Monday, July 07, 2014

What games can tell us about success ?

Recently, psychologists have dealt a resounding blow against Malcolm Gladwell's idea that in order to succeed in a field, you will need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Of course, the scientific evidence cannot deal a killing blow to the theory because it's very hard to suss out practice that is actually deliberate in nature. Practice that is deliberate means that its difficulty is designed to always match the capability of the person, something which is harder to establish in a research experiment. All Malcolm Gladwell has to do is to say that most practice is not deliberate in nature, then his theory still holds, I bet it wasn't really meant to be falsifiable anyway.

We are always trying to explain how and why we are successful. Prior to WWII, success was largely due to genetic factors. The US Army designed IQ tests to determine which citizens make the best soldiers. Recently the pendulum has shifted to success being part of environment and practice, I've always felt that this was more like wishful thinking on Humanity's part. If success is correlated to hard-work and depended less on things beyond one's control, people would feel comfortable enough to work harder.

The flaw in the idea of deliberate practice is that it seems more like wishful thinking rather than one grounded in cold, hard facts. The second flaw that we are trying to put a narrative around success without acknowledging that luck often plays an overly large role in our lives. The third flaw is that we really don't know what was sacrificed to attain public success - Steve Jobs was celebrated publicly but privately was a huge asshole based on the folks who used to work with him.

One thing which cannot be denied - domains with strict rules like Chess are domains where deliberate practice can have an impact on success. Similar to chess are games like Magic:The Gathering and Legend of 5 Rings, where a fixed set of rules and card base allow players with more exposure and time to triumph of players with less practice.

Very different from chess are games like Tabletop RPGs and investing. There are no fixed rules, conflict in a region like Ukraine can affect markets in Singapore. CEOs can suddenly signal a downturn by selling their stock.  In D&D, Players can find obscure use for magical items to mess up the best laid plans of the Dungeon Master, or simply behave irrationally because they think that it reflects the behaviour of their PCs better. Sometimes, one is simply better off with no plans and instead have a series of contingencies to deal with black swan incidents.

This insight may be useful in answering a question which has been bugging me for more than decade :

Why do the best gamers fail to apply their strategies in real life and lead a mediocre existence ?

Initially my thoughts that is the best strategy gamers tend to think in concrete terms and stick to the victory conditions that are published within the ruleset, this required that many gamers have a Sensing thinking mode rather than a Intuition mode. Then, I became obsessed with the idea of the growth mindset, I observed giftedness as a common trait of the top gamers and concluded that they stuck to games with rules because they are afraid of living a life where there are often no rules of engagement  ( many gifted children are cursed with a fixed mindset. ) Now the third of piece of the puzzle is in place - card games and chess games allow practice to be instantly rewarded with improve performance.

Anyway, I don't have a conclusive answer to what leads to success or the final word on why top gamers do not outperform at the game of real life.

Of interest to gamers is the evolution of RPGs which reflect the popular opinion of what constitutes success.

In the 3rd Edition of D&D, unbounded modifiers were crafted such that most of your bonuses are due to your level and the magical items which you have on you. In such games, experience and equipment largely determine success in any endeavour. Epic characters had better attack rolls, saving throws and hit points. In such games, success is long term gameplay and careful management of resources.

In Diablo III, experience matters less, all epic characters above Level 70 with hundreds of paragon points rely primarily on loot. Players with better equipment gets to get more equipment by going into the higher Torment levels. Cooperating in groups exponentially rewards players with more loot. That's almost like a world which the Wolf Of Wall-street belongs to.

Striking a careful balance is the recent 5th Edition D&D game. Nature plays a major role in the game with attributes accounting for a third of bonuses ( A strength of 20 grants a +5 bonus ) . Your experience now only plays another third of the dice roll modifier ( +2 at level 1 and caps at +6 at level 20 ). A major component which determines your bonus is how you role-play. Points of inspiration grant an additional dice-roll which is the equivalent to a +5 bonus within the game.

Maybe 5th Edition gets it closer to the real deal in life, your success is largely :

a) What you are born with.  
b) How much hard work you put into achieving your goals.
c) Your personality, attitude and character.

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