On dragons and dark forests

Buster Benson
Jan 4 · 3 min read

Congrats, Jon Bell, you just killed the dragon (metaphor).

I had initially conjured the metaphor to relate it to the hero’s journey, but am now convinced that it will end up doing us more harm than good because our language matters, and the words we use to describe the problem play a part in how we think about it, and how we think about it will determine what we think are viable paths forward.

So let’s drop the dragon metaphor. 🐲⚔️💀

Your post, and Kevin McGillivray’s earlier here have helped me understand that wicked problems are a subset of infinite games. Which means that we can perhaps understand them better if we look at the superset that they exist within.

“There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games are those instrumental activities — from sports to politics to wars — in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game — there is only one — includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants…” — James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Heroes play finite games, seeking to win. There is no winning strategy to an infinite game, and so people seeking to “win” them collapse them into sub-games that can be won. The wicked problem arises when the process of collapsing and “winning” subgames creates worse conditions for the infinite game over time. And it may also be the case that the mindset needed to play the subgames makes you less equipped to play the infinite game. Also, “solutions” to the infinite game must present as subgames that attract heroes, and have trouble staying focused on the infinite game because in order to get people organized and motivated, there has to be some short-term “win” state narrative in place. I don’t know. Just riffing here.

Is this a distinction that people here buy? If so, I may drag in some past thoughts about my favorite mini-infinite game: Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. I love it because it brings the wicked problem of cooperation to the forefront, and reveals all its quirkiness with very few rules. There’s no optimal strategy in Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, just like there’s no optimal solution for a wicked problem. And yet, at any given moment in time, it’s possible to play more or less well given the information that you have.

Can this connection to infinite games and Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma help us answer Kevin’s question about where wicked problems come from? I feel like we’re going in the right direction but the direction is leading us into a Dark Forest with many more questions and problems yet to explore.

I do love a good metaphor. Now that the dragon is dead, would a Dark Forest be a good substitute for the ambiguous, unpredictable, never-ending, nature of a wicked problem?

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
— Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno Canto 1

Even Dante thought that getting through the Dark Forest just required sending in more heroes and saviors, though.

Image from theforestdark.com

Buster Benson

Written by

Author of Why Are We Yelling?, a book about the art of productive disagreement. I run 750words.com. Previously product at Patreon, Slack, Twitter, and Amazon.

Foolish Journey

A blog about questions that might not have answers.

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