Friday, November 7, 2008

Slices and Dices

Today I want to get a little philosophical with you. The topic: Friedrich Nietzsche's perspectivist views on secular morality... ...nah, I'm just kidding, the topic will be randomness in games.

Firstly, I'll just come out and say that I do not believe in luck. I'm always surprised by how many intelligent people seem convinced that the dice gods will bring them victory if they roll the one that hasn't run out of luck yet. Probabilistic math makes sense and is readily testable, yet the human mind is extremely good at crafting stories and taking everything as some sort of sign. Sure it's surprising to roll snake-eyes three times in a row, but if you are a gamer and roll 2d6 a lot, this is very likely to happen to you at some point, and it is not because God did not judge you worthy to blow up that tank.

I've seen people play sub-optimally in Settlers because "3s always seem to come up more than 6s in our games." That's because you don't notice the 6s! Nobody cares when you roll a six, but when you roll a three for the second time in a row, everyone feels as though they have been betrayed by mathematics. This is why they sell a deck of all the combinations of 2d6: not to ensure that every number comes up the right amount, but so that when the opponent whines that there were too many threes, you can point at the deck and say authoritatively "no there were not!" Of course, as a casual game, this probabilistic fallacy is I think a large part of the game's wide success; When you lose, you can blame the dice, and there is no one keeping track to challenge your claims.

If you yourself are designing a game, please, please defer to the actual laws of probability, and not who seems to get "lucky" in your playtests. Believe in whichever dice gods you want in your spare time, but please try to keep gaming secular.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

All that aside, it's hard to say whether there is actually any such thing as random chance in games either. Einstein famously said "God does not play dice with the universe" (as well as a number of other amusing nuggets), and at the moment this appears to be false at least at the level of elementary particles, but can rolling a die be truly random?

Nothing on a computer is actually random as it is all procedurally generated, so can we really say that we can achieve something a computer can't simply by throwing a dotted cube? Neither result is predictable, yet both derive from a starting point via a set of rules and a sequence of operations, though obviously the rules and sequence of operations involved with moving a human arm are vastly more complex than those which a computer uses to manipulate a set of numbers. But doesn't it all come down to a set of rules and starting conditions leading to a deterministic outcome? Or is the real-world act of throwing a die in some way affected by truly-random outcomes at a subatomic level which create ripples of randomness that are not felt in the simpler computative mathematical operations? Hell, I don't know.

Have you ever notice how you can flip a coin and be reasonably unsure of which side will land face-up, but yet it's really difficult to shuffle two cards and not know which one is on top if you saw which was which beforehand? With so few cards, it becomes obvious which procedures you are applying to them to get a "random" value (put this one on the bottom; now put it on the top again), but with the coin I think there's enough stuff going on that it doesn't feel like a procedural operation anymore. So where does it slide over into actual randomness? Is a deck of ten cards suddenly enough to be random? If it could eventually be proven that throwing a die is in fact not random, then I find Einstein's choice of words ironic.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

And why are there rock-paper-scissors tournaments! Do these people have nothing better to do with their time?! ...Okay, that was unnecessarily harsh. I suppose it is probably the purest distillation of human competitive psychology, and there is something almost primal about the game (though it must only date back to a time after scissors were invented which was 1500 BC according to wikipedia). Granted there must be some psychology involved, and acting truly random is rather difficult (we tend to switch more than we should), yet this sort of guessing-game still feels pretty random to most people when we encounter it in a game and we still feel it an acceptable way to determine who picks where to eat lunch even though something like skill-at-tennis-playing usually wouldn't qualify someone to choose. What if your friend is the world champion at rock-paper-scissors and he likes haggis or something?


  1. Greetings!

    You don't know me and I only know 'of' you.

    Your mum used to teach me cello years and years ago when I was little (in Calgary), and my mum pointed me at this blog (as our mums keep in touch).

    My name is Timothy Hellum. I just thought I'd leave you a note from out of the blue. Good read here, although I'm afraid I know zip about games, really. My family and I live in the country outside Toronto by an hour, although my wife and I still commute to Toronto work each day.

    Anyway, thanks for posting and send greetings to your mum. I haven't seen her since I was, perhaps, 7-8 years old.

    Kind regards,


  2. Why thank you for the kind words!

    Hilary Hellum's sort of a household name. I'll tell my mum you said hi.