The Gam(ification) of Life

A few months back, Y Combinator’s Paul Graham wrote a short piece on “How to be an expert in a changing world.” In it, he argues that if we lived in a stable world, learning would lead to more accurate beliefs and ability to predict… the core of expertise. The problem is that we don’t. In fact, outside of a few stable elements in human nature, Graham argues that most things in the world are changing. The only questions are what, at which time, and in what magnitude and direction. What results is a world in which “experts” too often make predictions based upon their insights on a world that no longer exists the way they think it does. This aligns with Phil Tetlock’s research that shows the prediction of political ‘experts’ is only marginally better than selections made at random, and Christina Fang’s work that finds the loudest most confident voices are often the least trustworthy (see a Freakonomics podcast on some of this research here).

With this in mind, Graham outlines a set of strategies for improved expertise (my summary of his thoughts, not his words directly):

  1. Hold strongly to the belief that things will change. This prevents you from being overly tied to a past that no longer exists.
  2. Build working hypotheses about this world in that they motivate exploration, but hold to them weakly and consistently consider evidence to the contrary.
  3. As you develop expertise, take notice of things that seem ‘strange’ as they might point to upcoming shifts in the field. Your ‘expertise’ is most valuable in helping you identify things that _don’t_ fit expectations and learning how to interpret what this might mean.
  4. If you have to make them at all, make your bets about the future public. This motivates the hard work of making more informed judgment, or work after the fact to push the future towards what you predicted (building your own self-fulfilling prophecy).
  5. Fund good people over good ideas. Good people might be able to do the above steps effectively. Good ideas are just slippery projection into the future.
  6. Surround yourself with people that bring up new ideas. This keeps you fresh and prevents stagnant and outdated expertise.

With expertise in a changing world on the mind, I recently received an email from a friend inquiring about a similar question. Specifically, this friend wanted to know about the potential for games for helping develop skills in new areas. He wrote:

Something (has) been bothering me for several years, since I first started playing computer games recreationally. The 1–2 sentence version of the puzzle is this: how is it possible to get so good at something while experiencing so little of the mental pain or drudgery that otherwise invariably accompanies gaining proficiency in a new task??? And this question immediately follows: why on earth isn’t the technology then harnessed for, say, learning languages, mastering disciplines in the sciences, etc.? I’m notoriously short-sighted in such areas, but I see no reason at all why this isn’t a goldmine: existing computer technology coupled with what seem like very basic principles about reward, seratonin release, what have you.

Some of you will remember a few weeks ago I talked about the 10,000 hour rule — the idea that you can become an expert in a lot of areas through significant practice. In writing about this, I also linked to an article that showed how this rule seems to hold in certain fields — one’s whose learning appears more linear — and not in others. The graphic from this research is below:

Paul is pointing to the fact that many real life areas… say professions… are complex and resist viable expertise. My friend is wondering whether the insights from the area on the left (games) might be applied to areas on the right. This is a great question.. in other words, how might gaming help us at the game of life. In my work with the NSF this summer, one of my fellow entrepreneurs is working at a project on gamification in business schools — trying to help teach concepts like strategic thinking in more dynamic game-like fashions. A recent conference at Stanford showed how virtual reality simulations are being used to help more complex skills like quarterbacking, with some effectiveness to the extent the QB experiences ‘presence,’ or feels that they are actually inside the game.

So how might games help? Let me start by outlining below a few brief thoughts on games. Let me make this clear up front. These are thoughts from a guy who avoided family game night like the plague. So, take any ignorance with a grain of salt.

  1. Most Games are built around an unchanging set of rules, some level of uncertainty, and individuals with whom you are competing to reach a set objective more efficiently.
  2. The joy of games is that it takes away the drudgery of ‘learning rules’ through the design and story built around learning, or perhaps through the competition itself.
  3. In relatively simple games, mastery might involve only learning the rules. For example, in a Rubik’s Cube, the player ideally moves from uncertainty to an understanding of the rules, and thus their behavior moves from random spins to proactive strategy (I personally never got there) .
  4. When you add competitors, the challenge is to either 1) learn the rules quicker than your competitor, or 2) more efficiently navigate these rules than your opponent, or 3) apply strategy dynamically based on how your competitor plays. Chess is a game of this form.
  5. Games become more complicated when more than two players are involved. In this kind of game, you have to collect information from multiple parties while also looking out for the formation of coalitions.

Moving back to my friend’s point, could the above format of games be applied to more important goals (such as his example of language and science) or more complicated tasks (as Paul Graham identifies)? Let’s start with his question around learning a language and mastering the sciences. Given that these tasks are partly based around memorizing rules and content, they would appear to be amenable to ‘gamification.’ They are like a more complicated Rubik’s cube. With the right narrative, gameplay, and aesthetic choices, one could move people up the learning curve while reducing the pain of the journey. A noble goal indeed.

But what happens when we increase the complexity of the task, in addition to it’s importance? When applied to language, this might mean not only learning grammar, but also being able to write a story that captures attention and conveys the human experience. Could a game be designed around cultivating linguistic capabilities in the vulnerability and playfulness of two people falling in love? For science, increased complexity might be writing a dissertation on a new and under explored area of the field, or developing a theory that better explains the existing evidence. Or consider building a game around helping individuals learn to quickly unwind a set of rules for understanding a field as the paradigm shifts. Consider the shifts of understanding in biology or even theology following the work of Charles Darwin and his contemporaries. For players to develop this kind of skill, the form of learning has to take place at a slightly higher level than memorization alone. As a bit of a thought experiment, let’s consider the following descriptors of a game that mirrors a more complex reality — the kinds of areas that seem to be less amenable to mastery (e.g. professions).

  1. The game should be built around a set of rules, set of players, a certain level of uncertainty.
  2. The level of uncertainty should shift across the game. Some of the uncertainty can be managed by your strategy (e.g. growing in knowledge) but some remains out of your control. Think here of a game of chess when you lost sight of your opponents moves for a period of time.
  3. Individual players can break the rules (sometimes without consequences) but also change the rules depending on their relative power. Staying with our example of chess, think of this as the possibility that role of a pawn might change mid-game, or that your opponent could reach a certain level of power where they can change the ways in which the rook can move.
  4. Each player play multiple games simultaneously, but the trade-offs exist across games. In other words, strategies to maximize efficiency in one game might be a liability in another. From the perspective of understanding your ‘competitor,’ this helps explain why a strategy that might seem ‘irrational’ in your game can be explained in terms of its rationality in another.
  5. Individual success is not merely about knowledge mastery, but also effective engagement in the emotional sphere. In other words, at times your ability to understand or engage the more emotionally-rich elements is required for success. Some of these are attractive emotional experiences (publicly demonstrating courage) that might lead to accolades, while others are more mundane (privately resisting boredom) that might even lead to critique.

While I think we can learn from games ways to make the learning of straight-forward skills more enjoyable, I think the more interesting question is whether we might be able to create games around more complex dynamics like we see above. These might be cognitively complex situations, or one’s whose challenge stems from things beyond knowledge acquisition alone. Going back to Paul Graham’s description of expertise in a changing world, this might mean learning how to pay attention to shifting rules, knowing the knowledge and courage to make decisions in the midst of uncertainty, and learning how to navigate the trade-offs when you are playing multiple games simultaneously (career, family, relationships, hobbies). Furthermore, it might involve not just demonstrating the skills in the game, but letting that transfer over to the real life, and across domains. Fundamentally, it seems that taking a risky shot in a basketball game or pushing through the mundane of multiple attempts at passing a single level may not easily transfer over to real opportunities for courage and perseverance. But if any of those problems are solved, then we might find a significant opportunity. If that ends up being the case, maybe we can in fact learn how to get better at the game of life through something like “The Game of Life.”