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Academic Games Theory concerns itself with decision making in abstract, theoretical or hypothetical situations in the hope of working out what decisions agents might or should take in the real world. As such it has attempted to model tactical and strategic behaviour in many fields from gambling and criminality to economics and warfare. Biologists have even tried adapting it to explaining hunting and mating strategies.
The famous Prisoners Dilemma in which two subjects have to choose between incriminating the other or keeping silent has many variants, but basically if both keep silent they both get a small sentence; by incriminating the other, either can go free but with the other getting a large sentence; however if both incriminate the other then they both get a fairly large sentence.
However this theoretical scenario does not easily model the real life behaviour of the police who invariably try to separate suspects and to heavily hint that their associates have already incriminated them, or the degree of honour or animosity between thieves.
The modelling of economic behaviour used to depend entirely on the ‘Rational Agent’ proposition that people will always act to maximise their monetary gain. However experiments tend to show that people have an irrational aversion to loss, regretting the loss of a small amount more than valuing the gain of a larger amount, and that they tend to suffer from the sunk costs fallacy and throw good money after bad, and that they generally conform to herd mentality, and that they frequently invest in Meaning rather than Utility. Yet even with such added sophistications ‘The Dismal Science’ of Economics still has very low predictive power.
Warfare, the game of kings, has invited theoretical modelling and representation since the earliest of times with the game of Chess and its oriental equivalents providing prime examples. However such semi-abstract games lack the complexities of real warfare and combative nations have never agreed to settle conflict by simulation, except perhaps for the nuclear standoff conflict where most simulations simply offered Mutually Assured Destruction or Not, and they chose Not.
Personally I hate straight Chess, it seems to require far more concentration than imagination and its very abstractness does not fire my imagination. There seems little point in playing except to win, and playing to win, particularly against computer programs, just gives me headaches for very little reward. Playing to win against friends tends to sour friendships. On the other hand some board wargames have an intrinsic pageantry or historical interest or imaginative component that makes the play itself interesting, win or lose.
I also hate Monopoly because of its complete lack of realism, you get money for nothing, go to jail for no reason, the rent and taxes come in randomly, you have no choice of movement, it doesn’t teach you anything about capitalism, it takes far too long, and play doesn’t improve much with practise because like most ‘family games’ it involves a great deal of chance.
Uncertainty and chance provide much of the fascination of games and perhaps the only rationale for war or perhaps for even living at all. Yet uncertainty comes in two forms, lack of information and randomness. Some philosophers and classical physicists will argue that randomness simply consists of our lack of sufficient information. Other philosophers and most quantum physicists will argue that randomness actually underlies the apparent order of the universe which doesn’t really have a deterministic future state. Either way for the purposes of argument here we shall regard fair dice as ‘fair’, i.e. random in their output.
The appeal of uncertainty seems to lie in the pleasure we get from resolving it which tends to arise as either as a feeling of surprise and discovery and/or of control or vindication.
The degrees of imaginative symbolism, chance, imperfect information, and decision making, seem to define the quality and appeal of any game.
Games of pure chance rarely have much intrinsic interest except for those deluded by various gamblers fallacies, those who know how to cheat, and those with the mathematical expertise and investment capital to offer gambling facilities.
Snakes and Ladders seems utterly tiresome and pointless, and a bizarrely misguided attempt to model moral principles (originally it had all the ladders labelled with moral virtues and all the snakes labelled with moral vices) because ‘players’ have no choices at all in this game of pure chance.
Perhaps Snakes and ladders has its ultimate origins in the Neoplatonism that spawned Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Kabala in the first couple of centuries AD, for these have various emanations, archons, and sephiroth that the supplicant must ascend like some sort of ladder to heaven. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life in its later representations has a downward pointing sword of the cherubim and an upward climbing serpent of wisdom.
Some people have looked to games of chance as a means of divination, presumably on the basis of the hypothesis that two unknowns like the outcome of the game and the outcome of reality, should have correlations because they already have the correlation of both having uncertainty at the outset.
Chess on the other hand contains no element of chance; the uncertainty arises purely out of the lack of knowledge of one’s opponent’s detailed intentions. The power of a chess piece depends only on its movement and a weaker piece may take a strong piece as readily as an even stronger one can, plus players may only move one piece per turn, both of which render the game almost entirely abstracted from real conflict.
The best strategy games usually involve decisions and choices, and uncertainties arising from both concealed intentions and chance. In these, the role of chance usually kicks in at a fairly low grain size within the game to settle tactical outcomes that the game does not model in detail but it does so in a weighted fashion to reflect the probability of the outcome. If in Chess, pawns and kings threw 1 dice, knights and bishops threw 2, rooks and queens threw 3, and the highest score won each attempt to take another piece, you could convert it into a simple poor relation of a battle game with weighted chance. Alternatively the use of Polyhedral Dice as actual playing pieces with the more multi-faceted ones representing the more powerful pieces, works quite well.
‘Risk!’ the game of world conquest, appears as the grandfather of most popular multiplayer strategy games and it keeps getting released dressed in yet another historical or futuristic format almost yearly. I tend to buy these up just for the pieces these days as you can get a large Napoleonic, or Fantasy, or Science Fiction army of playing pieces very cheaply due to the continuing popularity of the fairly simple game system itself. This system depends on conquering territory to get more armies to conquer yet more, with a numbers weighted chance attrition system of conflict resolution. A semi-random system of bonus armies increases the uncertainties of the game, and some variants have concealed victory conditions for the players.
I grew up playing ‘Risk!’ with my school friends but later opted for the more sophisticated Avalon Hill and ‘Allies & Axis’ simulations of WW2 which incidentally stimulated a fair bit of detailed research into the history of WW2 for the eventual creation of a tournament version on a two square metre board with hundreds of pieces and almost real time play, well it took so long that few games ever got finished.
Through life I have tended to spend more time on the game of analysing and creating games than I have on actually playing them.
At about age 14 I sent a game I called ‘Space Race’ to Waddington’s; I distinctly remember the sheet of starry wall-paper used for the board. I got no reply but a couple of years later they brought out ‘Blast Off’ based on virtually identical principles, a race around the solar system with fuel as a critical resource. Apparently you have five times the chance of getting a book published than a game, I never bothered again.
A modified game of Cluedo to include Motive* and Time of Death also got made, how odd that a detective game should have omitted such things. (*The Seven Deadly Sins.)
There followed an attractive looking 3D chess board made out of four 4x4 Perspex sheets. Moves became almost impossibly complicated, particularly if diagonal moves could include movement through the vertices of the cubic cells. 4 Dimensional chess played on a 1+ 8x8x8x8x8x8 Perspex hypercube received some theoretical attention but never got built, with more than 3 or 4 pieces per side it would have become incalculably difficult in those pre-computer days.
Designing Space and Magical battles provided endless fascination, in the first case because it forces the designer to think about the undiscovered physics involved, and in the second case because it forces the designer to think about the alternative physics involved.
Thus the game of designing games can become a far from trivial pursuit. To model an existing or historical reality you first have to find out how it actually works or worked. To create a new reality you need to make it self-consistent and credible.
If reality consists of a game we play inside our heads then you need an accurate representation of existing reality and a credible and self-consistent model of any planned extension of it in your dreams.