Posts Tagged psychology

Economic Epiphany

(An epiphany about economics, not an affordable epiphany.)

As I was thinking about some of the discussions I have about government, markets and utility with Lee, Max and others of my libertarian friends, I was trying to resolve in my head how I believe systems built on top of people should handle externalities. This led me to thinking, “what is an externality, exactly?”

I think of externalities as side-effects of otherwise normal transactions. If you and I make a deal about something, generally speaking we affect each other and probably the good/service in question (since we transacting about it). But many times, as an unexpected, unintended or ignored consequence, others not involved in our deal become affected. Generally speaking, you are I aren’t concerned with those people – we are making the deal for ourselves. Even if I’m particularly magnanimous and include other people’s happiness in assessments of my wants and needs (i.e. what I would be making deals about), there will potentially be folk affected I didn’t include.

The core problem is not that “external” parties are affected, but that we don’t factor that into our calculations. And that led me to these parallel conclusions – what libertarians see wrong with government and what I (and many other liberals/government-supporters) see wrong with regulation-free market agents is actually very close to the same probem!

  • Government folk who represent folk are insulated from those folk. They are not incentivized to care about those folk, and therefore (by default) they act in accordance with their own regular interests (power/happiness/what-have-you), or those interests who do properly incentivize them (lobbyists, reelection donors, etc.)
  • Free market folk who provide products/service to those who want them and can pay are insulated from the folk who the product/service could impact as a side-effect. They are not incentivized to care about those folk, and therefore (by default) they act in accordance with their own regular interests (profit), or those interests who do properly incentive them (one could argue the customers who are not affected by these externality costs, because they are deriving benefit without paying as many costs themselves, and so it’s a good deal for them, naturally incentivizing them to incentivize the provider and so on).

I hope I communicated my thoughts here in a way that makes sense. They aren’t the same, clearly, but they seem more parallel than I had originally expected.

It’s interesting (as a psychological quirk, or indicative of my mindspace) that I basically extended this idea to game design immediately in terms of designing the right incentives: games are in essence structures that incentivize potential players to take into account indirect consequences (effects on a game board, as opposed to e.g. dollars or happiness) for their direct actions (their own interaction with the game) that in turn leads to direct reward (fun) – a method that directs them to incorporate “externalities” into their mind-model.

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Philosophy of Mixology

Tonight I’m co-hosting a party with the amazing Paul Barclay and Erin Alexander, whereby they will make delicious tapas-style food and I will recommend and mix drink pairings for guests. It’s super exciting, and I am woefully underprepared! Just now I am sitting down to take a look at the menu (this stuff looks frickin’ delicious) and wondering about:

  • whether I’ll have access to the appropriate mixers
  • whether I should be pre-determining components rather than full drinks, to better suggest a pairing for the individual
  • what sort of drinkers will be at the party (I’m best at hard liquor mixing, pretty bad at recommending beers and wines)

My general philosophy with mixing drinks for friends is to ask simple questions that help determine taste. For example, do you like drinks on the fruitier side? Or more “fresh”/”clean” tasting (like a martini)? Using a series of these questions (usually no more than three), I can find a tasty drink for the person. Doing pairings will be trickier, since I want to recommend a good drink to go with the dish but I don’t want to be giving tequila-based stuff to a rum drinker. Haven’t quite cracked that chestnut yet.

One thing I know for sure – after about two drinks, everyone’s going to love the third, so that takes the pressure off. :) Also, I’ll probably be taste-testing my creations, so I’m sure I’ll de-stress pretty quickly too! 😮

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On Certainty

I’ve been giving thought to the idea of certainty and how it affects one’s life. In my opinion, certainty is like faith – if you have it, it’s because you believe something so strongly that no doubt remains in your mind. My scientific mind rebels at this, the skeptic in me screaming that you can never KNOW enough to prove beyond doubt using only the evidence of your eyes and your experience. So I remain uncertain, unwilling to commit to only one of many possible outcomes whenever there is even a shadow of a doubt.

There is a hidden cost to uncertainty, though, and that’s insecurity. When you are certain you are doing the right thing, or when you are certain in some aspect of your own future, you are confident and untroubled. Even new information fits into the framework of your certainty, and your faith can remain unshaken. When you are uncertain about your choices and your future, you doubt yourself and wonder how many things lie outside your control or ability to influence. Every new piece of information can trigger a staggering amount of reevaluation and that’s no recipe for confidence.

Is there a middle ground? I wonder about people who “want to believe” – is the desire to have certainty enough to inspire confidence? I feel this way about free will – as many folk I have talked to say, you either have faith in it, or you must live your life like you do, in a “fake it ’til you make it” kind of way. How dishonest is it to fool yourself into certainty? Even if it’s effective, is it worth the cost to open-mindedness?

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Would You Rather, Championship Edition

Thursday, November 4, 2010
Would you rather be wealthy and ugly, wise and sickly, or beautiful and stupid?

I refer to this as “championship edition” because my friends Mick, Sam, Sarah and Brian would often play the classic party game Apples to Apples by divvying up all of the submitted words into pairs and then evaluating the pairs against each other (and the goal word) in a tag-team championship type battle.  Anyway, as for the actual would-you-rather question, I found I had an answer immediately to this, but I wanted to explore my thoughts on the matter more deeply.

Being weathly means, essentially, having a great deal more (and better) opportunities in life.  Rich people are able to do what they want, when they want, within certain bounds, and those bounds expand if you are willing to plan ahead.  Convenience and removal of financial fears are certainly useful, but to me they are not essential – I feel like I am capable, through the exercise of my will and my intellect, to achieve however close to wealthiness I desire in my lifetime.  Having it magically granted to me (at cost, we’ll talk about that in a sec) doesn’t seem like huge upside – and I admit, I might be overestimating my own abilities or taking for granted the wonderful position I have in life to be able to say the above statement of capability.  As for ugliness, although I don’t think this is as harsh a penalty as it appears (har har), it would be annoying to have the aforementioned opportunities opened up by wealth to be closed by people who care a great deal about looks.  I am not the most beautiful in the world, but I would also not be okay with being in the lower ugliness levels, just because of existing bias in our culture.

Beautiful and stupid is kind of the flip side of that coin – I think being beautiful (handsome?) would open up a lot of doors and grant a wider range of opportunities, but the cost here is prohibitive.  I define myself by my intelligence, and to have that taken away is essentially like killing the important part of Dave Guskin.  Unacceptable, and the tradeoff here is not worth considering from my point of view — what’s the point of more/better opportunities if you are unable to take advantage because you are dumb?

Wise and sickly is the choice I’d make here, but it really is great cost for great gain.  Health is very important – I often have trouble focusing or being productive when under the weather, and chronic sickliness sounds like the extreme and terrible version of that where getting things done is a huge task each day.  However, I think I’d be able to eventually train myself to accomplish great things in spite of the personal obstacle of sickliness, and the wisdom (or intelligence, both would be awesome) I’d get in return would be huge, allowing me to create, solve and do way more than my current feeble brain is likely capable of!

Whew – that went long… how about you?  What would you rather?

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Review: Panera Bread

Panera is a chain of bakery/sandwich/soup/salad places, but it’s at the healthier/more respectable end of chains (like Chipotle or even Starbucks).  There’s one basically in between home and work, in the Tukwila Southcenter mall area, and I have taken to (a) getting breakfast there infrequently and (b) eating the soup/salad combo there, also infrequently.  I have now gone there for a sufficient variety of meals that I feel capable of reviewing it, and in addition, I can talk about their rewards program!

One thing I really like about Panera is that their meal selection is interesting enough that you feel like the choices are different (sandwich selections feel very different, and they always have 5-7 soups available), but you aren’t overwhelmed with choice like you might be at a sit-down restaurant.  It fits in that perfect niche between fast-fast food and the slower Whistle Stop style venues.  Also, bread bowls for soup are like the best thing ever and they are EQUAL in price to regular bowls there – mindboggle!  My recommendation for breakfast is their French Toast Bagel, but their breakfast sandwiches are quite good as well.  Price is where I’d expect it, around +$0 to +$1 over Starbucks or so for equivalent items.  I rarely pay more than $6 for a breakfast or $10 for a lunch there.

Their rewards program, My Panera, has got to be the best thing ever.  Or maybe it’s just intended to seem like the best thing ever.  There are no points or plans involved – just sometimes, you get free stuff.  Very Skinneresque in nature, quite effective.  I got a free espresso drink and a free pastry fairly quickly toward the beginning of my purchases (within 5 meals or so?) so my guess is they weight newcomers more highly, which makes a lot of sense.  Regardless, it seems to be a great way to convince people to keep coming back, so props to them.

Overall: A-
Bread Bowl Bonus: 5 pts
Added Loyalty Due to Operant Conditioning: Moderate

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Tasks and Treats

I had a conversation with Tifa today that made me realize an element of game design in my scheduling / time management.  As I have discussed previously, I am pretty bad at time management.  What I end doing a lot is writing up a list of tasks I need to complete, choosing an order for them that makes sense, and then powering through.  Since I get distracted from my work easily when I’m not “in the zone” (sometimes with programming or writing or gaming I’ll be fully focused without external distraction), I often give myself little rewards for each task or sub-task completed.  Sound familiar?  It’s basically a level system, a la Super Mario Bros. – complete a segment, get a “reward” (advancement), and continue.

I will admit I am not super familiar with the psychology involved, but if I had to take a stab at it, I’d say this system works for me because I derive enjoyment from delaying gratification – as Brady once told me, intelligence is most strongly correlated with capacity for delayed gratification, so I feel smart when I do this task-reward system.  It also helps that there’s a “light at the end of the tunnel” effect… one of the reasons my attention wanders is my brain is looking ahead, figuring the task will last too long, and then deciding to think about something else.

Unfortunately, I slacked off overmuch today (rewards first = not the smart thing!) and I’ll have some catching up to do early tomorrow morning.  Still, I believe the model is sound, and I was amused at the apparent connection between game level design and my own time management plan.

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Game Universes: The Why of Gaming

For my last post of Game Design month, I wanted to think through my reasons for enjoying gaming so much.  I have skipped social commitments to play games, I sometimes interact with friends solely through the lens of a game during a meetup, and I (obviously) enjoy thinking about and designing games.  But why?

Games are an escape from the real world, yes, but I don’t think that’s the reason.  More likely, the allure comes from the fact that each game can be a world unto itself.  As a scientist, I understand fundamentally that although I may learn a lot about how the universe works, I will never understand enough on my own to make sense of most of the universe.  In the universe of a game, however, the rules are much more limited and understandable, and that’s enjoyable in and of itself.

But the real draw comes because even very very simple games – those with a handful of easily understood rules – have emergent behaviors, especially when many human players are involved.  At the same time it promises solvability due to its simplicity, its complexity means that truly “solving” some games – the strategy kind, and the social kind – is impossible.  Maybe it’s my personality that is always searching for puzzles to fiddle with that have no final solutions, but I really enjoy exploring the space that games create.  It’s like a little bubble world that often gives insight into the minds and behaviors of the players, the designer and even the greater world around us when the game is a model for something about the real world.

It’s pretty remarkable, really, when you think about it.

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Gamer 2

I wanted to spend this post thinking about “gamer culture,” or more specifically how groups of gamers interact.  I’m hanging out with Sam a bit this week, since he lives in Minnesota and here I am at U.S. Nationals.  One thing that always struck me was a conversation we had about parties.  His opinion was that the best kind of party was one in which everyone was playing games together, and I noted I had friends who would want to participate in basically a “standing party” – where people are just hanging and chatting.  He gave me a look that I think implied that wasn’t his kind of party.

I know a lot of people who game socially, who (more appropriately) get a lot of social value out of playing games with friends.  Games, by their nature, require a bit of a hurdle to jump over before a newcomer can play.  If everyone is learning, and/or everyone is on the same level of learnability when it comes to games, no problem.  But introducing a new player into such an environment can be difficult.

Now we come to the crux of the issue – what about a new person to such a group, who isn’t really keen on being a new player but just wants to socialize?  In this way, I kind of feel like gaming social groups can have trouble letting new people join them.  They are very stable because of this, but not very easy to break into if you are not a gamer yourself.

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Achievements at Parties

Just got back from a day of galivanting around to wedding and party – it was great!  The wedding I just went to, between good friends (of mine, and of each other, obviously!) Kelly and Laura was so wonderful, and despite there being a ton to talk about re: their specific event, I decided to talk a little bit about a kind of peripheral activity they had: achievements for guests to earn.

Rebecca and I,  two Mays ago, had a combined birthday / “passed the bar” party where I provided achievements for guests.  Basically, there was a list of activities the guests could do to get credit, and then either Rebecca or I would give them the badge.  At the wedding today, they had a table set out with the conditions to achieve and the nametag sized badges.

As social games go, the achievement game is pretty great.  It has especially wondeful social merit in situations where not everyone “playing” knows everyone else.  For example, if you tell people to go mingle to get an achievement, you are incentivizing them through the game to come out of their shell a bit.  By making it a game, a certain class of typical asocial people (i.e. gamers) will stray from their comfort zone, which I personally think is awesome.

It’s not a game that can be used in every context.  However, it is one of the few I have played where it is relatively easy to get non-gaming inclined individuals to participate (whether they are striving toward achievements, or helping others to fulfill theirs).  In that way, it is very powerful, and very valuable, and I will continue to look for ways to engineer incentives via this achievement game to involve people in games. :)

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Timmy, Johnny, Spike

My coworker Mark wrote an article on different player psychographics – that is, archetypes that fit the psychological profile of players of our game, Magic, but which I have found apply well to most experience-driven (game) design.  The three psychographics are, in my paraphrasing of them:

  • Timmy is a player who plays to experience something.
  • Johnny is a player who plays to share and/or discover something.
  • Spike is a player who plays to prove something.

In Magic, for example, when we talk about a Timmy card, what we are really talking about are the exciting moments and experiences that card is going to produce for players (a “oh my god, check out what happened…” kind of story).  A Johnny card is one that enables a player to be creative and “show off” that creativeness to others.  A Spike card, we often joke, is a really good card (in terms of game balance), but really I think it has more to do with feeling that the card enables one to demonstrate one’s prowess at playing the game, often by creating shared decisions or choices that allow the Spike to demonstrate mastery compared to other players.

You can see how these would apply to other games as well.  Something like Longest Road in Settlers, or the Workshop/Garden strategy in Dominion, are possibly Johnny-esque aspects to those games.  Catch Phrase is very much a Timmy game.  The Spikiest of Spikes enjoy games that have a lot of mechanics in them so that their deeper understanding of strategy lets them perform well.  I have found it very useful to use these psychographic profiles outside of just Magic, and in fact outside of games sometimes, to analyze “player” behavior.

You can see how these three profiles apply to many games.

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