Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Introduction to Heuristics

Why do we play D&D, or any other fantasy role-playing game?  Ask this question and nine times out of ten the answer that comes will reach for intangibles like "for fun" or "it challenges me."  Most of the remainder will answer the question with some description of how the character creation system provides inspiration or that the combat system is great - which is something akin to explaining that we like chess because the bishop moves diagonally.

Most people can't answer the question in truth because most people are not introspective in that way.  They have not examined their own lives to determine what emptiness that role-playing fills or why specifically their brains are built for this particular kind of "fun."  For some, it's apathy: they like the game, that is enough.  That's really just a cover, however: the fact is, on the whole we wouldn't know how to start being introspective.  We have no experience with it.

Let's take some time and examine that.

As I am on the spot for providing class material for teaching decision-making, I continue to research the subject (I do want to be better prepared than the student, yes?).  This leads me down all sorts of pathways - most recently, it has been heuristics - which some readers, no doubt, have run across in their internet travels.

The short explanation is given rather directly by the Wikipedia link.  Employing a heuristic is to make a decision using one's gut instincts - close to what I called "pattern recognition" in my book How to Run.  On one level, it suggests that having been around for a while, having achieved an age where we know not to put our hands on a hot stove or drive with our eyes closed, our judgement is at more or less sufficient to allow ourselves to make good guesses, at least about ourselves and our motivations.

On another level, however, we need to acknowledge that we've been duped quite a few times in our lives, to the point where we also know to occasionally second-guess our instincts - because, as Nick Hornby's character Rob Fleming says in the book High Fidelity, our guts have shit for brains.

It is somewhere between these two extremes, in getting to know ourselves and trust ourselves, learning how to restrain ourselves and police ourselves, that introspection occurs.  Thankfully, we're not usually on our own, here (though some of us are).  Society has at least tried to set us up with parents, instructors, written material and art in an attempt to show us the right path.  Of course, we're still responsible for walking it.

To explain how this works, I'll co-opt a sports analogy.  I like to use sports to explain games because experiences tend to be universal, widespread and easily understood.  I usually turn to baseball, because a lot of my readers are American, but this time around I'll use hockey.

Hockey is a game of momentum.  For those who play seriously, the age of introduction is usually three or four.  Most small children haven't the ankle strength at that age to skate well, but balance is critical to the game and starting kids early will help them adjust to the difficulties of standing and moving on blades of metal that will sustain them when they learn how to move.

As I remember, somewhere around eight or nine years of age, we began to realize that a pair of skates will transform the body into a fairly efficient projectile, particularly when used against other eight or nine year-old children.  Coaches know this, which is why the most common thing shouted from the sidelines is, "Pick up your feet!"  As most children of this age are still clumsy, particularly in the use of sticks while packed in thirty pounds of padding and armor, most opportunities for scoring happen when all these little projectiles smash together in the vicinity of the goal crease.

The choice to pick up one's feet comes from trusting the coach or having the personal will to enter combat, for whatever reason; but of course there are many who will not pick up their feet and dream only of never having to play this game again.  This was not me; I was an angry rink-hornet who spent many thousands of minutes in penalty boxes, as the gentle reader should expect.

The key word in the above passage is trusting . . . because once we dig in and pick up our feet as we are told to do, making things happen, we acquire experience at how things happen each time until we're ready to say, with conviction, that we know what will happen when we rush the opposition this way or that way.  The lesson is to get moving; the knowledge comes from repeating the lesson often enough make educated guesses that count.

Most of us have not had the benefit of a lesson where it comes to RPGs - because we began with a limited set of mentors or a data set that could be mined effectively in order to produce a reasoned result.  We have what is called an "availability" heuristic or "representative" heuristic - both of which are mental shortcuts that side-step an investigative analysis.

An Availability heuristic is to make a decision based upon the some recent experience that we have only just obtained.  For example, because the fighter that we were running in last night's game failed to overcome the monster in question, then died, we come to the conclusion that our next character is definitely not going to be a fighter.  In a wider sense, upon discovering that Wizards of the Coast is thinking about releasing a 6th edition of D&D, our perception of the value of 5th edition is immediately challenged, making us wonder if the edition we're playing now is really the best possible edition that there can be.  With new available information that comes to light in the short term, our perception and our judgement is put into question, particularly if that judgement has always been based upon whatever most recently available information that was available.

It is as if the player, having responded to the coach, must now again wait for the coach to shout something else before taking action.  The player is not self-motivated and therefore not self-dependent . . . and any information that may happen to make itself available will in turn become a threat to the player's equanimity.

A Representative heuristic seeks to make a decision based upon a template that - supposedly - accurately describes what a given thing in.  For example, having grown up hearing a man's voice shouting advice from the sidelines, it is presumed that all coaches must be men, as all representative coaches from the player's childhood were, in fact, men.  In a wider sense, it is to argue that since the original game of D&D possessed very few rules, whatever the reason for that, all correct and effective game versions of D&D must also be lean on rules because that's the "norm."

It is as if the player, having learned how to skate as a child without learning to crossover, insists that crossovers are either unnecessary or inappropriate to effective skating.  As a child, crossovers feel weird and difficult, but there is simply no way to improve one's skating without adapting to the change.

Online, we see these heuristics employed as arguments all the time.  Both, in their own ways, resist change - and are used as "common sense" arguments, which is to say that they are so obvious that they don't need proof or evidence.

Understanding our personal motivation for playing these games begin by rooting out these heuristics from our lexicon and recognizing that both dissuade us from making sound, rational decisions in our game-playing.  When I pick this up again in the next post, I will try to explain how heuristics can also be positive and effective strategies in role-play.

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