Games people play
I’ve gotten interested in games as a way of understanding some of the things that fascinate me. Politics. Economics. Personal interactions. The list goes on.
What is a game? I started by looking for a good definition. Wikipedia had lots. And they were fine. But none of them suited me. So I made up one that I liked. Because I can. You got a problem with that?
So here’s the definition of “game” that I’ll be using. When I say “game” I mean this:
A game is an activity, defined by a set of rules, in which participants interact with one another and with the environment and produce quantifiable outcomes.
On this definition, football, baseball, and other sports are games; so are chess, checkers, and poker. Even activities with a single participant—like solitaire—meet the definition.
Let’s go bigger. An economy is a game, intertwined with other games—for example, every economy is intertwined with a political system. And every economy or economic segment is intertwined with other economies and segments. And each of these games is composed of internal sub-games.
The aggregate of all economies is a game, which is embedded in a set of still larger games.
The biggest game I can name is the physical universe. We are al participants. It has a set of rules, known as the laws of physics. Until recently they were not known to the participants—at least the ones who play where I play. And for all practical purposes, they are not known—or even necessary—to the participants. But my definition of a game doesn’t say anything about participants knowing the rules. There just need to be participants and rules.
Most of the participants in the physical universe game are not conscious,. But my definition does not require that participants be conscious. Participants participate. They don’t have to be aware of participation.
Within the game of the physical universe is a game called “the game of life.” Within that game is the game of life on earth. It’s possible that the only place in the universe where the game of life is played is this little planet. It seems unlikely, but it’s possible. What’s certain is that we play it here. I like it.
What are the quantifiable outcomes of the game of life, economics, politics and more? We’ll come to those in due time. Be patience, grasshoppers.
Let’s consider a game called Nomic. I found it by searching for “games where you can change the rules.” Technically, you can change the rules in almost all games. For example, the rules of chess are set by FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs), the international governing body for chess. They haven’t changed rules in a while, but in theory, they can do it tomorrow.
Nomic is a game to explore changing the rules of the game while playing it. It was created in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber.
Here’s how it works. You get a bunch of people together who agree to follow the default initial Nomic ruleset—or some similar set of rules. A good ruleset for a nomic-like game would contain all of the rules for playing the game, including the rules for keeping score, for winning, and, importantly, the rules for changing the rules.
The winner of a game, according to Rule 208 in the default initial ruleset, is “the first player to achieve 100 (positive) points.” But that’s just a rule, and that can be changed—but only according to the rules for adding, modifying, and deleting rules. The winner could be the first person to get to 200 points. Or it could be the second person to get there. Any modification that’s consistent with the rules for making changes is a valid modification.
The initial rules tell how a player gets points. The rules of nomic don’t define the number system to be used, so technically 100 could be binary. Nor do they include the rules of integer arithmetic which are required to add to one’s score. Nor does it include the rules that would tell you the criteria for deciding when a player’s score met the criteria for “having achieved 100 (positive) points.” These rules could be added, for clarity, if the players cared to do so. I wouldn’t bother.
A game of Nomic is played in rounds, as described in the rules. On each around the person whose turn has come (as described…) proposes a change in the rules. The players discuss the change and vote to accept the proposal or not. There are rules for voting, of course. And players may get points according to whether the rule is accepted and how they voted. Then the person whose turn it is throws a die which gives a number of additional points to be added to their score, even though the rules for addition are undefined and only inferred.
The rules further specify that some of the initial rules are immutable, and some are mutable. An immutable rule cannot be changed. But it can be “transformed” into a mutable rule, and once it is made mutable, it can be changed. To transform a rule requires unanimous agreement. (Rule 109) A simple majority can create a new (mutable) rule or modify an existing mutable rule or repeal a mutable rule. But until the second complete round, it takes unanimity and not a simple majority (Rule 203) unless Rule 203 is amended. And so on.
For a simple example of how this might work, consider Rule 208 which says: “The winner is the first player to achieve 100 (positive) points.” Suppose you have reached 97 points, and the rest of us have no more than 50, and it’s my turn. I might propose to amend Rule 208 to read “The winner is the first player to achieve 150 (positive) points.” If you want to win, you might vote against that rule, and the other players might vote for it. But Rule 204 says “If and when rule-changes can be adopted without unanimity, the players who vote against winning proposals shall receive 10 points each.” So you’d get 10 points for voting against. But since Rule 205 says “An adopted rule-change takes full effect at the moment of the completion of the vote that adopted it,” the goalpost gets moved before you get the extra ten points. So haha you don’t win!
But if everyone was sick of playing, or felt it that my proposal to change the criteria was something like cheating they might vote my change down. Of course, it wouldn’t be cheating. No cheating is possible. It’s just exploitation of the rules to achieve the desired end.
Is cheating possible in Nomic? That’s a philosophical question. Technically, anything that is allowed by the rules, however “unfair” you might consider it, even if you feel it “violates the spirit of the game” would not be cheating. If I figure out a way to win that goes against your idea “the spirit of the game” then haha I win. You can bitch about it. I can laugh at you. We can change the rules so I can’t do that next time. Or you can refuse to play with me. We have options in Nomic. But not in some other games.
What about moves that are not covered by the rule set? For example, suppose you decided that the best way to win is to insert electrodes in the brains of other players to make them vote the way that you want. I don’t see a rule in Nomic against that, so from a “strict constructionist” point of view, it’s fine. But Nomic is played in the context of national or international law, and I think that putting electrodes in someone’s head without permission might get you thrown in jail. But you could still win. There doesn’t seem to be a rule that disqualifies you if you’re in jail.
Suppose you hypnotize some of the other players so you win. There’s no law against hypnotizing people. And it doesn’t violate the laws of Nomic. So does that make it cheating?
Or supposing you manipulate them? Is that cheating. We’ll see how this is a problem in some other games.
Rules might be ambiguous or in conflict with one another, but that’s not a problem. Nomic has rules (which can be modified, of course) for resolving such situations. Just like a legal system.
The analogies between playing Nomic, and manipulating a legislative and legal system, are pretty obvious. In fact, the name Nomic comes from νόμος (nomos), Greek for “law”.
Nomic reveals some serious, and perhaps intractable problems in any system of law. At the object level, the goal of playing Nomic is to win—by reaching 100 points or as otherwise defined. At a meta-level, the goal is to have fun playing nomic.
The rules let you change the object level goal, and that’s relatively straightforward. There are no rules for quantifying the meta-level goal, but it could be quantified, and it matters. On the meta-level, the other players might change the rules so that they have more fun. But more fun for them might be less fun for you. If your meta-level goal becomes unobtainable, you might choose to quit the game. Assuming they don’t want you to quit, they will try to make the game fun. Or you’ll quit.
And you can quit. It’s in the rules. Rule 113 says you can forfeit. And it also says no penalty worse than losing can be incurred if you forfeit. That’s an important rule. It means that if you quit that the other players can’t, for example, beat the shit out of you. Because losing and getting the shit beat of you would probably be worse than losing and would violate Rule 113.
But Rule 113 is just a rule. It can be modified so that you can’t quit, or you can quit and get the shit beat out of you. That would be no fun. Fortunately, Rule 113 is immutable. That means that it can’t be changed to mutable without unanimity. I don’t know about you, but I’d veto any proposal to make Rule 113 mutable on the off chance that a simple majority of fellow-players would want to beat the shit out of me if I quit.
The game of life (within the game of the physical universe) has its own rules. It’s fun for many of us, You can quit, but according to the rules of the game, if you quit, you’re dead. You can’t just sit and watch. Seems harsh. I’m not sure I would have voted for it. But those are the rules.
For most of the history of the universe, all of the rules of the games were unknown to participants. Even now most are unknown—even to the few conscious participants. The underlying laws of physics are immutable (as far as we know) and many of the rules of life may also be immutable—even with a majority vote.
Human knowledge has turned many previously unknown rules into known rules. And many rules that were thought to be immutable have now become mutable. The rules of the game of life are changing, according to the rules of the game of life for changing the rules.
The game of American government (within the game of life) has its own rules—including rules for changing the rules. There are immutable rules based on the immutable rules of physics and mathematics. There are rules derived from the known and unknown rules of life. Many of the rules of government are written down, but there are so many rules that for no one knows them all.
The rules of government are there for a purpose—not just so that lawmakers can have fun. In the case of the United States Federal government, it’s said to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The rules for what can be done and not done, and how to interpret ambiguities and for deciding what these things mean are embedded in the initial rules and in the rules that have been modified and added. The rules that govern the legislative system (making new rules) and the judicial system (deciding if rules are consistent and how to apply them) continue to be modified. There are rules for changing all those rules, and none of the rules are immutable. Some require a simple majority of eligible voters others require more. Few, if any, require unanimity.
In some extreme cases there just nine eligible voters who decide on rules that affect 300 million people. Some rule additions and changes require a supermajority of a small number of eligible voters. Many of the definitions of eligibility can be changed by a simple majority of eligible voters.
A system of government is a game. You can play the game. You can also game the system. That’s a problem
We can learn a lot by comparing government, politics, economics, law with other, simpler games. Nomic is a rich enough game to help us understand that a system that lets you change the rules might be “gamed” to undermine what most people would agree was its “spirit” and “intent” even while everything that was done was according to the rules.