Monday, March 26, 2012


Recently, I've been playing a lot more board games. And we aren't talking pictionary here, we're talking proper board games like Settlers of Catan, Game of Thrones or Merchants and Marauders. Some of these games (like Red November, drunken Russian gnomes fighting the clock and alcohol to stop their submarine from sinking - large amounts of fun btw) are cooperative, i.e you're all playing to beat the game. Some (like game of Thrones) are antagonistic - you're all out to beat each other.
As much as some people sneer at board games, I think they can be quite good reductions of social behaviour in the real world. So in the business world say, you're quite often out to do better than your competitor. If there's a limited supply of raw materials or customers, it becomes antagonistic, you're trying to out manoeuvre your competitors. In other situations when you're trying to draw together a community you have a cooperative game - a city council trying to run a city say. There are people around trying to make games that are actually useful for this sort of thing.
In a cooperative game, generally the only way to win is for players to sacrifice some of their resources so that someone else can perform necessary tasks that the player themselves cannot complete. In some cases the resources are items or money, sometimes it's time as various players share out a set of tasks, each player undertaking tasks that their particular skill set caters for.

Games have been studied for quite a while. Economists think they're big on game theory - though I have my doubts about most of the old school economists - Chicago school and Keynesian economists alike. Though I have hope for the behavioural economists taking their lead from Daniel Kahneman. They can be used to model the behaviour of individuals in idealized and complex situations - the prisoners dilema is common example of this, one I hope most people are familiar with. It deals with the interaction of costs and human interaction. In other words, how various levels of costs/rewards change our behaviour towards others. It might not be particularly useful when attempting to model an economy but since it deals with some of the basics of human interaction it can be used to show how we can use games to model human interactions.
Studying human interactions through games is a useful thing, primarily I think because so often, what is revealed is that the common sense solution is wrong. The Chicago school of free market economics is an elegant idea. it is also based on the idea that humans are rational, self interested actors - which we are patently not, we're a lot more complex than that. Which I why I believe/hope the idea of a completely free market will die. Nor however, do we continually put the state or the revolution first, which I suspect had something to do with why communism hasn't done spectacularly well over the years. We attribute different levels of importance to different levels/parts of society and when we consciously make cost/benefit decisions, we do so with those different levels in mind.
One thing the study of games can offer, is that when they are constructed with valid assumptions, they can give us a much better understanding of how people will probably react than any other means we have available - neither common sense nor ideology have worked so far. As the Innovation Games people found when they ran games based around running of the council, contrary to "common sense" people will cope quite well with increased taxes, provided they can see the trade off being made.

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