OK ScholComm – time for some game theory

I have approximate knowledge of when I was first introduced to game theory. It was the late 1980s and I was in a classroom and we were shown a documentary featured The Prisoner’s Dilemma (which is best understood through Nicky Case’s The Evolution of Trust).

Some idle googling on my part makes me think that the documentary might have been ‘Nice Guys Finish First’ by not-so-nice guy Richard Dawkins but I am more inclined to think it was a PBS documentary.

What I can say with much more confidence is that whatever documentary I happened to have watched combined with my subscription to The Whole Earth Review and primed me for a future interest in population biology that I pursued at university until I switched from a degree in biology to one in Geography and Environmental Science.

I have much more specific knowledge of when I first became interested in the theory of games.

Years ago I bought off the newsstand the September 2003 issue of Games Magazine despite the fact that the magazine was clearly more about puzzles than games. From that issue I discovered that the puzzles contained were all way above my ability but there was this one article that caught my attention: Metagaming 101 by W, Eric Martin. The article begins:

Games without change, like War and Chutes & Ladders, are games without choices; they incorporate change only in the smallest, most random ways. Other than choosing to play or quit, players of these games can do nothing more than follow fate’s fickle finger until a winner emerges. Only children have patience for such games; more experienced players yearn for a higher level of change and the choices that accompany it.

At the other end of the change continuum lies chaos, a swirling mass of rules and playing pieces that survive only on whim. The perfect example: Calvinball. Again, only children can tolerate such games; other players require a structured set of rules for change that they can refer to as needed.

But there are game designers who encourage rule-breaking via the concept of *meta-rules* — that is, rules with a game that change the rules of the game itself. With meta-rules, players can explore any point they wish on a change continuum simply by altering the rules of a game.

from Metagaming 101

Game theory is not the same as the theory of games. Game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” This means that you can choose to employ a variety of different types of game theory in certain games.

Since September 2003, I have read several books of the theory of games including A Theory of Fun for Game Design, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, How to Do Things with Videogames, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games, and Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College.

Now, the reading of books does not make one an expert and I don’t consider myself an expert on the theory of games. I have approximate knowledge of the theory of games.

I sometimes joke that the true purpose of metrics within scholarly communication is to avoid reading.

This is an allusion to the common practice of many tenure and promotion committees whose members don’t read the research of the scholar who they are assessing. Instead, they tally up the number of prominent journals that the scholar has published in. The perceived quality of the journal is transmuted into the perceived quality of the work that the scholar has produced.

And so, as the smallest gesture against this state of affairs, I have decided to celebrate the reading of scholarship. Well, I’m going to try to read more of it.

Last week I read Calvinball: User’s Rights, Public Choice Theory and Rules Mutable Games by Bob Tarantino in The Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice. Its abstract:

This article proposes the “rules mutable game” as a metaphor for understanding the operation of copyright reform. Using the game of Calvinball (created by artist  Bill Watterson in his long-running comic strip Calvin & Hobbes) as an illustrative device, and drawing on public choice theory’s account of how political change is effected by privileged interests, the article explores how the notion of a game in which players can modify the rules of the game while it is being played accounts for how users are often disadvantaged in copyright reform processes. The game metaphor also introduces a normative metric of fairness into the heart of the assessment of the copyright reform process from the standpoint of the user. The notion of a rules mutable game tells us something important about the kinds of stories we should be telling about copyright and copyright reform. The narrative power of the “fair play” norm embedded in the concept of the game can facilitate rhetoric which does not just doom users to dwell on their political losses, but empowers them to strategize for future victories.

I enjoyed the article but I would like to spend a little time on Tarantino’s assertion that a “game metaphor contains an inherent ethical vision.” While I take his point that most of us assume that all games are fair, I don’t think Calvinball is the game metaphor that one should first reach for, especially as law itself is already a rules-mutable system.

I would suggest instead to consider the concept of the infinite game.

Here’s the blurb from Finite and Infinite Games

Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life; they are played in order to be won, which is when they end. But infinite games are more mysterious. Their object is not winning, but ensuring the continuation of play. The rules may change, the boundaries may change, even the participants may change—as long as the game is never allowed to come to an end.

From Kevin Kelly:

The goal of the infinite game is to keep playing — to explore every way to play the game, to include all games, all possible players, to widen what is meant by playing, to spend all, to hoard nothing, to seed the universe with improbable plays, and if possible to surpass everything that has come before.

Games rules, incidentally, are uncopyrightable and this holds true for video games rules as well.

From Metagaming 101:


Nearly every game discussed thus far, no matter how successful on its own, owes a debt to Nomic, a rule-changing game that has spawned hundreds of variations over the past two decades.

Nomic was created in 1982 by Peter Suber, a professor of philosophy at Earlham College, as an appendix to his book The Paradox of Self-Amendment. This book explored the possible complications of a government system (such as that of the U.S.) in which a constitution includes rules for self-amendment. As Suber wrote, “While self-amendment appears to be an esoteric feature of law, capturing it in a game creates a remarkably complete microcosm of a functional legal system.

As created, Nomic consists of a two-tiered system of 16 “immutable” and 13 “mutable” rules. Players take turns proposing rule changes and new amendments, and earn points by voting and throwing a die. The first player to achive 100 points wins.

As dry as this sounds, games of Nomic can quickly explode in unimaginable directions. Perhaps the winner must now achieve 1,000 points — make that 1,000 points and the title “Supreme Overlord.” How does a player become titled? Propose a rule. On second thought, forget points; let’s give every rule a color and now someone wins by passing proposals that are colored green, red, and brown. “The ability of Nomic to change itself is a wonderful thing,” says Kevan Davis. “If the game ever starts to become boring, it change to whatever people think is less boring. If it’s going to fast, it can be slowed down; if it’s going to slowly, it can be speeded up. If people think it could use fewer dice and more rubber-band firing, then it gets fewer dice and more rubber-band firing.”

Is it coincidence that the King of Change is the same Peter Suber who helped define and promote Open Access in academia?

Here’s a book that I haven’t read: The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse. I am going to trust Wikipedia that the description of the book is accurate:

The Glass Bead Game takes place at an unspecified date centuries into the future. Hesse suggested that he imagined the book’s narrator writing around the start of the 25th century. The setting is a fictional province of central Europe called Castalia, which was reserved by political decision for the life of the mind; technology and economic life are kept to a strict minimum. Castalia is home to an austere order of intellectuals with a twofold mission: to run boarding schools for boys, and to cultivate and play the Glass Bead Game, whose exact nature remains elusive and whose devotees occupy a special school within Castalia known as Waldzell. The rules of the game are only alluded to—they are so sophisticated that they are not easy to imagine. Playing the game well requires years of hard study of music, mathematics, and cultural history. The game is essentially an abstract synthesis of all arts and sciences. It proceeds by players making deep connections between seemingly unrelated topics… The plot chronicles Knecht’s education as a youth, his decision to join the order, his mastery of the Game, and his advancement in the order’s hierarchy to eventually become Magister Ludi, the executive officer of the Castalian Order’s game administrators.

This is not the only time I have witnessed academia being understood as a game.

I read Scott Nicholson’s delightful Quest for Tenue: A Chose-Your-Own Adventure when I visited the Rare Books Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Scott was one of many contributors to a book written in a single night called 100 ways to make history.

And earlier this week I learned from this video about the concept of chmess which was coined by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in the article, Higher-order truths about chmess [pdf]

What is chmess you might ask?

Chess is a deep and important human artifact, about which much of value has been written. But some philosophical research projects are more like working out the truths of chmess. Chmess is just like chess except that the king can move two squares in any direction, not one. I just invented it—though no doubt others have explored it in depth to see if it is worth playing. Probably it isn’t. It probably has other names. I didn’t bother investigating these questions because although they have true answers, they just aren’t worth my time and energy to discover. Or so I think. There are just as many a priori truths of chmess as there are of chess (an infinity), and they are just as hard to discover. And that means that if people actually did get involved in investigating the truths of chmess, they would make mistakes, which would need to be corrected, and this opens up a whole new field of a priori investigation, the higher-order truths of chmess, such as the following:
1. Jones’ (1989) proof that p is a truth of chmess is
flawed: he overlooks the following possibility …
2. Smith’s (2002) claim that Jones’ (1989) proof is
flawed presupposes the truth of Brown’s lemma
(1975), which has recently been challenged by
Garfinkle (2002)

Dennett holds the playing of chmess is much more of a concern of philosophy than of other disciplines because:

Philosophy is an a priori discipline, like mathematics, or at least it has an a priori methodology at its core, and this fact cuts two ways. On the one hand, it excuses philosophers from spending tedious hours in the lab or the field, and from learning data-gathering techniques, statistical methods, geography, history, foreign languages …, empirical science, so they have plenty of time for honing their philosophical skills. On the other hand, as is often noted, you can make philosophy out of just about anything, and this is not always a blessing.

Knowing this, is it surprising that philosophy journals have some of the lowest acceptance rates in all of scholarship? (ht Ryan Reiger).

There is another written work that really got me thinking about the University not necessarily as a game but as an institution of productive leisure but I cannot cite it or quote from it.

The reasons for this might have something to do with citation counts.

Please allow me to make a sweeping generalization: reputation is the coin of the realm of academia. Not citation counts.

And yet there are many software platforms that are currently being sold that presents the number of citations as some sort of scoring system.

Who has the high score at your institution? Just check Google Scholar.

I think we should be more mindful of the types of behaviours we are implicitly and explicitly encouraging by choosing to rank scholars, research labs, and institutions by number of citations, alone.

If we want to develop better scoring systems, I think we could learn from game designers:

The following is an excerpt from my contribution to “Librarian Origin Story” in Schroeder, R., Deitering, AM, Stoddart, R., The Self as Subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, and Academic Librarianship, Association of College and Research Libraries, 2017.

In 2010, Jane McGonigal had a public conversation with Stewart Brand as part of an event Called The Long Conversation that was put on by The Long Now Foundation. Jane McGonigal started the conversation by bringing up Stewart Brand’s past experience with game design as part of the “New Games Movement” in the late 1970s. McGonigal asked Brand if the New Games movement was designed to “change the world” and Brand said yes, and told her of his game-design origin story

During the late 70s, he and friends were talking about how the Cold War was being played out by “rules” that would only result in bad endings for everyone and as such, the rules of the Cold War needed to change. And Brand thought about when he was a kid, when he and his friends changed the rules all the time. For example, kids would change the rules of the game of stickball  that they were playing to accommodate any new kids who arrived to play. And so he and his friends started creating New Games for adults to explore and play in a world that they would rather live in.

Also in 2010, I was invited to be participant in the Evoke Summit held at the World Bank headquarters in Washington DC where I had the chance to meet and thank Jane McGonigal in person. The summit was a reward for the winners of the game who had come up with their winning proposals for social entrepreneurial projects and the two days were filled with activities geared to making those proposals a reality.  One of the activities was to work on a short memorable tagline for one’s work that would distill the essence of who you are and what you want to achieve. Eventually I came up with this phrase for myself that I still feature on my professional portfolio: Changing the rules so more can win.