I was told a story awhile back and I don't know if it's true, but it's one of those things that really describes the concept I'm going after.
"No one acts irrationally from their own perspective."
-- Jack Edwards
Years back there was a Settlers of Catan tournament. A big one. It's first prize was a trip for two to Essen and the guy telling me the story (or so he claimed) managed somehow to make it through to the final round. He never said he was a stellar player, but you know how Catan goes. So as he sits down to the final table and shakes hands with two men that he is about to compete against, he realizes that they look remarkably similar to each other.
Each introduces themself and he quickly realizes that they are father and son. During the pleasantries prior to the first roll of the dice the father politely explains that they have no qualms over second place, but that, like it or not, first place was going to be theirs. There's two of them, the prize is a trip for two, and, nothing personal, they were about to do what it takes for one or the other of them to win. The man telling the story to me concluded by explaining that all the moves made by his two opponents were at his expense, and in a game such as Settlers of Catan that's insurmountable. He went home with a lovely second place trophy.
For most reading this it would appear that a bit of shenanigans occurred and one could even cry foul. Each of his opponents were making well-considered decisions to not select the actions that best suited their position. They were picking winners and losers with their play and for very partisan reasons. So let's spend a moment to consider suboptimal play.
If you haven't figured it out yet, my opinion on the subject is pretty straightforward -- Suboptimal play is largely a myth, at least the way most people consider it. Of course people make mistakes in board games like all other aspects of their lives, and it's likely those mistakes have a broader impact than that player's own position. I heavily encourage my opponents to make all the mistakes they like. A bit of blunder finding its way onto the board is fine with me. It's par for the course and a pretty dependable turn of events in any game containing some amount of complexity.
But what about that other set of suboptimal moves, those that appear vindictive, or personal, of designed to intentionally favor one opponent over another? Or worse, what about when someone sits down to the table with an agenda that simply is counter to that of the other players? What happens when they've shown up to achieve a different result and you're caught in the crossfire?
Let's review our Settlers players above. Our one lone player describes the double-team as behaving in an unethical way, and has a solid argument to make from his own perspective. Playing Settlers two-on-one is not a fair game. But the father and son look at the same scenario very differently, not because of a personal bias, but because they didn't show up to play Settlers of Catan. They showed up to play Tournament. Their game play began months earlier, when they plotted their strategy to get a ride to Germany. The scope of their game was much broader, and they took steps to maximize their position in all aspects of the play. They registered for the tournament at different times, one by telephone and the other via the Internet just in case brackets were set up by registration proximity. As play progressed and the brackets collapsed to fewer and fewer players they watched for each other -- taking care to ensure that the other was in a new game prior to letting their own finish. They maximized their positions and their strategy worked; each made it to the final round. What remained was to close the deal in that last play, and the way the brackets fell out it was a three man game. Had it been four it would have been critical to keep their mouths shut until after the game was finished -- no sense encouraging two opposing players suddenly becoming good fast friends out of need and split the winnings against them. When that scenario did not occur they made an ethical play. They politely informed their opponent that he had already lost on points before this final turn played out. They had beaten him in prior rounds of the Tournament game but were willing to cede the second-place winnings to him given the situation. A game well played, though it was not Settlers of Catan.
Their bahavior was logical, fruitful, and well-considered from their perspective.
The guy that told me the story thought it sucked.
Most of the board games we play aren't very heavily incentivized. The winner gets a moment to crow and a warm feeling that might last until morning. And because that reward is so minimal the concept of playing ethically (however you choose to define that) is sufficiently large in comparison to make it a more pressing concern than the victory itself. We judge a cheap victory hollow.
But in the example above there were thousands of dollars on the table. What happens when all the players aren't playing for the same reason? What happens when some portion your opponent's personal satisfaction is derived from a factor other than the number of points that are sitting underneath their marker at the end of the game? That's when people get pissed. That's when people take it seriously. That's when people fail to learn.
One of the fundamental principles of "reward" in game theory is that the theorist has to consider all forms of satisfaction that each of the individual players will take away from the play. They need to quantify those forms -- assign point values to soft concepts like pride or revenge or indebtedness and every other kind of secondary rewards that the play produces in order to fairly assess the range of favored outcomes. "Favored outcome" is what we're talking about here -- the "favored outcome" is the "optimal play." But identifying it can be a difficult task. Points are points but determining how much comfort one particular player will take from an emotionally-driven decision is difficult and can change with the weather. I once won a game of Bohnanza because I brought the beer that week. Here's a very hard question -- how do you judge somebody else's motivations, especially when the easily-measured part of the score is close?
Here's the trick -- try not to give a damn so much.
By you may be stuck giving a damn whether you like it or not. Game theory inserts itself into our everyday lives. On a scoring track the number of points is a pretty concise definition of the reward each player gets. The personal issues are minor. But in the office, or in your relationship, or with the customer service rep on the far end of the phone "reward" and what drives it is much more difficult to measure and likely a bigger part of the equation. It's a big deal -- this may be your career we're talking about. This may be thousands of dollars in salary over the next decade driven by what your supervisor (i.e., your fellow player) places value in. Depending on your job there could be a multi-million dollar contract in the balance or the well-being of thousands of men in uniform hanging on your ability to look at the scenario before you from the other player's perspective. Thoroughly confrontational games are generally about position and pressure, but when cooperative aspects are at play the assessment and management of the relationship with your fellow players can be of immeasurable importance. Cooperation is generally the case in real life. Even with sworn enemies be they on the battlefield or in the office some level of cooperation is generally in the mix. I'd wager that each one of us can point to a failure in our lives where the heart of the matter was our inability to get along, to make it work with the other players, the other people critical to success. Those are failures that you grit your teeth over. Those regrets are bigger.
I don't think the casual gamer appreciates the microcosm laid out on the table before them. They don't see how the lessons the play provides apply to their lives, and don't use what they learn on the game board to increase their position in the world. This skillset is an advantage we can take with us into the visit with the troublesome in-law. This is where we figure that, in spite of our own opinion, less detail in the business proposal instead of more will make a better impression on this particular customer. Games that nurture our negotiative skills and teach us to better assess our real-world cohorts lay the groundwork for better outcomes in the remainder of our lives if we choose to embrace the lesson they offer. But that starts by internalizing this one simple concept --
There's no such thing as a sub-optimal play.
Sagrilarus is a monthly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash.