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On the rationality of the irrational
by Nils Pihl on 10/22/13 07:41:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 


I offer this video as a response to a recent post claiming that F2P monetization can be "compassionless" (implying that letting certain users monetize is lacking in empathy).


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Comments


Andreas Ahlborn
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Very interesting talk! Looking forward to your series.
I feel you cover too much ground in too litle time, but that could be due to the time constraints you were put under.
Also I fail to see how this entertaining talk could function as a adaequate response to that article you link to.
Other than your (unproven) claim: Every behaviour is rational (:predictable) if you take into account that our rational Ability(:Brainpower) is very limited and all you have to do is "feel empathy" for the other party to understand what his motivations are in that specific timeframe.

BTW: The newest apporach to the PD is way more complicated than the original experiments suggested:
http://nr.com/whp/StewartPlotkinExtortion2012.pdf

If I understand it right, while unilateral possession of an adaequate Theory of Mind will always lead to a dominant strategy, the moment the opponent (:other party) gains insight in this Theory, the advantage is lost and you are back to square one.

Nils Pihl
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Andreas, thank you for your comment - The bulk of my response is in the comments of that particular post, but I felt that this video added the following:

What is valuable a specific person is not necessarily money. If our models predict that people will always maximize their money, we get bad results, because some players care more about other things - and IF they care more about those things, "protecting" them from spending money (that they don't care as much about) on a game (that they care about) is misguided.

I also think you misunderstood the claim I was making, but might be due to the very short format of that specific talk:

The word "rational" has no real place in a discussion on behavior, because almost all of our behaviors have a "logical" explanation for why we did it. Logical is not the same "optimal", and rationality shouldn't have to do with value judgements.

"I smoked a cigarette because I wanted to look cool" is not an irrational behavior.

I submit to you that for any given behavior, for any healthy individual, there will be a "reason" for why that action was performed. "In my worldview, situation X can be resolved by action Y. When encountered with X, I choose to perform Y".

Someone with more information might disagree with Y resolving X, but that is a SEPARATE argument with SEPARATE premisses, and NOT what happened in the mind of the person originally performing the task.

"1. Smoking makes you look cool. 2. I want to look cool. Therefore: I smoke a cigarette to look cool".

Perfectly rational.

But someone with a DIFFERENT attention scope and MORE premisses might find:

"1. Smoking makes you look cool. 2. I want to look cool. 3. I want to be healthy. 4. Cigarettes are damaging to your health. 5. I would rather be healthy than cool. Therefore: I will not smoke a cigarette."

Again, perfectly rational.

It's not a claim that needs empirical evidence - it's a philosophical claim about the word, not the action. The word "rational" has been misappropriated, and should not be used to describe behaviors.

Nils Pihl
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And thanks for the PD paper, will read today.

Christian Kulenkampff
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Interesting talk. Thank you! But I don't agree. When you redefine a word in a way that it can be applied to everything it looses its meaning and becomes irrelevant. We often unknowingly base decisions on small wrong assumptions. This is irrational.

You should read this book:
"Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions" by Dan Ariely

Nils Pihl
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I am not redefining the word - you are (and so is Dan Ariely). The word "rational/irrational", when used as adjective to describe behavior, is completely subjective - and logic is not subjective, which becomes problematic because that something is rational means that it is based on or in accordance with reason and logic.

Ariely, Kahneman, etc make a mistake when they call behaviors irrational.

1. Smoking makes you look cool. 2. I want to look cool. Therefore: I can smoke a cigarette to look cool

This is a perfectly logical (rational) decision, with the accepted premisses, as stated in my previous comment. But so is this:

1. Smoking makes you look cool. 2. I want to look cool. 3. I want to be healthy. 4. Cigarettes are damaging to your health. 5. I would rather be healthy than cool. Therefore: I will not smoke a cigarette.

Both cases share some common premisses, but because of scenario B's added premisses they have different logical conclusions. Premise 5 is not some logical reality, it is a value judgement. It would not be irrational to replace 5 with "I would rather be cool than healthy".

If the supposed rationality of a behavior is based on a cultural value judgement it stops being about logic. As I said in the talk: Using the word rational is not rational.

But more importantly: Reducing some behaviors to "irrational" behaviors make them harder to predict and understand, which becomes a weakness in their proposed models of behavioral economics.

Calling an unanticipated outcome "irrational" is intellectually lazy.

Christian Kulenkampff
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So what is rationality/irrationality to you?

Merriam Webster -> rational : based on facts or reason and not on emotions or feelings : having the ability to reason or think about things clearly

Of course rationality is highly subjective. But this doesn't matter.

For example, when I emotionally hurt somebody, because I am jealous, (to me) this is clearly irrational. When I am rational I can think clearly about the outcome of my actions and the reason behind them. If I would act rational I would be able to recognize that my desired actions root in jealousy. In a rational state I would be able to decide wether I want to do stupid things out of jealousy or not.

Amir Barak
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I think you're confusing irrational with socially unacceptable. In a society where it is permissible and indeed acceptable to kill your wife's lover, choosing not to do so would be deemed 'irrational'.

We rationalize things internally, you're referring to some nebulous concept of utopian 'objective morality' but rational and irrational are just our internal causality processors; I think :P

[edit]
haven't seen the vid yet btw.

Timothy Alvis
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1. Aliens will be invading the planet any minute now 2. These aliens are going to destroy the planet based on what I hear in the radio in my teeth 3. My baby is the beacon for these aliens 4. I will dispose of my baby to save the planet

There is a logical chain there, but it's not rational. Rational means something more than logical. Rational implies that the logic eschews emotions and feelings, it does its best to use facts and evidence as its basis.

Even if we were to pretend (and we shouldn't) that rational has no meaning because it applies to any logical chain regardless of its basis, that still doesn't excuse the third party.

1. I have a wallet full of money and a brand new iPhone. 2. I am riding on the subway late at night. 3. This man has a gun to my face and says if I don't give him the wallet and phone he will kill me 4. I will give him my wallet and phone.

Very logical decision, even rational. The man with the gun is still a criminal. You don't have to use a weapon on a subway to fall into an ethical grey or black area when interacting with people.

Christian Kulenkampff
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@Amir: No, I don't confuse it. A decision is purely rational when the thinker knows _all_ relevant facts that lead to her decision. Everything else is intuition and may be irrational.

A rational decision: Based on my knowledge of math I assume that 1+1=2
An irrational decision: Aaaaaaargh mine mine mine mine *slash*

Amir Barak
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No one knows all the facts for a given situation, thinking otherwise is, well, irrational :P

Your examples aren't about rational decisions, they're about a very specific deduction of observations. Is there only one line going between two points?

I also don't understand your example of irrationality there.

Anyway, in the end we're just mincing words here and words are nothing if not irrational (who make pretty good games btw).

Nils Pihl
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I get the feeling you didn't finish the video/read all the comments - so allow me to repeat, briefly, my argument:

The word rational has to do with conclusions following from premisses, not the quality or amount of premisses.

Two people can have different sets of premisses on the same subject and both reach logically valid (rational) conclusions.

Someone having BAD premisses (as your Baby Killer) is best described with ANOTHER word, in my opinion. Bad premisses is not the same as bad reasoning.

Nils Pihl
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Ok great, let's just do a philosophy slam here:

Your definition - a decision is rational when the thinker knows _all_ relevant facts (and presumably, acts in accordance with those facts).

One relevant fact for any decision is the answer to the question "Do I have all relevant facts?" Without the answer to this you are not in possession of ALL relevant facts.

The question is literally impossible to have true knowledge about. Ergo, a behavior can never be rational (by YOUR definition, not mine.)

Q.E.D.

Timothy Alvis
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Except that if you use this definition, it's impossible to behave irrationally unless you remove all reason or logic. Your definition would be someone can only be irrational if it is a non sequitur.

1. Grass is green 2. Water is wet 3. Therefore I can fly

The baby killer is irrational. They're irrational because they have not examined their premises for traces of emotion, insanity or veracity. They have a chain of reasoning, but an irrational chain.

Look at the example of common use provided by Merriam Webster, "insisted there was a rational explanation for the strange creaking noises and that there were no such things as ghosts"

You would say that:

1. Ghosts exist 2. Ghosts are super scary and do scary things 3. I heard some creaking noises 4. Ghosts caused the scary noises

Is rational. Do you think Merriam-Webster meant something else than to say that it is irrational to believe ghosts cause creepy noises in that example? If not, is there some basis by which you believe it would be wise for us to ignore what we commonly believe the word rational means, what sources that provide the definitions for words believe the word rational means, and instead follow your version which essentially only leaves room for non sequitur chains of reasoning?

I disagree with those saying it requires someone to have all relevant facts. I do however fully agree that rational is a word that implies there is some quality to the premises being used to reach a conclusion and evidently so does most of the English speaking world.

Nils Pihl
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OK wow, where do I start.... Here:

"1. Ghosts exist 2. Ghosts are super scary and do scary things 3. I heard some creaking noises 4. Ghosts caused the scary noises"

4 does not follow from 1-3. It is not rational. #wtfman

"Your definition would be someone can only be irrational if it is a non sequitur.

1. Grass is green 2. Water is wet 3. Therefore I can fly"

Yes. See your ghost example. Irrational non sequitur.

"If not, is there some basis by which you believe it would be wise for us to ignore what we commonly believe the word rational means, what sources that provide the definitions for words believe the word rational means, and instead follow your version which essentially only leaves room for non sequitur chains of reasoning?"

Yes. Watch the entire video. I state it explicitly.

Most of the English speaking world is also religious. What's your point?

Nils Pihl
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If we take the time to understand the premisses that our subject holds, their behavior becomes predictable. Calling the behavior irrational is a cop out and gets us nowhere. It's just a value judgement, no actionable insight.

George Burdell
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I have a comment on your philosophy slam, I'd like to see it cleared up :)

You say the thinker must obtain all relevant facts, including the "do i have all relevant facts?" fact, making it impossible to attain rationality this way.

However, why does the thinker need to be aware of having all relevant facts?

Wouldn't a thinker, within the given definition of rationality, be able to stumble upon rationality without being aware of it? (I guess everybody is really stretching their interpretation of rationality, so I'm going along)

This unfortunately implies the judgement of rationality is neither from within the thinker nor from an external observer. The decision is not rational from within the thinker because he is not all knowing, nor is it rational from the observer because the observer concludes the thinker is not all knowing. Oh semantics.

What are your thoughts on this?

Also, saying Q.E.D outside academics is close to saying: "F*** YOU I WIN", it sounds terrible.

Nils Pihl
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A lucky decision is not the same as a rational decision.

His definition of a rational decision was one based on _all_ (sic) relevant facts. (That means HE says the thinker must obtain all relevant facts, don't mix us up). A decision made with ((all)-1 fact) facts would not be rational. According to him, not me.

Knowing if one has all relevant facts therefore becomes a relevant fact. "Do I have enough information to make this decision rationally?"

It is impossible to know if one is in possession of all relevant facts, so his definition breaks down.

"The decision is not rational from within the thinker because he is not all knowing, nor is it rational from the observer because the observer concludes the thinker is not all knowing."

Exactly. His definition of "rational" would never produce a single rational thought.

"Also, saying Q.E.D outside academics is close to saying: "F*** YOU I WIN""

Yes. :)

Timothy Alvis
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1. Ghosts are real 2. Ghosts make scary sounds 3. I'm in a place people say ghosts may live 4. I heard a scary sound 5. Ghosts made the scary sound

Is no more a non sequitur than

1. Cigarettes make people look cool 2. I want to look cool 3. I want to smoke cigarettes to look cool

or

1. I want a +10 sword 2. I've been on a losing streak and am due 3. Just another $100 and I will get that +10 sword

There's a reason you don't see television shows dedicated to:

1. Grass is green 2. Water is wet 3. I can fly

Or brazen non sequiturs like it, yet you do see all manner of paranormal or religious broadcasting and people gambling away money they can't afford to lose. There are spectrums of rationalization, spectrums of reason. Ghosts, religion and gambling are irrational.

The line between rational and irrational it seems is where you want to place your bets. I frankly disagree with where you place them. I do not think that someone with an addiction problem is making rational decisions related to drug use. I don't think someone smoking cigarettes to "look cool" is making a rational decision.

I'm ok disagreeing on this point as I imagine nearly everyone would have that line drawn somewhere slightly different, so why not make room for extremes?

Nils Pihl
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"1. Ghosts are real 2. Ghosts make scary sounds 3. I'm in a place people say ghosts may live 4. I heard a scary sound 5. Ghosts made the scary sound"

Still a non sequitur, man. The only conclusion you can draw is that it is POSSIBLE that ghosts made the sound.

"Is no more a non sequitur than 1. Cigarettes make people look cool 2. I want to look cool 3. I want to smoke cigarettes to look cool"

No, that is incorrect. Yours is a non sequitur, the cigarette isn't, even when you rephrase it (which is a lazy and/or dishonest thing to do).

"1. I want a +10 sword 2. I've been on a losing streak and am due 3. Just another $100 and I will get that +10 sword"

THIS is actually interesting. Premise 2 is based on a common cognitive bias, that makes us make incorrect judgments. "This coins has fallen on heads 5 times in a row, so the next time is very likely going to be tails". The rest of the argument is gibberish, and a non sequitur.

Also, it would help if you stopped giving your conclusion a number. It is rather confusing.

"I'm ok disagreeing on this point as I imagine nearly everyone would have that line drawn somewhere slightly different, so why not make room for extremes?"

If you finished the entire video (did you?), you will have noticed that I said:

Rationality should not be a matter of opinion. Opinions are emotional. YOUR definition of rational does not MEET YOUR definition of rational.

Maybe I am missing your point? Maybe you're missing mine? Either way, feel free to contact me at nils@mentionllc.com

George Burdell
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Why can't a lucky decision be rational? Wasn't it concluded that rationality was subjective, meaning the observer can't know it was luck? Maybe starting with a bad definition of rationality is not helping here haha.

Thanks for the reply!

Nils Pihl
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:D

If the observer doesn't know that the subject was not in possession of all relevant facts, then the observer is lacking a relevant fact.

For the observer to call the subject rational (when the subject was lucky) was irrational.

So yeah, I'm with you, this definition of rationality is getting us nowhere.

Ariel Gross
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I love this topic. Thank you for sharing your approach and the reasoning behind it. This was thought-provoking and I appreciate that.

Amir Barak
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Just a quick note about your experiment near the end. I don't think it's about the number of circles you've shown but rather the shape they were arranged in - try showing 13 circles arranged in two lines of five and one line of three. Our brains are very very very good at recognizing patterns. For example, most people read their own language by recognizing the shapes or the words (thus reading really fast). But when encountering a word we don't know we have to slow down and read each letter (which is why kids read slower than adults).

Nils Pihl
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Yup, there is some trickery in the experiment for more astute audience members to enjoy. Welcome to the world of behavioral engineering ;)

The test was most certainly rigged, and I'm glad you realize it - but it still demonstrates SOMETHING ;)

Ramin Shokrizade
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From my preteen years on I have operated from the assumption that all behavior is rational. As a young chess player growing up in the ghetto, my survival literally depended on my being able to predict the behavior and motivations of those around me. I came up with the thought that all people make decisions in order to maximize their "victory points", but that the points that each person gets for certain actions and achievements is different. There may be tens of thousands of such conditions that a person may consider in making a decision. If you could figure out a person's victory point values, you could always predict their behavior in certain situations. Spouses get good at this over time.

The problem is that people rarely have time to consider all aspects of a decision before they make it. They often forget to consider some of the secondary and tertiary effects of an action. Marketing can remind an individual of a tertiary or secondary desire, and move it up into short term memory where it might be (at least temporarily) primary. This really makes the situation complicated when we know that a person's victory point schedule is dynamic.

Now I really like the smoking analogy. A young person who almost constantly considers peer effects in making decisions will tend to rate the first two conditions highly (the coolness related ones). Since they have likely not had a lot of experience with death and dying, and don't have the pre-frontal cortex power to adequately assess the value of less immediate effects, they don't give conditions 3, 4, and 5 much credence. They may not think of them at all. This is normal, and rational, for them.

Parents and regulators generally put more weight on 3,4, and 5. So they intervene and attempt to remove the ability of children to smoke cigarettes even if they want to. This does not always work, and I feel that educating people works better than making people do things.

So I educate. I get a lot of victory points for this. I don't have to get paid because money is relatively low on my victory point scale. Some of the people I educate are regulators. Some are educators. Some, such as with my NPR interviews, are just common consumers. I get a LOT of victory points for this.

I think taking children to hospitals and letting them watch people dying from cigarettes is even more effective, but this is also time consuming and thus more expensive as in-person activities don't scale like media does. Letting a child or parent watch the scene as another parent finds out their child spent a lot of money on IAPs without the knowledge or permission of the parent would also be really educational but would be hard to capture on film without the knowledge of the participants.

Okay so let's translate your cigarette example to a F2P example. There may be a 1 or 2 that are related to pleasure, a 3 and 4 that are related to the long term costs of an IAP, and a 5 that involves the parents finding out. Since our current generations games very carefully and deliberately emphasize the benefits of 1 and 2, and try to hide 3,4 and 5, a child (or some adults) will rarely consider 3, 4 and 5. Regulators would like to start by making us fairly reveal the risks of 3, 4, and 5 in our products so that adults, and at least some children, would be able to make what an adult would consider a rational choice.

If that intervention proves insufficient, then more intense regulation would be considered. Of course we could, as an industry, just choose to self-regulate but that does not seem to be happening at an acceptable rate. If anything, we are heading in the wrong direction. If the data I am looking at now, which I believe is proprietary, is accurate, the situation has become very serious. I have contacted the source to get permission to publish.

So while I agree we are all rational, we act within the limits of the knowledge we have, and our ability to process that information. What may be rational to children and some adults could also be life threatening to them. I do not think society has EVER considered it inappropriate to step in and guide these individuals. It is part of the duty that each generation pays and passes on to the next generation. This ensures our survival as a species.

Nils Pihl
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Thank you for your lengthy response, Ramin. I'm glad you chose to continue the conversation here with me, and I think we are both speaking the same language now.

You're right, paternalism hasn't EVER really been considered inappropriate for these circumstances - but that doesn't make it OK to claim that your paternalism is just pure compassion. There is certainly an element of compassion there, but I hope to have demonstrated that the opposing side can make the same claim: Offering the IAP out of compassion.

Personally, I believe in education over regulation, but I understand the pragmatic need for regulation in some (many) cases.

Again, thank you for an interesting discussion. Perhaps we could have a deeper discussion in a Google Hangout one day. I've got live streaming privileges, so we could make it into a little event or at least post it to YouTube when its over.

David Paris
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There's a quote here that jumps out at me and makes me contort my face in ugly ways: "Offering the IAP out of compassion".

IAPs are generally built to relieve a discomfort that was caused purposely by the application. You didn't offer the IAP out of 'compassion', you offered it as a means of transfering wealth from the user to the application distributor.

All the conversation about decisions being made rationally is great, and I agree with that. When people make a decision, they do so as a rational response to the decision points at hand (even if they are not even fully aware of all those decision points). However, the compassion stuff is a whole different topic.

Nils Pihl
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David, I definitely see your point - I agree that in many cases, the discomfort was built into the product in a malicious "why-are-you-hitting-yourself" kind of way. My point was that both sides CAN argue compassion, so maybe we shouldn't throw that word around in a cavalier manner when, really, it is more a question of paternalistic and well-meaning concern.

Building a game that requires patience is not inherently evil, but causing discomfort is. Some game companies have definitely made themselves guilty of that.

Back when I was a kid, one of the business practices that really really bothered was boxed games' "system requirements". As someone who grew up with often dated (Mac) hardware, those system requirements were GREATLY misleading. A lot of games I bought were outright unplayable - but customer support reps would tell me that the game was RUNNING, right?!

There have always been people stretching the limits of morality in the game industry - F2P is not some new, unique threat.

What jumps out at me is some people's quick dismissal of the entire F2P industry, and opportunistic posturing that has followed.

Timothy Alvis
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"There have always been people stretching the limits of morality in the game industry - F2P is not some new, unique threat."

That's quite a stretch. That a game did not run appropriately on your personal hardware despite meeting the system requirements is a far cry from intentionally causing distress and manipulating biology and its resultant psychology to fleece customers.

Buying a $1000 rare item at a garage sale the seller is selling for $1.00 out of ignorance is not the same as keeping a $100 bill you find on a store floor which is not the same as finding a wallet and keeping the cash inside which is not the same as robbing a bank with an automatic rifle.

All have ethical and moral issues in play, but all are not equal in severity. F2P is dealing with the backlash it is because of the extremity of how damaging it can be when certain methods are abused.

F2P is a new, unique threat. It's a threat as much in how it ruins games as a product (introducing say, patience for the reason of having more fun is different than introducing patience as a way to monetize) as it is for the way it reaps its profits.

I doubt you would see a long line of detractors if the model Valve has employed were the common model that everyone is figuring out how to optimize and if experts in the field weren't working overtime trying to reduce people into only the mechanics of their biological machinery to justify what they do.

Nils Pihl
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"It's a threat as much in how it ruins games as a product (introducing say, patience for the reason of having more fun is different than introducing patience as a way to monetize) as it is for the way it reaps its profits. "

I agree.

Here's the thing though: I recently sat down with a General Manger from one the most hated/known F2P companies out there - one known for the aggressive monetization techniques you mention - and he told me that those techniques were never that successful. That's not where they made most of their money. Those were not the mechanics that created whales. The big players in the industry are slowly moving away from these techniques, in my experience, and the people espousing them now are the waves of copycats that are trying to make a quick buck.

A 2013 Zynga is very different from a 2010 Zynga game. Or haven't we noticed?

David Serrano
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Nils,

As it applies to consumers, is the goal of your work to predict specific responses to products, services, content or experiences, i.e. they will like or dislike them? Or is the goal to define the tolerances of groups of consumers, i.e. group 1 is psychologically predisposed to respond positively to A, B and C but negatively to X, Y and Z... while group 2 is predisposed to respond positively to X, Y and Z but negatively to A, B and C?

Nils Pihl
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Making the prediction is not as central as acting based on the prediction: Modifying behavior is the main thing we do. To do modify behavior, we need to understand a groups reactions to certain situations. A lot of what we do is carefully engineering memes that will perform well in a certain environment, and outcompete bad memes.

The last time we worked with consumers (rather than players): Without mentioning any names (feel free to message me for specifics), one of our projects was helping a social network with their user and customer acquisition strategy. The competitive environment that the company was operating in was rather tough: There were three major social networks all claiming to be the biggest for the Chinese market, our client being one of them.

We helped the client realize that although they were not necessarily the biggest, their current user base had very interesting demographics compared to the competitors: In a fairly poor country, our clients' users were disproportionately well-educated and wealthy.

We saw this as a further growth opportunity and carefully trained the Sales Strategy team to communicate with agencies using certain phrases, slides, data and angles - emphasizing the specifics of the demographics, rather than the size, and the angle that this social network had the most buying power, and the highest interest for luxury goods, travel and motor vehicles. More importantly, it had a disproportionate amount of opinion leaders, due to these demographics.

These memes (all phrases, slides, etc) were carefully designed to ensure maximum spread: You want something that is easy to observe, easy to copy, stays faithful to the original, and the spreading of which is rewarding to the person engaging with it.

Over the next couple of months, this social network enjoyed meteoric growth (one of the fastest in internet history) and media, brands and consumers started repeating the message: This social network is THE MOST INFLUENTIAL social network in China, not the biggest.

We knew we had succeeded when I shared the stage with a promiment digital media agency at an event, and they used slides we had designed - telling the captive audience a message we had carefully designed over the previous six months - but had no idea who I was ;). You can leave your footprint on certain memes by slightly altering them, and if you see someone use that same alteration, paired with other phrases you designed, you are running into your meme in the wild. It's an amazing feeling :)

That being said, I am NOT claiming we are the cause of their success - but we certainly helped, especially in the acquisition of high end brands etc.

When it comes to gaming, we try to measure and predict different things - but this thread is not about me or my company, so I'll stop here. Feel free to message me if you want to know more.

David Serrano
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Can I message you at contact@mentionllc.com?

Nils Pihl
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You can message me directly at nils@mentionllc.com

Curtiss Murphy
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Enjoyed the clip, and the ideas it inspired in my head. And, yet, I don't think it gets to the heart of the other discussions.

From this video, I should believe that whales who spend LOTS of $$ in F2P games are making rational decisions from their own perspectives, which makes it all okay. On the other hand, the other threads are arguing that the game industry must self-evaluate our use of certain F2P practices.

At issue is society's right to take action against behaviors that feel sketchy, especially ones causing harm to an individual or group. Once society makes that decision, in comes the regulation, just as we've seen in gambling, drinking, drugs, sex, medicine, and countless others.

I think it's safe to argue that some F2P mechanics have crossed a line where they have ceased being a reasonable conversion of money for fun, and have instead become entirely about psychological manipulation and taking advantage of people's weaknesses. Clearly, this line is gray and arbitrary, and it's just as clear that there is a line somewhere - where game mechanics become harmful to children or society in general. Maybe $10 is reasonable for smurf berries, though I'm pretty sure most would consider $500 to be excessive.

In the end, if our industry doesn't self-regulate, eventually, society will do it for us.

Nils Pihl
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"and have instead become entirely about psychological manipulation and taking advantage of people's weaknesses."

Entirely? Really?

500 dollars was never excessive when it was a huge set of LEGOS, or other premium christmas gifts.

I understand your concern, I really do, but hyperbole and scare-mongering are not going to solve it.

John Trauger
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"People are stupid" is a truism we often throw around.

In the last year or two I've found myself questioning this common wisdom. I had decided that people make distracted decisions, not stupid ones, but I hadn't heard this echoed anywhere or heard any behavioral underpinning to it before now.

Chris Toepker
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Nils,

I am grateful that Ramin has brought up the topic, and that you have responded. However, I had hoped that you might move the discussion forward or broaden it. Instead the use of straw men and semantic arguments, as well as the obvious ax grinding against (ahem) economists drove (for me, at least) a shallow point.

After all, much of what you say about the game theorists is already admitted on their part and has been incorporated into further models, experiments and refinements. After all, the Prisoner's Dilemma is 50+ years old, and the theories examining it have moved far deeper than the surface you scratch. Specifically, one big shift is the huge difference between "one off" games and "repeat games" combined with the fact that evolution and daily life seem to preclude anyone from ever playing "one off" games.

I think you might enjoy the gloss on economists and game theorists approach that appeared recently...
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/opinion/yes-economics-is-a-scie
nce.html

Be that as it may, acting as if a shift in game theory and economics thought hasn't happened weakens your case to anyone serious about the subject.

Put simply, the straw men economists you attack actually agree...not disagree...with you.

On another point, the circle experiment is very interesting, and was surely eye opening to your audience. However it underplays the very role of rationality you espouse. I mean, the early circles are arranged in recognizable patterns which appear on dice. Then there is a heart shaped pattern of more circles. So, what would happen if you simply put up "13 [circle]"? What if you put that up to a 3 year old who can count to 20, but doesn't yet read?

We adults have spent a decade or more training and habituating ourselves to think of numbers in different symbols and shaking up the habit shows little about rationality or attention spans.

What would expand the discussion? I think engagement in Ramin's statements such as "we are all rational, we act within the limits of the knowledge we have, and our ability to process that information."

For me that resonates very well with Wittgenstein's "how do you know you're not fooling yourself?" What is the pool of knowledge that we swim in? How and when do we access it to make decisions? What prejudices come along for the ride? What, if anything, are we trying to achieve through the process? And so on.

For me, delving deeper has meant studying works by Dixit, Nalebuff, Taleb, Levitt, Dubner and more because, in my humble opinion, they are scientifically attempting to answer those questions. It seems to me that the dismissal of these folks and their methods is unwarranted. I'd encourage you to consider it more before continuing to write it off.

As if ready made, I came across this article which you should surely read. It starts off with the "rationality" of morals viewed through the "Trolley Problem"...

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/11/why-we-fighta
nd-can-we-stop/309525/

...importantly saying "If you put Greene’s findings in general form—human “reasoning” is sometimes more about gut feeling than about logic."

Also, "...we seem designed to *believe* in our entitlement. In one study, collaborators on jointly authored academic papers were asked what fraction of the team’s accomplishment they were responsible for. On the average four-person team, the sum of the claimed credit was 140 percent."

From these and other similar problems and findings...we are at least unreasoning. And is that not a tiny step from irrational?


Nils Pihl
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What a tremendous response! Thank you for engaging.

I agree with you, unreasoning and irrational are close cousins - but they're not quite the same. You're also right that the Many Dots experiment is slightly rigged, which becomes apparent when half of the audience bursts out "SIX!" when the number of dots, mischievously, is 8.

Recognizable patterns help us expand our attention scope by compressing information. It is one of the many tricks you can use as a behavioral engineer.

I also don't mean to dismiss all of behavioral economics, or to imply that no progress has been made - I am simply responding to some of the common claims echoed by clients.

And no, not all straw men economists agree with me. That is a thoroughly disingenuous thing to say. The field has certainly moved on, I might be criticizing some old opinions, but they are opinions that were being echoed by people in the audience. Just because the originator might have changed her mind, doesn't mean the meme is gone.

"we are all rational, we act within the limits of the knowledge we have, and our ability to process that information."

Yeah, that was the entire point of the talk, Ramin and Chris. I'm glad we're on the same page on this.

Please keep in mind that I recorded this talk back in January, and it was not recorded as a response to the original article - I just posted it here now because I felt, perhaps erroneously, that it added something small to the conversation.

Also keep in mind that as such, this talk was designed to be entertaining, inspiring and memorable - there certainly are oversimplifications in there. My audience for that event was not as well-versed in these fields as the typical Gamasutra reader. You can only do so much with 15 minutes.

Thank you again for your great comment.

Chris Toepker
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First, you were in Beijing in January? What a pity! We could have met face to face. I was living there at the time! 你的中文怎樣?

Second, you're right to call me out on the comments. Given your audience and the 15 minutes, how could you have done more? It's pretty clear that it was meant to spark some new thoughts among neophytes.

Third, you make an interesting point about the meme not being gone, that the older, less subtle Prisoner's Dilemma understanding is still out. However, I think that ultimately the claim still rests on the semantics of "irrational."

Finally, I don't think it's important to pick that nit for the time being. As I said, I'm more interested in understanding behavior and games' ability to influence it.

Speaking for myself (andd without much scientific foundation I have to say) I have had faith in games' ability to speed "beneficial" understandings. That's because of games' innate ability to point toward and test out different kinds of strategies and develop real-world coping mechanisms through "repeat game" understandings and *experience* that viscerally (the brain doesn't know that its virtual oft times!) over and over again, with little real-world cost.

What I found most shaking about Ramin's (recent and past) articles is how the underlying mechanics of (especially F2P) games prey on behaviors players are not aware of. Indeed, behaviors and reinforcement of them, they might not even consider as part of the game. And that cycle can be quite insidious because the more successful the "external" mechanic, the more conditioned people come to respond and *think* of as positive or acceptable.

In that light, I think there is much to more deeply discuss in the rationality of addiction. Not to continue picking on the talk, but it only goes so far as to explain why people start smoking. In my opinion, rationality must include a certain amount of willpower and control. Therefore people who have lost control to quit due to nicotine addition lack rationality. This shows up as those who profess they *wish* they could quit, but cannot quite bring themselves to.

So, what do you think? Doesn't being rational imply a certain amount of control in the ability to decide? Surely you don't mean to imply that by being simply logical, you can be rational? How about when logic or reason or reasons are delusional? Just because the addict has swum past the point of no return, and it can be considered logical to keep going...doesn't mean it is rational, does it?

Be that as it may, I find the brain scan investigations into deciding and "game theory" done by Greene, and other work reported by Dixit in many of his books, to be particularly illuminating.

In any case, always happy to engage in topics such as these. I think that we game makers, since our products can influence behavior so heavily, have a particular responsibility to understand the potential...for good and ill.

Nils Pihl
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"Therefore people who have lost control to quit due to nicotine addition lack rationality. This shows up as those who profess they *wish* they could quit, but cannot quite bring themselves to."

No, they suffer from a condition that narrows their attention scope weights certain premisses more heavily.

Attention scope is not constant, and it is perfectly possible to WANT to stop picking your nose, WANT not to scratch yourself, WANT not to smoke - but still want to do all of those things when something narrows our attention scope.

I still live in Beijing :) We might have at BGIN meetups (if you were in the game industry while here) or at some conference. Who knows? Beijing is one the smallest big places in the world.

Anton Knyazyev
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An important thing to keep in mind is that the axiomatic foundation of presumably rational decisions consists of feelings or, more generally, subconscious reactions. People smoke simply because it feels good, not because they want to look cool (although the latter might be the reason they started). And eat because they want to and not to keep the body functioning (some other physiological activities can illustrate the point even better). Of course, one can argue that this behavior is still rational in a sense 'smoking feels good' therefore 'i should keep doing it', but that really almost reduces the term to a tautology. In fact, rationality is often used only to back-justify a decision that was already made.

Nils Pihl
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Very good point, Anton.

I hope you realize from the video that I think both words rational/irrational are sort of meaningless in the discussion (notice the slide "Rational is not rational.)

I was employing a rhetorical technique that might not have worked, but I am certainly not arguing that we should espouse tautological definitions.

Chris Toepker
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Me:"Therefore people who have lost control to quit due to nicotine addition lack rationality. This shows up as those who profess they *wish* they could quit, but cannot quite bring themselves to."

Nils: "No, they suffer from a condition that narrows their attention scope weights certain premisses more heavily."

Me adding new: This back and forth on what to call the state of mind is the semantics I've mentioned. I see someone earlier mentioned the definition and re-definition, so I won't repeat it.

On a personal note, I hope the air in The Jing treats you well. I had enough after about a year, returned to Hong Kong and points beyond. Here's hoping we will nevertheless meet face to face some time!

Nils Pihl
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I'm in Hong Kong frequently. Add me on some social network and we'll keep in touch.

Algirdas Davidavicius
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Dear Nils,

as a philosopher and social scientist two things strike me most about your publicly expressed ideas:

A. completely unemphatic and unethical ramifications of your "newtonian engagement" perspective (reminds of skinnerian or pavlovian behaviourism at it's political worst).
B. absolutely uncritical attitude towards the power accumulation rationale of private/state capital investors, i.e. capable buyers of "behavioural engineering" solutions ... .

It is hard to imagine a better example of huxleyan or orwellian dystopias becoming graspable reality than your postion of "behavioural engineering", indeed. Spooky ... . It seems, Snowden's revelations, NSAs or Hacking Teams of this world are just epihenomenon of this total IT-based behavioural controll of the masses your perspective provides. It appears even if you yourself have the finest rational reasons for such a public position, it's content and consequences obviously just aren't humane, sorry to state.

With all due respect to your accomplishments and force of mind – Algis

Nils Pihl
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Dear Algirdas,

As much as I would like to, I cannot take credit for human nature. These mechanisms work regardless of my work, or how publicly I express my ideas. I have not reprogrammed our brains for these mechanism to work.

I am not responsible for the ramifications of your neural chemistry.

I am not unaware, un-empathetic or uncritical towards its more pernicious applications.

I do believe, however, that an informed citizenry is the only defense against the dystopia you fear. What better way to guard yourself against manipulation than to more fully understand your weaknesses?

I submit to you that your seeing this as a dangerous tool of despotism, rather than a powerful tool of emancipation, says more about you than it does about me.

What does society stand to gain by only the buyers being aware of these techniques?


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