Care and feeding of the soul – game theory and forgiveness

Last time, I spoke about the importance of the soul and why you should care about it.  Now, let’s talk about how you should react when pettiness comes at you.  This is on a personal level.  Societial level still needs other levels.  But you could do worse than below.  It applies to any direct interaction you might have with another person, SCA or otherwise.

One of my great loves is Classical History and part of that is moral philosophy.  None of that fancy German stuff for me.  Aristotle, Plato, Epicurius.  Technically, I have elements of both Stoic and Epicurean philosophy at my core with a good bit of Aristotlean ethics.  That said, there are solid non philosophical reasons to behave a certain way.  Here is a good example.

Let’s explore a variant of the prisoner’s dilemma.  This is a game theory thought experiment.  And this flash game by Nicky Case does a wonderful job of demonstrating behaviors.


For those who don’t want to trust the link, here is the summary.  Imagine a machine.  You and another person have the option of putting a coin in the machine.  If you each do (i.e. cooperate), you both get 3 coins back.  If one of you doesn’t put in a coin (i.e. cheat), the other gets 3 coins and you get nothing and lose the one coin you put in.  If neither of you put in a coin (both cheat or refuse to play), neither of you get any coins.  For this experiment, don’t worry about where the extra coins are coming from.

So how should you approach this game?  The most advantageous method for you is to cheat.  If you cheat, you lose nothing but gain 3 coins.  And in a world where there is no consequence, maybe that is what you should do.  But this game tries to simulate real life.  There are consequences, even if they are just social consequences (I would argue that social consequences are probably more important than legal ones).   The game goes on.   Let’s define some types of people you might play against.  These people have their own motives.  There is the copycat.  The copycat starts by cooperating then does whatever you did last turn.   The next guy is a cheater.  He always cheats.  The next guy is a nice guy.  He always cooperates. The next guy is a grudger.  He cooperates until you cheat then he cheats all the time after that.  The last is a the detective.  He tries to figure out what you are.  He cooperates, cheats, cooperates then cooperates.  If you cheat anytime in that, he goes copycat after the sequence.  If not, he cheats believing you to be a nice guy.

The flash lets you then play these characters against each other in a tournament.   And guess who wins?  The cheaters eliminate the nice guys by taking advantage of them.  Then the copycats eliminate the cheats by punishing them.  So what is the life lesson in that?   Cooperate until someone does you wrong then retaliate.  Is that the kind of world you want to live in?  That is the world it SEEMS we have gotten to.  Especially online.  I will play nice until someone says something mean, outrageous, or dangerously wrong.  Then I will cut them down to show everyone how great I am.  Trouble is, the other guy is also a copycat.  He is going to try to tear you down.  Each side engages in an arms race until no one wants to participate anymore.

You can play around with popluations and how many times the characters play each other.  If you only play a few times, it is better to cheat.  Online too, right?  You don’t know these people (or don’t care about them) so it is better to flame war from the start.  But the moment the tournament goes above 5, the moment when you have to interact for a moderate to a large amount of time, the cheaters lose.

You can play around with the values for “cooperating” and for “cheating”.” If the cheating reward is one less, nice guys and copycats win.  If the cooperative reward, is one less, the cheaters win.  But in a “normal”(where cooperating is worth one less than cheating) game, the copycat wins.  But still is retaliation the answer?  Because there are other motives than deliberating cheating.

Oftentimes, the “cheating” is a mistake.  It is a word spoken in anger.  It is a misunderstanding.  It is a miscommunication.  It is someone walking away because of another situation.  It isn’t a deliberate insult or “troll bait”.  What happens then?  Well, in the base game, a mistake is punished at the same level as a deliberate cheat.  An vicious cycle ensues.

So the game introduces a 5% chance of a mistake.  Any character regardless of their programming might “cheat” 5% of the time by mistake.  And we will throw in some new players.  Copykitten will forgive one mistake.  That is, he only cheats back if you cheat twice in a row.  The simpleton will start with a cooperate.  If you cooperate, he will do the same thing it did last time, even if he made a mistake.  If you cheat, he will do the opposite of what he did last time, regardless of what it was.  And random will do whatever.  He is random.

In a world with mistakes, the Simpleton wins because he exploit the nice guy.  But let’s make a mean world with some copykittens. Copykittens and copycats wins.  The forgiveness that the copykitten brings allows for people to get out of the cycle.  There is a limit to mistakes though.  Above 10% mistakes, the cheaters win.  At 50% mistakes, no one wins at all.

So that is the game part.  How does this fit into real life?  What should we do?  How should we act?

The game shows us that when mistakes are few, we should forgive.  That is the best policy outside of morality or philosophy.  But most philosophies tell us we should always forgive?  Can that be right?  Well the game shows us that without any forgiveness, all you get is a vicious cycle.  It doesn’t matter why the other person interacted poorly with you.  A world without forgiveness means that retaliation is always the right choice.  It is the viper in the breast even if no one ever cheats, mistake or not.

But mistakes are going to happen.  Your best option is to forgive the slight, not assume the worst motive, and continue interacting.

The game author tells a story about the Christmas Truce in 1914 during WWI.  The Allied troops and the German troops were told not to interact with each other.  The truce was called and many groups, independently, decided to cross no-man’s land and interact with each other.  They gambled, celebrated the season, whatever people might do.  They didn’t shoot each other.

We will be interacting with each other.  We might not like each other but that doesn’t enter into it.  The game theory doesn’t posit whether you LIKE the other person; just that you must interact with them.  The best choice is to be a participant, cooperate, and forgive as long as it not a constant condition.  That is the world I would prefer to live in.



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