Every undergraduate in a science degree program has to develop some variant of Game of Life – in a programming 101 course. These – not very intelligent – life-forms on a checkerboard evolve by following very simple rules – ‘cell’ live or die, depending on its number of neighbors. The pattern is determined by the initial configuration on the board, so this is a deterministic universe. But this is not going to be a post on determinism or chaos.
As Wikipedia says, Game of Life has intrigued computer scientists, physicists, biologists, biochemists, economists, mathematicians, philosophers, generative scientists – so I hope I am addressing all my regular readers – if you are not sure about your tag, consider yourself a generative scientist.
[Voice from the future: This posts contains a bunch of broken links – please web.archive.org-ify them yourself!]
Of course this is a follow-up to our meandering cross-blog thread(s) on education and gamification:
David E. Storey’s initial post – Epic discussion on Dan Mullin’s blog – My random rants – Dan’s update on ludic fallacy. Parallel universes: Maurice’s series of posts on distant education and Michelle on education and credentials / belonging versus fitting in.
We have discussed the impact of game-like motivation in education and the corporate world – my favorite example is using your Klout score in grading (or in screening job applications). Dan has argued – based on Taleb’s The Black Swan that
“…teaching students that education, corporate culture, and life in general is a big game to be played by a certain set of rules, may impart precisely the wrong lesson. The fact of the matter is that there are few predictable rules, and believing otherwise will make one more vulnerable to the black swan phenomenon.”
I have wholeheartedly agreed with his hypothesis that gamification makes people concentrate on hacking the system. Corporate systems focusing on meeting the numbers can result in the development of a parallel universe: In this world employees are obsessed with (or are forced to) making some traffic light icons in their score cards go green – applying whatever arcane magic. Ironically, this game could be given priority over serving real customers right now even if the score card in theory measures customer-orientation.
This quote from the article on Klout-based grading (in a Social Media for Reporters class) adds a new perspective:
“How is that possibly fair to students who are struggling to raise this arbitrary number that’s contrived inside a black box? It’s fair because it transforms the class from a workshop on button-pushing to an exercise in hypothesis testing, strategy and critical thinking. Students — who often approach grades with calculating economy of effort — don’t know what they have to do to boost their Klout scores, so they are forced to design simple experiments, isolate variables, and generalize their findings.”
So debugging and hacking is the goal, and it is not assumed that the underlying rules are based on simple probabilities. It is probably like grading in a hands-on lab IT security hacker class. As much as I – as a ‘hacker’ – sympathize with this, I still feel uncomfortable – and I am not primarily concerned about grades; this is just a nice illustration.
David has introduced the archetypes of the Happy American Entrepreneur versus the Euro-Humanist, and I said I take the label Euro-Humanist as a badge of honor. I was reading Blaise Pascal at an age other teens were out to party – so I can’t deny my gloomy roots.
On the other hand I am a happy entrepreneur, at least since I ripped out my Borg implants.
Pondering about this apparent contradiction I came to the conclusion that this duality or tension I feel running through societies is not between happy gamers and gloomy deniers, but between genuine human beings and the systems they are components of. Humans turn to cellular automata. Some social systems have particular powers over individuals – we have discussed the Cult of Academia and the Cult of Corporate often – and systems can show emergent properties even if they are built on simple rules – such as the Game of Life.
I stick with the social media example even if it sounds trivial: The discrete nature of standardized (gamified) interaction on social media makes us act more bot-like:
I argue that what’s happening in Facebook and Twitter is the social production of patterns of discrete states of mind. That is, when we Tweet, fill in a profile, Like something, or comment, we’re contributing to aggregated datasets.
These limitations, coupled with the aggregated actions of millions of social media users, create a highly useful discrete-state machine: a machine I call the “social media confessional machine.”
So I conjecture that the introduction of gamified elements into ‘performance assessments’ is self-consistent with an evolutionary development of our digital society. Which does not mean that I like it.
- Our digital social interactions become more bot-like and thus easier to predict, measure and aggregate.
- Our real world becomes the digital world becomes a simplified Game of Life.
- Hacking the system and understanding its rules becomes the key competence – of students and young professionals.
In Daniel Suarez’s high-tech thrillers (Thanks postmoderndonkey, for the pointer) the real world is transformed and infiltrated by distributed AI. In the beginning the reader is lured into believing this is your typical hack-cybersecurity-thriller. However, the seemingly evil system actually hacks and transforms people. Members of the cult-like social network Darknet use sort of Google glasses on steroids that allow them to overlay virtual dimensions to reality. People get used to judge others on their votes and reputation. The interesting twist in the narrative is related to the blurring distinction between the good and the evil forces. But it is not a purely philosophical novel: If you don’t enjoy Bruce Willis’ action movies or like to read in detail about a hedge fund manager chipped into pieces by unmanned motor cycles equipped with rotating blades – don’t read it. Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
My theory is very simple and it is easy to puncture – I will do that myself.
I have started reading The Black Swan – thanks, Dan – and I will for sure get back to that book in several blog posts. It has hardly ever occurred to me that I wholeheartedly agreed with virtually any single statement in a book. Taleb is able to combine scholarly wisdom, Umberto-Eco-like knowledge of history (no wonder Taleb praises Eco in the first chapter), and slinging the corporate lingo in a virtuosic way while defying the logic of the ‘expert suits’.
Sorry, I digress. Taleb’s main hypothesis is that the history of humankind as well as our personal lives are strongly – if not solely – determined by the highly improbable and unpredictable. Our problem is not so much this uncertainly as the extent we deny it. No-nonsense experts in industrial control systems fully agree with his assessment, applied to so-called risk management methodologies – actually it was this book that pointed me to The Black Swan first.
In 2010 the business world as we know came to a halt in Europe when experts and politicians mitigated the risks of impact of Eyjafjallajökull’s volcanic ash cloud on airplane engines. The decisions taken by politicians were based on a computer simulation of the travelling cloud only. We live in a world that aims for perfect safety and security, under the illusion we can hedge all risks and make the probabilities associated with them exactly zero. Anybody who has ever worked under the surveillance, sorry: guidance, of total corporate quality management control [more buzz words] systems knows what I mean.
At the heart of gamification is our uneasiness with taking decisions on our on, highly subjective but bold, instead of relaying them to machinery. Better run the job application through the AI-style resumé checker than being accused of bias. Merge this with the superficial fun and the kick a game gives its players and you have a so-called win-win situation.
In a paradoxical way I predict that something unexpected will happen when the real world starts resembling the gamified overlay – and render my petty theory obsolete.
Probably a Cult of Resistance against Pervasive Technology and everyday gamification will arise. I have spotted a trend of people leaving Facebook or abandoning anything internet-y altogether. Or maybe technology itself will finally exhibit emergent characteristics of consciousness – but I think this is too clichéd and too much wished for counting as a Black Swan.
But if too many people like me start mocking gamification – probably the unexpected thing to happen is that the transformation will happen still, in exactly the way I have described it.
I am fully aware of remaining contradictions and unresolved points, but as Nassim Taleb I state that I prefer the opinionated essay, a personal narrative including inconsistencies, over scientific perfection (says me, the ‘scientist’).