Improspectives

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Posts Tagged ‘gamification

Reasons for Playing Chess

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Chess is a rewarding but maddening game. You can build up an overwhelming position for the first 40 moves and then make a simple tactical error that lets your opponent back into the game or, in extreme and highly embarrassing cases, even win on the next move.

Interviewer: So, tell me…does throwing away a win hurt?

Curt: Yes. Yes it does.

You see golfers going crazy over their rounds, alternating between self-loathing over the short putts they missed and self-praise for the 150-yard shot that ended up a foot from the hole. I played golf occasionally for a few years and can testify to that effect. Some of my friends play 18 holes just so they can feel the satisfaction of hitting one good shot.

Some days they have to play 36 holes.

A golfer having a bad day still gets in some physical exercise. What about chess players? As with many endeavors, it depends on why you’re playing in the first place. You always get to exercise your brain and look over the consequences of your moves, which keeps you sharp and might fight off the effects of aging, but what else?

If you’re playing with someone who’s about your own strength, you get the benefit of an equal competition and, very likely, enough wins to keep things interesting. Playing someone stronger than you helps you learn and winning every so often helps keep you going. Playing a weaker player lets you win more often and teach the game, even if only indirectly.

What’s often overlooked is that chess can be a social game. If you play blitz chess, where players have to make all of their moves within three or five minutes, you can get in a lot of games and try many different types of positions. Playing a longer game lets you think more deeply, and playing without a clock lets you approach the game more casually.

You can also take time to analyze your game with your opponent. Serious players often try to identify the move where the winner got an advantage and what the loser missed. When done with a spirit of exploration and sharing, post-game analysis can be fun and helpful.

Chess as metaphor

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Games have long played a part in literature, representing a competition between humans or supernatural beings. Chess features prominently in many stories. The game’s intellectual nature lends itself to such depictions, with the idea being that if you can beat someone else at chess, you are the better man.

Other games, both real and invented, serve similar roles. For me, the best example is the game Azad from Iain M. Banks’ book The Player of Games. The game of Azad is a vast undertaking, with high-level matches often taking a month to play. There are several boards, a combination of team and individual play, and so many pieces as to nearly defy description.

In the story, the game was developed as a metaphor for the structure and values of the Empire of Azad. It was part pastime and part civil service exam. The Azadian home world held a tournament every so often, with the winner crowned emperor. The better you did in the tournament, the higher your position in the government.

The premise of the story is that another civilization, the Culture, sends its best game player to compete in the tournament. Banks was known for a political bent to his stories; The Player of Games is no exception. On its surface a simple diplomatic exchange, our player’s participation and continued success brings the conflict between the two civilizations and their values into sharper relief.

It’s telling that the Culture’s hero only starts to play at a high level when he takes on aspects of the Empire’s philosophy in his own play. Banks manages that conflict magnificently.

Chess is an abstract game with arbitrary but well-balanced rules that allow for a wide range of successful strategies and tactics. Though it doesn’t approach the (admittedly fictional) resolution of a game like Azad, it has long played a role as a metaphor for accomplishment and brilliance. As such, it provides a terrific instructional base.

Chess as a game (among many)

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Chess is often called “the queen of games”, at least in Western culture. The game’s austere appearance, when combined with its tactical and strategic depth, provides an air of challenge and mystery.

In many ways, chess is the prototypical Western game. Strategies and tactics are direct, with little progress to be made unless you directly confront your opponent. Chess is also a perfect information game, meaning there is no element of chance. You might not know your opponent’s next move, but there’s nothing hiding it from you. If you didn’t see what was coming, you can only blame yourself.

Although chess has increased in popularity in Asia, the traditional strategy game of Japan, China, and South Korea is go. Unlike chess, where the goal is to create a position where your opponent’s king is under attack and cannot move to a safe square, go players place their stones in an attempt to surround territory on the board. Chess boards are 8 x 8, with 64 squares, and the pieces stand on the squares. In go, the board has 19 x 19 lines, with 361 intersections, and players may place a stone on any unoccupied intersection (with a few exceptions).

The complexity of go far outstrips that of chess, at least in terms of the computation required to analyze and evaluate a position. Computers have conquered humans at chess…their calculating speed and positional evaluation let them beat even the strongest carbon-based players regularly. The most advanced go programs can only beat top professionals if they are given a substantial head start. That said, the gap is closing.

I said that chess is the prototypical Western game, but it’s mostly thought of as a European (and even more specifically, Russian) game. In America, the game of choice is poker. Poker is a gambling game, with a significant element of chance involved. You can do everything right but still lose if your opponent decides to fight the odds and draws the cards they need. Ironically, the better you play, the more of these “bad beat” stories you’ll have to tell. If you’re always in the lead, the luck of the draw means you will get chased down on occasion.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. But I am.

Do the Russians play chess, the Chinese play go, and the Americans play poker? If you look at our cultures and practices, you’ll see there’s a fair amount of truth to that statement. How well that metaphor translates to actionable intelligence is debatable, but it’s an interesting way to start a conversation.

Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.

The National Coin Flip Lottery

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On January 23, 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a paper citing income inequality as a threat to economic security in developed and developing countries. In part, they found that:

  • Income inequality has increased in both advanced and developing economies in recent decades.
  • There is growing evidence that high income inequality can be detrimental to achieving macroeconomic stability and growth.
  • Fiscal policy is the primary tool for governments to affect income distribution.

Unfortunately, the IMF declined to offer a solution, stating that “[t]his paper does not advocate any particular redistributive goal or policy instrument for fiscal redistribution.”

That’s where I come in.

Gettin’ Rich Ain’t Easy

Warren Buffett once remarked that if a person won $1 million flipping coins, he could sell a book entitled How to Make One Million Dollars Flipping Coins. His point is that some investors, regardless of how unskilled they are, will get lucky every now and then. We should not attribute everyone’s gains to great skill.

That said, there is a general pattern we can follow. People get rich by combining two abilities: making money and keeping money. The problem is that when you keep money it doesn’t flow through the system. Trickle-down economics in an age of hyper efficiency doesn’t work as well as it might. What we need is a low-impact system for wealth redistribution.

In the interest of creating up to 334 new millionaires every day, I propose a National Coin Flip Lottery. All 350 million Americans, regardless of age or income, must contribute one dollar per day to the lottery. We all need car insurance if we want to drive and we all need health insurance if we want to live, so this slight imposition is little more than an annoyance. If you have a Social Security number, you have to pony up.

Every morning at 5 AM Eastern time, a computer divides the database of American citizens into two groups: Heads and Tails. A representative flips a coin, probably a virtual coin because quarters come up heads slightly more often than tails, and eliminates the losers. The computer then randomly re-divides the population into halves and continues until we have 334 winners. That’s correct: after just 20 flips we will have 334 lucky millionaires.

The system collects $350 million every day, but the excess can fund lottery operations, reduce the national debt, and support a special lottery held every February 29. Let’s say we hold back $1 million of the $16 million excess from each drawing. There are 1,460 days between leap days, so we could give away enough money to create 1,460 new millionaires on that day alone.

Supporting the Public Interest

Just think about the positive social impact that creating 334 new millionaires every day could have on society. Yes, the less socially responsible winners would just blow their newfound riches and hope to win again, but quite a few of the lucky individuals will redistribute the wealth among their family and community. That level of liquidity would free up small-scale investments, provide competitive pressure for traditional lending institutions, and relieve poverty for a small percentage of the population every day.

It would be cruel for citizens to win 19 straight coin tosses and lose when they are on the cusp of being a millionaire. Therefore, I propose that individuals may enter a preference to split their prize at the $32,768 level or higher. If two individuals who are willing to split meet at a given level, they both automatically get the prize.

Given the raging expansion of gambling across the United States, with the quaint exceptions of Hawaii and Utah, this modest proposal fits comfortably into the American zeitgeist. Next February 29, join me in celebrating our new national holiday: Millionaires Day!

Review of The Humor Code

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Title: The Humor Code

Authors: Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-451-66541-3

Length: 256

Price: $26.00

Rating: 93%

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book through the NetGalley service.

The Humor Code, written by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, traces the pair’s global journey to investigate McGraw’s “Benign Violation” theory of humor. McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL). Warner is a professional journalist. Neither he nor McGraw had any significant performance experience, but they did have a taste for adventure that took them to some complex and potentially dangerous locales, such as remote Tanzania, Palestine, and Los Angeles. Neither author shied away from jumping into an unheated Peruvian military cargo plane with a load of clowns.

No, really—a planeload of clowns. More on that later.

Not Off to a Promising Start

When we first meet our heroes the Professor, sporting his signature sweater vest, is about to do a few minutes at a stand-up open mic night. The bad news is that the crowd is known to be tough and they’re expecting anatomy jokes. You probably won’t be surprised that the guy with the Ph. D. bombed in that environment. This expected and very forgivable failure is brought into sharper relief when you realize that the goal of the exercise is to help prepare McGraw for an appearance at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

Comedy is hard. Social interactions with comedians are exceptionally hard. A few pages after the introduction, the authors related how they took the wrong approach to their backstage meeting with Louis C. K. The comedian probably expected academic or thoughtful questions, but McGraw went straight for the anatomy joke, which probably conjured up bad fan interactions and led to an early exit. They were better than most amateurs in that they seemed to understand they’d crossed a line and it was time to leave, but what they didn’t get at that point in the narrative was the vulnerability required to step on stage and do Louis C. K.’s material. You have to be in the proper emotional place to get there as a performer; two guys interviewing a hungry comedian before a show and going all awkward fanboy will kill the mood immediately.

Theory of the Benign Violation

The given circumstances of the book are the authors’ attempts to investigate McGraw’s theory of the Benign Violation. I first learned about the theory from McGraw’s guest lecture for Dan Ariely’s online course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, presented through Coursera. The basic idea is that humor requires a certain level of discomfort. In this construct, a statement or concept can be:

Benign, which means minimal or no discomfort;

Violation, which maximizes discomfort by challenging deep convictions or evoking disgust;

Benign Violation, which involves enough discomfort to throw the listener off balance, but not enough to disgust or challenge deeply held beliefs.

McGraw argues that, once the listener is uncentered but not overly offended, the comedian can use exaggeration or another technique to twist the reality and generate laughter. It’s an eminently reasonable take on comedy in the English-speaking world, but the question is how well it would hold up internationally. Part of the answer could come from determining why people laugh in the first place.

Why Do We Laugh?

Nobody knows.

The Journey

To start, the authors sampled dishes from the U.S. comedy scene, including stand-up performances and an improvisational comedy workshop with an Upright Citizens Brigade teacher in L.A. I’ve been a professional improviser since 1993 (and, like McGraw, failed horribly at stand-up) and agree with the authors that stand-up and improv are two different worlds. Stand-up comedians go on stage by themselves and (mostly) deliver prepared material, but improvisers usually perform as part of a group, don’t have to carry the load themselves, and ego-involve the audience by using their suggestions.

As the authors note, improv classes often attract serial workshoppers who might have no hope of performing due to job or family demands or a debilitating lack of funny, but who enjoy the social experience:

Our UCB class lasts for hours, but the time flies. Improv is play, and it’s a lot of fun. Afterward, at a nearby coffee shop, the students seem ready to do it all again. “I love using another person to succeed or fail on stage,” one of them tells us. “It’s freeing,” says another. “It’s like therapy-light,” raves a third.

It’s not at all uncommon for participants in an improv workshop to go out for drinks afterward. I’ve certainly benefitted from the social aspects of improv and hope to do so for many more years.

From Boulder, L.A., and New York they went on to destinations including Japan, Scandinavia, Tanzania, and Peru. That last destination cast McGraw and Warner as clowns on a team led by Hunter “Patch” Adams (made famous by the movie starring Robin Williams). The team’s mission is to bring relief to a village in the Peruvian Amazon. McGraw started as a clown but transitioned to the role of civilian guide and overseer, as befitting his experience as an impartial observer of humor. Warner, the journalist, dug into his role as a clown…he is told and personally discovers that, when you put on the nose, you have permission to “go insane” in the sense that you become someone else.

That sentiment, of losing oneself in your clown character, echoes the thoughts of Keith Johnstone. Johnstone founded the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and invented Theatre Sports (the inspiration for ComedySportz, the organization I’ve performed with since 1996). In his classic book Impro, he described mask work as an opportunity to lose yourself in another entity. The pull can be so strong that everyone must agree to take their masks off when directed to do so. It’s a powerful technique and should not be attempted by beginners.

The Book as a Book

I enjoyed the progressive narrative, which chronicled the authors’ experiences and worked McGraw’s theories into the story’s flow. This approach stands in contrast to other recent participatory journalism titles I’ve reviewed, which alternate between the author’s experiences and history or theory. For example, Tower of Babel alternates between chapters about extreme language learners of the present day and the history of an Italian priest who was famous for his linguistic skills. Similarly, Moonwalking with Einstein alternates between the author’s preparation for and participation in the U.S. national memory competition and the history and practice of memorization. There’s nothing wrong with either framework, but I personally enjoyed a break from the strict alternating chapter approach.

I also appreciated the authors’ journey as human beings. Their work as part of the clown mission to the Amazon village came at the end of the arc that started in the developed world, continued through developing Africa, and ended in a subsistence-level community. Though they never explicitly stated that they understood at a visceral level where they’d gone wrong with Louis C. K., I bet they knew.

Conclusions

At the end of The Humor Code, McGraw goes on stage in Montreal and doesn’t bomb. I’ll leave the specifics of his solution as a surprise for when you read the book, but as a nerd who does comedy I appreciated how he solved the problem of presenting at a comedy festival without being an experienced comedian. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

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In addition to blogging here, writing books, and creating online training courses, I’m also the editor and lead reviewer for Technology and Society Book Reviews. Here’s my most recent review.

Title: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

Author: Paul Oyer

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-4221-9165-1

Length: 256

Price: $25.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating, written by Paul Oyer and published by Harvard Business Review Press, takes a friendly approach to teaching basic economic concepts. The book covers topics including search, signalling, selection, and network externalities, in an approachable and personal manner. Oyer tells the tale through his own experiences in online dating. As someone who met his wife through online dating, I found myself rooting for the balding economist trying to find love while going through an unhurried divorce.

Light-Hearted, but not Lightweight

Paul Oyer is a professor of economics at the Stanford graduate school of business, so he is used to explaining economics to graduate students. It’s not a simple undertaking to translate that knowledge into terms that can be understood by the general reader. Yes, I understand that anyone who would purchase a book published by Harvard Business Review Press is probably not your average reader, but the book’s title and in the author’s writing style make it clear that this is not a weighty academic tome. If you want one of those, see if you can find a copy of The Economics of Electronic Commerce by Choi, Stahl, and Whinston, which I reviewed on this site in 1998.

Online dating is an interesting process. You go to a site such as Match.com or OkCupid, fill out a profile or answer questions, and let the computer code running in the background show you who it thinks you might be compatible with. It’s a combination of many economic activities: advertising, search, signaling, and network effects among many others. And, just as economics is often called the “dismal science”, online dating can take on an air of despair when you’ve been at it for a while but haven’t found anyone to spend time with.

Of course, some of this frustration can be self-inflicted. On page 12, the author cites an online dating profile published by a graduate student in China:

Never married; master’s degree or more; not from Wuhan; no rural ID card; no only children; no smokers; no alcoholics; no gamblers; taller than 172 cm; more than a year of dating before marriage; sporty; parents are still together; annual salary over 50,000 yuan; between 26 and 32 years of age; willing to guarantee eating for dinners at home per week; at least two ex-girlfriends, but no more than four; no Virgos; no Capricorns.

I hate to say it, but I think the guy she’s looking for is already married.

Economics and the Online World

I’d imagine that most of my readers will be familiar with at least some of the economic concepts that Oyer discusses in this book. That said, even though I have spent quite a bit of time with the popular literature discussing the economics of online commerce, I learned a few things from reading his book and was reminded of quite a few more concepts that I hadn’t encountered for a while. I also like that the author summarizes the economic concepts that he discussed in each chapter with a series of takeaways at the end. He lists a key insight from economics, a valuable or important empirical finding by economists, how dating compares to the concept discussed in the chapter, and a bit of humorous dating advice that puts a button on the chapter. In the chapter on signaling, for example, he gives this dating advice: “If you want to prove you are rich, burn a big pile of money on the first date.”

I enjoyed the author’s take on economics through the lens of online dating. He writes in a familiar, personal style, and ties the economic concepts he wants to explain into his personal narrative seamlessly. I’m just guessing, but I bet his first draft was pretty good. His editor, Tim Sullivan, certainly helped bring the manuscript together into an enjoyable, coherent whole.

Conclusions

I recommend Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating to anyone who is interested in contemporary economics, either as a casual reader just digging into the subject or as a more experienced hand who would enjoy a good-natured review.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over twenty online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.