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Game Theory and the fate of a generation
May 24th, 2013 under Life, rengolin. [ Comments: none ]

An interesting though came up via Bruce Schneier’s blog that got me thinking, and having trouble educating my pre-teen child, that thought grew on me and now many of his behaviours can be explained by the inability of spotting which game to play in real life.

When I finally had this same conversation with him, a whole model of how much of a failure our society is becoming, appeared clear as day for both of us!

What games do we play?

First, a crash course on game theory, you can skip this part if you already know. Basically, a game is played between two players who can take decisions based on what they think the other player will do, and points are given whether you cooperate or not in conjunction with the other players cooperation or not. For example, if both cooperate, both get 5 points. If one cooperates and the other doesn’t, the cheater gets 7 points and the looser gets 0. If they’re both cheaters, both get 1 point.

Well, since you have no idea what the other will choose, there’s 50% chance that the other player will cooperate and 50% that she will not. If you choose to cooperate, you have 50% chance of getting 5 points and 50% of getting zero. If you don’t, it’s 50% 7 points and 50% 1 point.

Clearly, if you play the game only once, cheating is the answer. There is no reason not to cheat. However, if you’ll have to play the same game with the same player more than once, possibly your whole life, than, well, cheating tires quickly. If you cheat now, the other player will cheat next, and both of you will remain cheating forever, since you know that if you don’t, by definition, you’ll get 0 points and she will get 7. We call this a stable solution, once you get there, there’s no coming back.

However, if both cooperate, both get 5, and as long as you both cooperate, you’ll always get 5. Sure, it’s not as profitable as 7, but it’s close enough. But as soon as one cheats, the other will feel betrayed, and will cheat. We call this an unstable solution. It demands trust on the other player, and as soon as the trust is broken, it’ll be very hard to regain it.

If that made you think about how life treats you, it’s no coincidence. John Nash used that language to describe reality, and he could clearly see reality like better than most of us. When John Nash says that “life is a game”, he truly means it, and he came up with the mathematical notation to prove it, and studied it to great length.

Video Games

In the beginning, there was pong. Pong was simple and fun. Then, the explosion of video games in the 80’s brought a lot of easy and hard games, but in almost all of them you had to work hard to get the prize. Some of then didn’t even had a prize, it was just an infinite number of repetitions, faster and faster, and the real competition was among the players, who got the best score.

The real game, however, was not on the screen, was on the player’s brain. Those games have conditioned people that there is a prize, and there is a task, and they are related. If they perform the task better than a certain threshold, the prize is bronze/silver/gold. It feels really good to get a prize, and that way of making people feel good (or bad) was found a century ago by Ivan Pavlov.

But video games is as much Pavlovian as street games. They’re as innocent and as powerful as any Olympic game on the minds of people. Video games use a different part of the body, the brain, and for that it was much more popular amongst nerds than sporty types. They had found a niche, at least before the 90’s arrived, when a boom of consoles, PCs and 3D graphics made video games mainstream, with every house having at least one type of video game.

That boom had little change in the shape of how the games were teaching children about the world. There was still a task, a reward, and some work to do. Even though, by the end of the day, any task you performed during the game was worthless in real life, what you learnt, that is that you need to perform a task well enough to get a prize, and that the prize is proportional to the hard work you put in, was learnt for life.

Social Gaming

Enter the era of social gaming. Zynga and other Facebook games were made not to entertain, or to give prizes for specific tasks, but to reward the most socially active player. All that, of course, in order to give Facebook a boost in user numbers (and Zynga a boost in fake value), but that not only changed how games were played, but it changed the lessons that we learnt from them.

On a social game, since the objective is to share more than others, you’ll get things for free to share with your friends, who would also get free stuff to share with you. It means that, whoever got the most “friends”, got most free stuff, and progressed faster and longer in the game. What it’s teaching you is that you don’t need to work hard for something, you just need to convince people to give you for free, or even worse, you just need to wait to get it, because it’s the player’s right to receive.

Now, what children are learning with these games is that they don’t need to work hard for anything, because they have the right to be happy, the right to be fed, the right to be given jobs, or be subsided by the government.

If that sounds a lot like reality, well, welcome to the brave new world!


So, we know how powerful Facebook is, and much of that came from the games section at the beginning, that forced people to spend more time on Facebook than on real life, and now it’s just an addiction that they cannot get free. The reason why it’s an addiction is the very same why Heroine is an addiction.

Whenever you use a psychotropic drug, your brain goes to a state that is not real. Whatever you feel, whatever you see is not real. You can see good things, or bad things, and that will change how your addiction will continue, but some drugs are more powerful that that. For instance, tobacco changes the concentration that your brain and peripheral nervous system respond to neurotransmitters, and that’s because nicotine is a joker in the land of neurotransmitters. It can trigger more than half of the different types of receptors in your body. Whenever you lower that concentration (by abstaining), your body doesn’t react like you would want, and you have withdraw, which compels you to smoke again.

Most drugs have the same effect, including easy over-rewarding video games. Note that not all video games act like drugs, it’s just the specific class of games where you get more than what you deserve for the amount of work you put in. And that’s the same kind of addiction that people have with films, series, books and anything that will take you away from the harsh reality into a land of dreams where you are more than you can actually accomplish (super hero) or you have accomplished more than you actually worked for it (fantasy and feel-good stories).

The crucial bit here is that, going back to reality is hard, painful and has a deep feeling of loss, since all the “hard work” you put during the game/film/book is gone and worthless. That feeling puts you into a dilemma: now that you lost a lot of time in reality that you could be doing something useful, while other people are already harvesting the fruits of their own works (a younger child playing piano or solving puzzles you cannot), you’ll have to work much harder to achieve the same level. Whereas, if you go back to the game, you’ll get instant satisfaction with very little effort. If you have no responsibilities in your life, the choice is easy.


This creates a conflict with the parents because, not only they had to work hard for upbringing their children on the best environment possible, but they’re also seeing their children wast their time on a false reality while not understanding why the parent’s reality is so different from their own.

I played video games since I was very young and still play them constantly, but I simply cannot play social games. They feel wrong, false and demeaning of the very hard work that I learnt as a kid to foster. Moreover, they remind me of the kind of society we live today where children can’t fail.

For example, in Brazil, not enough people were reaching universities because they would fail so many times that they’d drop school and never bother. How do you fix this? Simple, make a law where kids younger than 10 cannot fail. Ever. Well, surprise, they reached 10 without being able to read or write, and that’s the state’s fault, so how do you fix this? Even simpler, pass a law where kids under 15 cannot fail. You get the idea.

This over protection that schools have on kids, society trying to avoid the problems of growing up and taking responsibility until very late, is possibly responsible for the increase in criminality of the new youth and the will of some people to reduce the criminal age to 16. It’s not hard to see that, again, that solution is only going to make things worse by treating children like adults without given them a chance to understand adulthood before it’s too late.

Game playing society

Since social gaming became so mainstream a few years ago, people started noticing how to use that for benefit and profit. Real life games, like fourSquare give you prizes for over-consumption, on the grounds that sharing your personal information is worthless for you, but not for them. Games where you feel you’re giving a worthless commodity (your privacy) for big rewards (a cup of coffee) but in reality the companies are getting the real profit (your private information) is where our society is leading and it doesn’t seem to bother many people.

We are already brainwashed to believe that sharing personal emails with Google is ok, as long as they keep the servers up. We put our credit card numbers on Amazon for the comfort of not having to type them so often on the trust that they will protect your data as if it was their own. We already believe that the cloud is the best place to store your photos, documents and music. While all of that looks free to you, it’s far from. It’s all a game, where you are being cheated while willingly cooperating, but they keep your profit positive (albeit small), so that you feel valued.

We already let our guard down, we’re living in that fantasy where we don’t have to work hard for anything, convinced ourselves that the profit is ours and in this fantasy world, we’re great. Easy pray to an ever relaxing predators. Maybe that will be the end of them… I hope.

Playing the wrong game

Now we pause to go back to the main theme: why people play a one-off game when they should actually play a rolling game?

100 years ago, justice wasn’t very just. Judge and executioner were often the same person, and people paid a lot more than they should for crimes that they may have not even committed. But as bad as it was, that taught a lesson to most people that the odds of cheating weren’t that great. The price was too high, and they’d see it far too often.

Years pass, people agree that totalitarian regimes are not nice and we come with democracy, republics and other less radical governments. Now, people have rights, inalienable and universal. Governments have to protect people, and people can now be what they want, follow their dreams and collect the fruits of their hard work. And the more educated people get, the more they realise they can get more rights.

In itself, having rights is the right thing to do (pun intended), but there has to be a balance, and the balance is the social interactions. Your rights are the same as everyone else, and you can’t just do what you “want”, but what you have the right to do. Well, clever people can turn those concepts around and they will cheat, and they will profit. Because they have to be protected by law, they will find ways of abusing the system short of breaking the law. If they get caught, the price is high, but since they have more rights than duties, and since justice is less impressive (but more just) nowadays, the feeling of cost and profits are skewed, so people cheat more often that they would if thinking straight.

We can’t have the concept of born rights without having the concept of born duties. You have the right to education, but you also have the duty to follow it through, no matter how hard it seems. It’s the teachers’ duty to do their best to make it more efficient (not easier), but it’s also their right to chose what they think it’s best for the kids. If rights and duty don’t go hand-in-hand, you get a lazy generation that thinks other people have to do whatever they want. Today, children will think that of their parents, what about tomorrow? Will they expect that their children will have to work for them? Or their brothers? It doesn’t add up. They’re not playing a rolling game, but a one-off one.

When you thrown the over-rewarding games into the mix, you get kids learning that they can just be lazy and the world will fix it for them while they get cheap happiness on their tablets. They’re cheating the system that protects them until they turn 18 when the system will just abandon them, and the hard reality will hit them in the face with no preparedness and no warning. Some survive, some don’t. Would you take a chance with your children?


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