I have recently been spending some time trying to educate myself about Game Theory (or, if you prefer, “Interactive Decision Theory” or “Multi-Person Decision Theory“). I had an interest in this subject mostly from a business perspective, but soon found it intriguing from other perspectives and contexts, such as economics, law, politics, and even love. Needless to say, my fascination with Asimov‘s Foundation Series and my idealization about its protagonist, Hari Seldon, has made the Theory all the more interesting to me.
Because Game Theory has such a wide reach and implications in so many facets of the human experience, I have found new meanings to the old adage that “life is like a game”. Most recently, I have decided to explore a new point of view about life and the nature of our existence:
If we can entertain the idea that life is like a game, let’s imagine life as a video game. Yes, you heard me right, a video game! Yes, I am indeed talking about one of those computer programs that are designed for our entertainment, and that run in what now seems to be an ubiquitous realm of computing platforms, including Personal Computers, Video Game Consoles (or “Entertainment Centers”, like the PlayStation 3), and even mobile phones and tablets. It doesn’t matter which video game you’d like to imagine life to be. You may imagine life like the game “Pong“, or the near-universally popular “Angry Birds“, or if you prefer video games that also tell a story, you may imagine life as a game of “Mario Bros.“. It really doesn’t matter which kind of video game. What matters is that, even if for a moment, you entertain the idea that life is pretty much like a video game.
Now that you have this idea in your head, consider the following:
If life is like a Video Game, then Mathematics is it’s programming language! Like a programming language, math is a Formal Language. In fact, some Computer Scientists may argue that programming languages are simply an extension of mathematics that allows the application of math through the computer system. That may be so, but it is beyond the scope of this essay. What is really interesting about this idea is that, even though math was originally created as a formal language that described the nature of the Universe, soon we found that the Universe actually follows a precise set of seemingly unchangeable rules. More importantly, around the 15th or 16th century, Europeans realized that these rules could be expressed mathematically as “formulas”, and that, given our influence in certain values of the formula (an input), the universe would give us a result (an output) that could be easily predicted using this language of mathematics. Thus, the Scientific Revolution inspired so many people to find the formulas that define our world, so that we may change the universe to better accomodate our needs and wants.
But you see, all we can hope to do is change the values of the formulas. The formulas have already been written down. Mathematicians and Scientists are simply “discovering” these formulas through theoretic or empirical research. In other words, the “programming code” for the Video Game of Life (the mathematical formulas that define the way the Universe behaves) has already been set and is unchangeable. What we CAN do, however, is try to observe the way the video game works to try and discover the underlying code (formulas) behind them, and thus, by understanding the game’s rules, we can play the game better!
Notice, then, how, the “Life as a Video Game” idea starts to allow us to make other comparisons. If Life is a video game, and math is the programming language of the video game, and scientific formulas (either discovered or yet undiscovered) are the programming code of the video game, then the video game console or platform (such as a computer or a tablet or mobile device) where the video game is running is like the Universe! Some physicists think of the Universe as an infinite space of stars, primordial gas and emptiness, while others thing of it as either an expanding mutli-dimensional ball or doughnout which may (or may not) some day contract. Instead, I would like to imagine the Universe as a Nintendo Wii, or a Smart Phone, or an iPad, or a Netbook where video games can be played. This intricate program that is “the Video Game of Life” is running in a physical system which is our Universe, and thus, the parallelism to consoles now makes sense.
But a game only matters when it is being played. And though we have now established that our Existence can be compared to a Video Game, and that our Universe can be compared to a Video Gaming Platform, then, who are the players? We all are. We all are playing the video game of life simultaneously.
Game Theory tries to study the behavior of things that can act through the viewpoint of the information they possess about the game, and their motives for playing the game, and, more recently, from the view point of their capacity to analyze the consequences of their actions. In essence, players who are able to make decisions play differently than players who aren’t able to make decisions (since Game Theory has been applied to Evolutionary Biology, let’s consider non-conscious living things as “players who aren’t able to make decisions”, but since they, nevertheless, exhibit behavior and have a clear definition of winning and losing: living to reproduce or dying before reproduction, then they can be analyzed by the Theory). Players who can make decisions either know their potential rewards or punishments or they don’t, and they either know the potential rewards or punishments of others, or they don’t, and they either can evaluate these rewards and punishments rationally or emotionally, and this quality of information available to them will determine the way they play (known as “strategies”).
Because our starting points in the Video Game of Life is different, and because the information that is available to us is different, and because our capacity to play the game is different from that of the rest of the players, we all play differently. But we all play, nonetheless.
Some people play to win, regardless of what “winning” does to others. Others, simply watch and observe how others play. A few will form coalitions and play the game with the purpose of simply improving their position by helping others do the same. What we must all remember when playing the game, but that we humans tend to forget often, is that we will inevitably die and, eventually, we will stop playing the game. But the game will go on, with other players in it. How we play can make the game harder or easier for the ones that will remain after us. More importantly, there is no set definition for “winning”. We should take a long time to think whether making others “lose” the game will really help us “win” by our standards. Because, if it won’t, then, why are we competing?
We all define “winning” differently, and thus, we all are willing to do different things to win. As I’ve said, some people will simply refuse to play and just watch how others play the game. That may be rewarding for them, but it won’t do much to advance their position in the game. Others define winning as advancing their position to a point that is in front of everyone else, or at the very least, closest to the front. Conversely, others define losing as being in a position that is close to the last position relative to other players. But we don’t decide in which position in the game we get to start, and, worse even, we don’t even start knowing the relative position of all other players. In fact, this knowledge may very well be unattainable, so why do some people define winning and losing in this way? It’s beyond me… Others define winning as simply advancing their absolute position, or their relative position compared to other players, and some less ambitious folks are happy by simply not falling behind.
And so, because we all define “winning” and “losing” differently, we all play differently. But this insight could be derived from the simple comparison of “life as a game”. What extra insight do we gain from comparing life to a Video Game? Well, in my opinion, the extra insight is not just that we all play differently, but also that we approach the game differently in our quest to “win”.
You see, the “programming code” upon which the game is built is unchangeable, and thus, those rules cannot be broken. However, on top of that, we humans have added extra rules on top of the game that we have agreed upon are necessary to play the game fairly. These rules may be laws, or moral codes, or contracts or conventions, and may be universally accepted, or simply accepted by some coalitions of humans (for example, some countries, tribes, or some associations or groups, some companies or simply a small group of people). We have rules that govern how we interact with our spouses and children, and our boss and co-workers, and our customers and suppliers, and complete strangers that share the same city with us, or the same country, or foreigners who share the World with us. If extraterrestrial intelligence is found one day, we may even create rules that govern fairness on our interactions with these aliens!
But these rules are 100% breakeable because they are our creation! Some rules are enforced by punishing (either with prison or fines, or with shame and social punishments) the people who break the rules, and other rules are enforced through vigilance (stopping people from breaking the rules before they have a chance). Other rules are simply good intentions and are unenforceable. The nature of the rules we add to the game and the enforcement mechanisms we design to make the rules work are studied by branches of Game Theory called “contract theory” and “mechanism design“.
Again, the insight that man-made rules are breakeable is not exclusively derived from the “life as a video game” comparison. However, the insight that the rules upon which the Universal game has been programmed are unbreakable is! We cannot hack into the game’s code and change the formulas that make the game function, but we can learn the formulas and use them to control or predict what the game will throw at us next. We can use Newton’s Theory of Universal Gravitation to predict where the planets and stars will be at any given time, and we can thus use this knowledge to predict the seasons and, to some degree, some factors that affect our weather. In fact, by using Newton’s Classical Mechanics and his Theory of Gravity, along with the Laws of Thermodynamics and other knowledge about the Universe, we can build spacecraft that can observe our planet from Space and actually see how the weather is evolving! These space machines that see our planet’s weather from orbit are called “weather satellites” and, though inexistent 50 years ago, are commonplace nowadays. And even though our current knowledge of the video game’s code is incomplete, it is now better than it has ever been before, and will continue to improve. (No, continuous improvement of scientific knowledge doesn’t mean that past knowledge is “wrong” and, thus, doesn’t mean that present knowledge is also wrong. For a deeper discussion on this issue, please read Isaac Asimov’s essay on “The Relativity of Wrong“).
Remember how I said that different people play the game differently, and how different people define “winning” differently, and how some people may be inclined to break the human-made rules that we use to play the game? The insight that the “life is a video game” comparison reveals is that there is an extra dimension to the game of life that most people disregard. You see, some very few people define “winning” by the measure of their understanding of the game’s code, which is written in math, but which can be used to produce outcomes and make predictions on future situations of the game we are all collectively playing. Academics are content with studying what others have discovered, and the more they memorize, the better for them. Researchers, however, push the boundaries of discovery and define “winning” by how much new knowledge about the game’s code they can uncover. Engineers are not very interested about discovering new knowledge (though they aren’t necessarily against it, either), but they are not content with “simply” memorizing the discoveries of others; they want to use those discoveries to “hack the game”. You see, yes, the programming code of the video game of life cannot be changed, but, if you know the rules, you can use them to your advantage!
Some gamers will often hack their video games, either by adding software or modifying the console on which they are playing, so that they have an edge over other gamers. Most commonly, video game hackers use their hacks to pirate the games, or to obtain in-game prizes without earning them, or simply to change the game’s dynamics so that it is easier to beat the game (a classic example of this is the game “Sim City”, which was easily hackable to give the player unlimited money, so that building a utopia would not require any effort).
In the same way that gamers hack their video games to pirate the game, or increase their status without earning it, or to have advantages that others don’t, we can also hack the video game of life to do the exact same things! Humanity was not born with a language, or with basic inventions such as writing, fire or the wheel. It took millions of years for proto-humans to advance to the point in the game where they had such basic inventions, and they played for millions of years without them. And yet, about 5 dozen millenia ago, our ancestors invented these hacks, and we haven’t renounced to them. In fact, we have advanced them! Today, we have electric lighting in our homes, automobiles and mobile phones, a Green Revolution that produced an economic system capable of feeding billions people, a Space Age that will make space tourism to orbit commercially viable as soon as next year, and an electronic revolution that has us near computers that can understand our natural languages. All of these hacks are possible because of two things: 1) Our ancestors have hacked the Universe before us and thus tweaking those hacks is progressively easier, and, more importantly, 2) We know more about the nature of the game’s programming code than ever before!
Our hacks allow us to live longer than ever. In fact, our median life expectancy is twice than that of a couple of centuries ago! It’s like we’ve pirated the game so we can play twice!
Our hacks allow us to inherit the knowledge and socio-economic position of our predecessors, so we are born with in-game prizes we didn’t earn.
Finally, our hacks allow us to change the game’s dynamics so that it is easier to advance our absolute and relative position. The more we know about the nature of food, the more food we can produce and with more nutritional value. The more we know about physics, chemistry, biology, economics, psychology and sociology, the more capable we are of living lives of greater material wealth, better health and improved well-being. In other words, the more sophisticated our hacks are, the more quickly we can progress our position in this video game of life!
But what’s really important to remember is that, the game is still a game. There are other players in it and, thus, our hacks not only improve our position, but will affect other players as well, and, sometimes, the effect will not be positive for them. Yes, the Green Revolution allowed an improvement in crop yields, diminishing food prices, but because we made this hack with such limited knowledge, we gained quantity of food at the expense of quality of food, hurting the poor’s future generations. Worse yet, by diminishing food prices, we have punished people who’s job is to grow food! We have created an incentive to stop people from feeding the world. Technological advances usually have these adverse effects built into them, and by implementing without thinking through the potential costs for others and the complete impact on the game’s circumstance, we may actually be attaining short-term gains at a long-term price. An example of the level of analysis that we need to perform before implementing a particular hack can be found in the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, which discusses the long-term costs and payoffs of preventing climate change compared to the costs and payoffs of “business as usual” industrial processes.
Thus, the most important insight of the “life is like a video game” analysis is that, even though we can hack the game to achieve our goals, the rules of the game are unchangeable, and, in the face of incomplete information, unforseen side-effects will always occur. Sometimes, these side-effects will be to the detriment or benefit of other players, and sometimes, all players, including ourselves, will be hurt or further improved.
What’s important to realize is that, even though most economists (particularly capitalist economists) treat economic situations as if they aren’t zero-sum games (because, most of the time, they, in fact, aren’t), the larger, universal, video game of life is a closed system. First of all, the fact that the game isn’t zero-sum doesn’t mean that the outcomes are necessarily positive. If everyone has an outcome of “-1”, the game’s overall outcome doesn’t sum to 0. It instead, sums to a very large negative number, which is a lot worse than zero! Thus, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the “non-zero sum” nature of our sub-games will necessarily mean that we will automatically have all players win. Yes, sometimes all players will win, but other times, all players will lose. Also, not all players may win by the same degree, and sometimes, a few players will have a marginal gain with most other players having a dramatic loss. All of these situations are “non-zero sum” and in most of them the overall collective payoff for all players is negative. In other words, it is a net-loss.
And because the closed-system nature of the universal game will have an effect on the payoffs of each player as the game progresses, we need to understand our Universe a lot better than we do now to calculate and predict the actual payoff of any collective strategy. It is because we don’t that industrialization may lead to depleted resources, and an abundance of food may lead to populations becoming extinct, and overall economic progress can signify widespread poverty crisises.
As I’ve studied Game Theory, even if I’ve only scratched the surface of it, I have learned that the most valuable asset any player can have is information. And even in games of so-called “Perfect Information” we are missing information on what the other players’ strategy will be! Yes, Game Theory can help us predict it, assuming all players are rational and have access to the same information, but those assumptions won’t guarantee that players will follow their best strategy. This movie scene illustrates what I’m talking about. The more information we have, the better we can play the game. And if life is like a video game, we must get as much information as possible on the nature of our universe’s programming, so we can maximize the utility of our hacks and produce even better results. No matter what kind of player you are, thus, the study of mathematics and the natural phenomena that the natural and social sciences study become a priority. Well, only if you want to win…