The two-party game

So a lot of people wonder why the American political system is dominated by only two parties. I think I know the answer and it fundamentally comes down to game design. So, as a challenge to myself, I wondered if I could design a similar game where all the politics is abstracted and demonstrate that all first past the post systems would devolve into a two party situation. What follows is what I came up with.

First of all, this is primarily intended to be a simulation game, but I think it's possible for people to actually have fun playing it rather than just learning something. You'll need a large number of people: my guess is at least 20 for it be at all effective. I suppose the ideal setting would actually be a classroom or, perhaps, some sort of seminar. The game would take a little over an hour to play: six rounds of 10 minutes each plus some time for voter tabulation.

Each player is given a card with randomized issues on it. Each issue has a comment as to whether the player is for or against it, but no two players' cards are identical. The number of issues can be expanded to include as many players as decided simply by using the formula 2^x. For example, if there are 32 players, there would be 5 issues. The winner is the person who can elect leaders who most agree with his or her issues.

Each round starts with a 10 minute discussion period which can happen in any manner the players see fit. After the discussion period, the Game Master calls for nominations. Anyone can nominate anyone (including him or herself), but to be a valid candidate, they need a second. There is no limit to nominations (in theory, every player could be a candidate). When all nominations are gathered, everyone votes for one candidate to be president (ballots can be secret or public; I don't think it matters that much). The person with a plurality of votes becomes president (in case of a tie, the winner is decided randomly from the leading candidates). Each player then adds up their personal score based upon how many issues they agree with the president on. For instance, at the end of a round with 5 issues, each player has accumulated between 0-5 points, with the president being the only person to get the full 5 points.

A president can only be elected twice. The game is played in six rounds and the winner is the person who has accumulated the most points at the end of the final round.

I suspect that if this game were actually played, the first couple of rounds would be rather chaotic with a large number of candidates. Pretty soon, though, I'm guessing a few clever people will realize that by forming tight alliances, they can pass their personal agenda more effectively. Everyone else will then latch onto that strategy as well and soon only two broad coalitions will emerge by the end of the game. However, I don't know for sure and would love to see it played out.


This week is fired!

It's been nearly a year-and-a-half since I posted anything here. Part of that is because Facebook has taken up my posting (though I don't post much there either, any more) and part of that is because everyone seems to have migrated from Livejournal. I actually have a lot to write about right now, but, alas, time prohibits me from going into any detail. Still, there are a couple things I'd like to record for posterity and maybe I'll go into more detail at a later point. But this week...has of the!

It started with a horrific car accident. It ended (please let it end) with my roommate deciding to move out. In between, my Amazon account was hacked, my good shirts are lost somewhere on the Garden State Parkway, my contact lenses have disappeared to God knows where, and there's a possibility I have lymphoma. Yes, it's been a bad week.

But I'm going to Anonycon tomorrow and life will get better. I mean, it has to...right?

The Quest

So I'm talking on my blog about a LARP called "The Quest" and, weirdly, I'm not talking about a game at Wesleyan, Pomfret, or one our other traditional sites with my friends. No, I'm talking about the latest reality television series on ABC...and it's terrible. Now, in my opinion, all reality shows are LARPs, but this one removes all doubt.

Full Disclosure: I tried out for "The Quest" when they had an open casting call a little over a year ago and even got a callback, but never heard anything since then. I'm actually rooting for it. I want it to succeed because 1) I think it might invigorate LARPing as a whole and 2) I want to get on the second season because it looks like a hell of a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I don't think it will finish its first season on broadcast television let alone get a second one (here's hoping I'm wrong).

Of course, the part that I enjoy about LARPing is that I'm, you know, doing it. Watching other people LARP can be fun...but usually isn't. And so now I'm stuck at home watching other people have an adventure I should be on and it's painful. Worse yet, it's boring. The whole thing is a mess from start to finish.

First, let's take the cast. The most important part of any reality show, whether it's the "Real Housewives," "Master Chefs," or anything else, is the cast and this one sucks. For some reason, the producers decided not to take any gamers. Or, if there are gamers on the cast, they sure don't talk about it. They also don't act like any of the gamers that I know (which, granted, is a very small segment of society, but still) so I'm going to out on a limb and say they didn't really cast any. So instead of taking people who spend their spare time creating and playing in imaginary worlds, they took a bunch of people who don't know the first thing about a dungeon crawl. Maybe the producers thought real LARPers (I know plenty tried out) might out-think them...frankly, a real possibility. But these guys are just way too passive to be interesting.

Next, let's talk about the structural problems the show has. For one thing, I don't know any of the rules. Now, it's not as important that I, the viewer, know the rules as it is for the contestants. Nevertheless, the viewers still should have a general idea of what's going on, otherwise they have no way of evaluating what the players are doing. This was the great failure of "The Million Second Quiz" last year and I think it'll be a contributing factor to my predicted downfall "The Quest."

As for the's pretty blah. A big, evil, dark lord is threatening Ever Realm and it needs a brave hero to wield the magical sunspear or something. Not awful, but not very inspired either. I've been in worse games, but also many better ones. Still, staying true to the good ol' fashioned get the Maguffin to defeat the baddie isn't the worst idea they could have. The PCs are...themselves. Now I'll probably get disagreement from the Otherworlders, but I'm not a big fan of LARPs where there isn't any roleplaying per se. At least they have a sequence where they travel from this world to Ever Realm. A sequence with more exposition than anyone knows what to do with, but it's something, I guess.

The real issue I have is the method of elimination at the end. Going through your standard reality show challenge (firing ballistas at an army of straw men) wasn't so bad, but one member of the losing team is now in danger of being disintegrated or something. After discussing it, the other paladins (not the word I would have chosen, but it has some resonance with the twelve peers of Charlemagne so I won't give them too much grief for the nomenclature) then vote on who should stay. And this is the problem: the gaming incentives are directly opposed to the narrative. As a player, I want to eliminate my toughest competition, but that goes against the story where I want to keep the best paladin around to fight Mr. Evil Darklord. The result is that the show feels confused and it doesn't know what it wants to be: an epic battle where ordinary people face overwhelming odds or a more Survivoresque situation where alliances form to secure a contestant's position as winner. Either way is fine, but it can't be both.

Am I still going to watch it? You bet! Do I still want to be on it? Hell YEAH! The production values alone are nothing short of amazing! But I'm not looking forward to watching future episodes with any amount of excited anticipation.

An Open Letter to Speaker Boehner

Open letters seem to be all the rage this week, so here's mine:

Dear Speaker Boehner,

On Friday, you mentioned that the current government shut-down is "not a damn game." This is where I must strongly disagree with you, Mr. Speaker. The fact is, it is a game, and if you honestly don't believe that, then we're all worse off. Perhaps you are under the wrong impression that games are light-hearted diversions meant only for children. While it's true that some are, this is not a good definition of a game. One of the best definitions of a game comes from Greg Costikyan who states: "A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal." If that doesn't describe the United States government, I don't know what does.

Perhaps you are confused as to the point of the game. While the point of many games is to "have fun," that does not apply to all games. Sometimes the point of a game is to learn something, make money, or merely be social with others. What's the point of the game you're playing? It's actually mentioned at the very beginning of the rules manual, but let me re-state it for you: it's "in Order 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...." In my opinion, it's a very noble game, but a game, nonetheless.

Perhaps you think a game is strictly competitive in nature. This also is a common misconception about games, but not all games operate like this. There are many types of cooperative games, like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Dungeons & Dragons. All these examples give players an opportunity to work together to achieve a common goal. Believe it or not, politics works the same way. Yes, there is a zero-sum sub-game where only certain players have particular powers at any given time, but remember your ultimate goal: it's not to accumulate power, but to promote the general Welfare. If the American people are better off, even though you've personally lost prestige, influence, and power, then congratulations, you've won!

Of course, unlike many games, this particular game doesn't end. It will keep going long after you exit it, though how you play will certainly be talked about for some time. All games are about making decisions and the way I see it, you have a simple choice: stay the course, wrecking the economy and hurting millions of people, not to mention further damaging the reputation of the Republican Party OR allow a clean Continuing Resolution and convince your party to vote in favor of it to get the government operational again improving everyone's lives, including yours.

It's your turn: what's your move?

The Million Second Quiz

So after watching three episodes on consecutive nights (Lord, help me), I think I finally managed to infer the rules for "The Million Second Quiz." If the show isn't renewed for a second season, I think this may be why. It's not that it's very complicated; it's just that they never bother to explain what's going on. Even extensive searching on their website failed to illuminate the basic structure of the game. If people tune out, it's because they're confused and, frankly, I don't blame them.

So basically, a contestant earns $1 per a tenth of a second sitting in the "money chair." This means that if someone stayed there for all one million seconds they'd earn $10,000,000 plus a $2,000,000 which goes to the ultimate winner. Is NBC giving away $12,000,000? Of course not. You've won absolutely nothing until the end of the game and if you lose before then, you've lost everything, so the actual prize money is a mere fraction of that. Like the contestants on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" who haven't been eliminated yet, people seem very excited over the fictitious dollars they're generating. Granted, they're probably being coached, but I'd actually find it refreshing as a viewer to see a stone-faced contestant not show any enthusiasm until the whole shebang is over.

So how do you get in the money chair? I have no idea. There's line-jumper status, which implies there's some sort of line and the website gives times for prospective contestants to show up. But how they determine who goes next is still a mystery no one has bothered explaining yet. But it's running 24/7 for a million seconds anyway, so someone is always competing for the duration. It's a cute conceit, but I'm not sure what value this adds.

Alright, so you're now a challenger, how do you get to winners' row? There seem to be two methods: incredible endurance (ugh!) or facing one of the winners (eek!). Not that you have a choice as it seems to be mostly a matter of pure luck if you're selected to go up near prime-time or not (once again, I don't know the details of how the line works). If I could choose, I'd go with the latter. You're going to have to be answering trivia for at least 6 straight hours just to get into fourth place on the winners' row which sounds exhausting. I don't see the make-up of it changing all that much over the course of 11+ days, at least not from people we didn't see rise through the ranks in a slow, but steady way. If faced with the first method, it's just a slow rise, battling person after person and only pure trivia knowledge can earn you there. But if you're lucky enough to get to be on prime-time, then strategy starts to enter play.

I'm really hoping some stodgy academic did a critical analysis of the children's show "Double-Dare," because mechanically this appears to be the same. The only difference is the lack of a physical challenge and Mark Summers which proves that Nickelodeon had better programming in the 80's than NBC does today, but that's neither here nor there. I'm still figuring out the optimal strategy regarding doubling, but I think a large part has to do with just reading your opponent. The simplest, and safest, strategy is to never double and just trust that you simply know more. The genius of the doubling mechanic, however, is that one could literally know nothing and win the game just by bluffing his or her way through. Aside from doing nothing, I think the best deployment of the doubling strategy is to use it only if you suspect your opponent knows more than you. If it's an easy question and you double, you just gave your opponent bonus points as they'll obviously accept it. If it's a hard question, you risk a doubling back giving you a 1 in 4 chance assuming you're just guessing. This doesn't give you any advantage compared to just answering it normally, but if you can eliminate 1 or 2 of the wrong answers, I think doubling does give you a distinct advantage hoping your opponent doubles back and doesn't just answer the question himself. In any case, if you're down by a lot, just double every single question hoping to get lucky. Conversely, if you're ahead, never double and certainly don't double back, even if you don't know the answer. Better to diminish your lead and still win than giving your opponent a chance to win; even if they get it wrong, you'll just crush them which constitutes no advantage (in fact, it might be a disadvantage as other players become more wary of you).

It gets a little complicated once you make it on winners' row too. If you become the power player, you get to select who gets a chance to go back to the money chair. If you lose, you're out, but if you win, you can accumulate a little more. Basically, as long as you're in 4th place, always choose yourself, but if you're in first, there's little incentive to lose it all so just choose someone else. As to who, that's kind of a tough call: choosing your highest scoring opponent might be the only chance to get rid of him, but choosing a low-scoring one ensures that you won't be displaced as top dog. Ultimately, I don't think it really matters.

I think I made this sound more complicated than it actually is. There is some interesting strategy regarding the doubling feature, but mostly this is just an exhaustive (in multiple senses of the word) trivia game where breadth of knowledge trumps. Probably not worth a trip to New York to audition in the next week; luck is just too big a factor when my accuracy rate is only about 70%, though still a little tempting.

Chaos Theory and Narrative

I think everyone understands chaos theory at an intuitive level because everyone understands stories. Chaos theory is about systems that are sensitive to initial conditions. This isn't a new insight that was discovered only fifty years by Lorenz (though he applied a rigor that was previously lacking); it's been part of the human consciousness for eons. The poem "For Want of a Nail" goes back several centuries and is quite illustrative of the basic premise of Chaos theory. But most stories portray this theme on some level.

Most people almost take for granted that they're certain moments in life that seem small at first, but have huge ramifications later on. The insight that Lorenz had while studying the weather is that every moment is like this. The problem, I think, is that we're simply unable to connect the dots most of the time. When I say a butterfly flaps its wings causing a wildebeest in Africa to sneeze startling his neighbor who starts running causing the rest of the herd to follow suit kicking up a lot of dust in the atmosphere starting a circulation that gradually builds up speed as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean and develops from a tropical wave to a storm that eventually hits the east coast forcing you to open your umbrella, that's easy to follow because I just provided you with the chain of cause and effect. But as a practical matter, meteorologists are simply unable to foresee this very logical series of events because another butterfly in China just flapped its wings in the opposite direction counteracting the whole thing. The end result is nobody can predict the weather more than 10 days out and we throw our hands up in the air declaring the system inherently unpredictable and therefore chaotic.

But not every system is chaotic. A frictionless pendulum swinging in a vacuum in a universe devoid of all other material is very predictable. Yes, such a construct is a fiction, but the model works pretty well for simple pendulums in the real world too. The minor influences just don't have all that much of an effect. And I think that's how most of us live our lives: we're aware that they're inherently unpredictable, but for the most part the little things simply don't matter, or if they did, we can't see how they do.

And that's where stories come in. We seldom tell stories of the utterly predictable because they're boring. The art of the narrative is determining those moments that are truly chaotic where a minor action causes reverberations throughout existence. The thing is, we can usually only tell when those moments are in retrospect. It's nearly impossible to figure out which moments act as the butterfly and which act as the pendulum. Will picking up a penny on the sidewalk radically alter your life or make you exactly one cent richer in a moment that will be utterly forgotten in a week? If it's the latter the moment is stable. But if it's the former, this is the beginning of a great story. But then there's the third possibility where it's the former, but you're never able to trace the point of divergence to that particular moment. In any case, at the moment you pick up the penny, you don't know which it is.

I'm not sure I really have a point to all this, but hey, it's my blog and I can write pointless entries as it's my prerogative. But I see the tension between the psychological need craving stability yet also wanting to establish a pattern through narrative where none may actually exist. Did World War I happen because Franz Ferdinand's driver made a wrong turn or was it inevitable because political tensions in Europe had been mounting for decades? In an RPG, could a character unexpectedly discovering a magic item throw the whole plot in turmoil or will the GM ignore the potential ramifications and force things back on track by fiat? Will choosing between a pair of identical looking fortune cookies after a meal be a mundane experience or start a chain of events that will cause me to meet the love of my life which I would have missed had I chosen the other? Sometimes I think Ray Bradbury got it wrong in a "A Sound of Thunder" and the universe somehow heals itself of the minor alternatives as it heads toward some sort of convergence. But maybe that's just a defense mechanism to free myself from the terrifying responsibility that every moment is full of pregnant possibility.

I hate insomnia

For some reason, it's always the dead middle of the night when it becomes hardest to banish my darkest thoughts. I don't know if it's the stillness, the loneliness, the simple lack of light, or the powerful combination that causes my mind to turn to its deepest fears, but once started, it becomes nearly impossible to escape. On this night, I find myself preoccupied with death, which shouldn't be surprising considering it's the ninth anniversary of my father's death, I've just been to a wake, three of my good friends lost loved ones in the past couple of weeks, and even the cat I used to live with who is the closest thing I've ever had to a pet is dying.

Yet my brain is also in full narcissistic mode at this hour and I'm forced to consider my own eventual death. What if I have a heart attack right now and die during these contemplations? When would my fate be discovered? Max is away for the next few weeks, so I find myself utterly alone. No one would be overly surprised if they didn't see me in the next few days. The first test is a wedding this weekend and missing that would be a conspicuous absence to be sure, but would anyone really follow up on it? More days pass and my mother would surely be annoyed now that I haven't returned her phone calls, but how long would it be before she realizes something is amiss? My bedroom is far enough away that I doubt any odor would penetrate the neighbors' apartments. It could very well be up to three weeks before anyone finds my mortal remains. I suddenly become embarrassed for not having left my apartment in a better state of cleanliness for those who make the gruesome discovery.

I hear a slight, unidentifiable repeating noise and vaguely recall myths of deathwatch beetles who are harbingers of that undiscovered country and wonder if I am, in fact, listening to their mating call. I feel an odd pang on the left side of my chest and am unable to determine if it's psychosomatic or real, and if the latter, what it signifies. I make immediate resolutions to eat better and exercise more and curse myself for not already following a healthier regimen.

The rational part of me tries to assert itself that this is all in my head but I'm left with hollow comfort. An even darker part of my psyche reassures me that I can't die yet, for if I do, the universe will be unable to torture me anymore and somehow this twisted logic makes sense. Or perhaps, I am already dead, haunting my room with dread thoughts for an eternity. I get up and turn the air conditioner higher hoping that a cooler temperature will lure me back to sleep as I wait for morning which can't come fast enough.

The Rudest Awakening

So I just got back from Reunion and, as usual, it was a great weekend all around. The commencement speaker was Joss Whedon '87 who was both witty and brilliant and I expected no less (I saw him at various points around campus during the weekend, but he always seemed engaged in conversation so I didn't bother speaking to him personally this time). However, it wasn't entirely without its share of misadventure and it is that story which I am about to relate for your pleasure and to record for posterity.

I didn't get much sleep this weekend (about 14 hours or so over four days), yet somehow I managed to get second, third, and fourth winds just as I needed them. I registered with the university and they put me up in Clark, and I actually had a roommate this time around in the form of Mike Miller (seven years I'd been staying in the dorms, but somehow I always got a single until now). We were both night owls so it actually worked out pretty well as he ended up going back to Clark around 4:15 AM and I was only about 10 minutes or so behind. He was barely in bed as I quickly prepared to hit the hay myself as I did my nightly routine of removing my contacts and shutting the door, which I assumed to be like the other dormitories and lock automatically upon closing. And off to the land of dreams I went.

Around 5:45 AM someone was shaking me awake. I didn't know it was so early and my first thought was that I actually overslept and it was Mike urging me to get up so that I didn't miss Joss' speech. But since it was dark, I was legally blind, and had just come from a relatively deep sleep, it took a few seconds to realize it wasn't Mike at all. In fact, I had no idea who it was. However, I quickly assessed one fact about him: he was incredibly inebriated.

He spoke some slurred words and it was difficult to make out what exactly it was he said, though when my brain processed them they were perhaps the most frightening thing I could have heard. My best interpretation was: "Ya gotta get up. I need to take a piss." I'm still trying to get my bearings and as I'm wondering "What in God's name is happening right now?" the intruder starts removing his pants. Fortunately, about that point Mike was starting to wake up and had more presence of mind to shout at the stranger "Dude, the bathroom is down the hall to the left. Please leave and use that." The guy responds rather drunkenly that he's fine and he just needs to take a dump on my bed as he starts to sit down. I'm still too confused to respond in any capacity, but Mike is up and escorts our new friend out into the hall explaining that this isn't his room and as soon as he closes it he quickly locks the door which I have now learned doesn't automatically lock itself.

Unfortunately, his pants are still in the room and he begins knocking and we eventually realize he's not going away so we re-open the door so he can get his pants, though he still seems to believe this is his room. He claims his shoes are also inside, but after a quick search of my belongings I believe they are not around. Mike somehow restrains from punching the guy in the face and escorts him out a second time explaining we have nothing more of his and now hope he goes away.

I never saw him in the morning and don't know if he ever found his shoes or even if he remembers anything at all, but I'm pretty sure this was just about the worst wake-up call I've ever received.