent is guessing
about what you are guessing..." problem becomes particularly
pronounced, leading to some nontrivial effects. Next month
I will reveal the optimum strategy for each player.
Of course, these strategy games still place in a confined
"game universe" with a limited set of outcomes. The search for
"open-ended" games has long been a quest of game lovers.
It is the game analogy to the search for "open-ended evolution"
described by Steven Levy in "Artificial Life: A Report from the
Frontier Where Computers Meet Biology" (1993).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679743898/hip-20 )
Successfully crafted "opened-ended" evolution simulations have
recapitulated the evolution of parasites, and observed some effects
seen in the fossil record, including mass extinction and punctuated
It has been asserted that the appeal of jazz music lies in its
open-ended nature. Through most of its history every few years
someone has changed the rules. While attempting to watch the whole
DVD box set of "Jazz -- A Film by Ken Burns" (2000),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004XQOU/hip-20 )
I came to understand that early jazz musicians played "big band"
music for the tourists, and then got together in after-hours
clubs and played improvisational jazz for their own amusement;
it was music by and for musicians.
Looking for similarities in game playing, besides the free-form
"let's pretend" game of children, I have found that logician Douglas
Hofstadter, of "Godel, Escher, Bach" fame (1979),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465026567/hip-20 )
has recommended "Nomic: A Game of Self-Amendment" created by
( www.earlham.edu/~peters/nomic.htm )
This game allows players to change the rules as they play. I've
never tried it but I long to. It can certainly be played by email.
I think it should be taught in law schools.
In ruminating about lessons learned from the New Games experiments,
Stewart Brand said what we need is a "theory of game change."
Too many destructive games, like trench warfare, the nuclear
arms race, religious Jihad, and the war on terror, have been played
by humanity, possibly for lack of such a workable theory.
I would add that we also need a "theory of game side effects."
Even back in ancient Athens they knew that the value of the
Olympics wasn't in precisely who won, but the side-effects of
strengthening Athenian youth. Today we see basketball selecting
players for height. Is this affecting human DNA? (After all,
"Magic" Johnson said he had over 2000 sex partners.) My dad,
a 50-year football fan, said recently, "It used to be big guys
couldn't run. Now they can run." Is this evolution in action?
I worry that some of our recent scandals, such as the Lakewood Spur
Posse and the Kobe Bryant trial, are unintended side-effects of sports
Experiments with high schools without intramural sports have shown
that academic performance improves and students clamor to get in.
(Mind you, I'm not talking about eliminating them, just providing
We also need a better understanding of the side-effects of our money
games, and our war games. we already know from Gulf War One that
video game players make better gunners. Are "Sega Virtua Racing"
games producing better drivers? (And how come our arcades have better
driving simulators than our high schools, which have mostly lost
"drivers ed" programs in the last 20 years?)
Can the pressure-sensitive interface of Konami's "Dance Dance
Revolution" game be adapted to computer users and prevent carpal
( www.seacoastonline.com/2002news/09022002/maine/22251.htm )
In closing, let me quote the motto of the New Games Foundation:
"Play Hard, Play Fair, Nobody Hurt."
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