Friday, December 5, 2008

Rationality and Diminishing Returns

Long ago, when Bill Clinton was president and reality television hadn't yet destroyed the American psyche, I spent a summer term in an intro to world politics class at a school that had not yet officially admitted me, with my stoner roommate and the non-talkative girl I had a crush on at the time and a professor who I believe has now become a sorcerer of some sort. I took four classes with this prof, slowly making my way up to an A--I think the A- I got for a 92.25% was sending me a message--but the first thing I remember from my short time as a poli-sci major was realism, and its Dark Knight Returns cousin neorealism. After the collapse of political idealism in the epic clusterfuck of World War I--the bloodiest, most hideous folly of human cruelty and stupidity until the next one a couple decades later--political realism sure seemed like a pretty sound theory, and held sway nicely through the cold war. Look it up; I don't really plan to explain it here, but if you pay attention to international politics, it's a concept with which you're familiar. And if you're a cynical dude, it's obvious and intutive. But I am not a cynical dude, all evidence to the contrary--I prefer hyperskeptic idealist, myself--and the view of human nature that political realism always seems to be coupled with, even if it's not strictly part of the theory, always rubbed me the wrong way. It's a view that's constitutive of the doctrine of total depravity, and therefore has its tendrils in much modern Protestant thought, as well as every consdescending lecture about "the real world" you ever received from a parent, teacher, or court-appointed psychiatrist. Put simply, I find it rather unfathomable that people spend so much time and effort thinking about right and wrong if they honestly believe that we're all a bunch of bastards who couldn't choose right if we wanted to, which we don't. In practice, total depravity is commonly deployed as a descriptor of everyone else's behavior, but is rarely (in my experience) argued coherently.

So, walking home one day, I stopped at one of those lovely sidewalk book sales that periodically dot the Cambridge landscape, and picked up a copy of Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society. It's a hell of a title, aside from the fact that it seems to have been so named in an effort to market to me, personally; it's a marketing practice reminiscent of Become Who You Were Born to Be, which I believe was designed to appeal to the tastes of Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Anyway, Niebuhr neatly dovetails political realism and original sin in a way that makes eminently more sense (to me, at least) than either of them do separately. To wit: though morality is neither wholly rational nor wholly social, the keeping of the Christian moral law--which is short, and you should know it by now--does require a rational mind, the ability to see ourselves and our neighbors as equivalent when our sensory perceptions and emotional reactions plainly think it's stupid. And yes, Virginia, small groups can behavor morally, with effort and forethought. However, the world does not consist of small groups, but a series of nested groups of varying size, and groups are not rational. Niebuhr suggests a kind of law of diminishing return for rationality among groups, and at a sufficiently large level, groups are incapable of acting in any interest other than their own. (There's a lot of "ifs" in here, of course, in that one could argue that all manner of moral behavior operates from self-interest, if one happens to be a psychological egoist, but I digress.)

Whatever the virtues of Niebuhr's theories--it's fascinating and thought-provoking, right or wrong--videogame design does seem to reflect a similar perspective. When we talk about moral choice in games, we almost exclusively do so in terms of individuals. Fable, The Sims, GTA, etc. What would even make sense as a "moral decision" in, say, SimCity?

I'm not sure if this is something new design ideas could surmount; the serious games movement has pointed in that direction with its public policy angle (public policy can be interpreted as a means to moral action by groups, but Niebuhr has some thoughts on that as well), but it does seem that we have an awfully hard time conceiving of morality outside of small groups, or imagining anything outside of self-interest for larger ones. The philosophers, of course, have gleefully attempted to reduce all morality to one or the other, to varying degrees of success. And perhaps it is the job of systems-thinking to help us learn to think both morally and collectively.

This, he mused, he must think hard upon.

Character Sheet

Back in the day, I had the good fortune to be friends with a bunch of nerds. These nerds, taken collectively, connected me to most of the various nerd tribes, but there was a specific preponderance of Tolkien among their specific schools of nerditude. 2000-2003 were good years to be a Tolkien nerd, thanks to the efforts of various Australians, and it was comparatively easy to pick up my slack in that area. (Full disclosure: I still have not read Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, but got caught up in thesis prep about 60 pages into The Two Towers. So my thoughts on Tolkien aren't exactly authoritative.)

My nerd lineage starts with videogames and spreads out from there. I've never seen the pre-Special Edition Star Wars, and therefore never saw any of them until I was 15 years old. Nonetheless, at 15, I developed a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the universe through games and a wonkish interest in Joseph Campbell. Similarly, I've never played Dungeons & Dragons, but picked up the basics of the ruleset through adaptations, and the elements that spread throughout the RPG genre. So, as I watched the Rings movies, I'd see a lot of things I recognized from various RPGs, many of them Japanese, and my Tolkien nerd friends would smugly assert that, of course, everything in the fantasy genre has a straight line back to Tolkien.

I thought this was a little odd at the time, in that even I knew that Gary Gygax and company had at least one other major influence, Robert E. Howard, in establishing the D&D universe. From what I've read since then, it turns out that Gygax wasn't a big fan of Tolkien--he liked the American pulps, mostly--and the references to LOTR in D&D mostly amount to marketing ploys. More to the point, however, what makes D&D important has very little to do with evocative world-making. I don't know if Gygax's rule system was the first or even the most effective of its time, but it seems to me that the relevant thing about D&D as it relates to videogames and simulation in general is that it devised a system for measuring human behavior through the narrativized interaction of random and non-random statistics.

Case in point: A D&D character is fundamentally comprised of 6 base statistics: Strength ("the muscle and physical power of your character"), Dexterity ("agility, reflexes and balance"), Constitution ("the health and stamina of your character"), Intelligence ("how well your character learns and reasons"), Wisdom ("willpower, common sense, perception and intuition"), and Charisma ("force of personality, persuasiveness, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness").

Ok, that's all well and good, but what do they do? Narrative niceties aside, the issue is how it ties into actual gameplay. (I'll be referring to the NWN ruleset here, so, y'know, take heed.) Strength covers carrying capacity, melee weapon damage, and the "discipline" skill, which resists various combat skills. Dexterity covers bow damage and dodging, as well as hiding, sneaking, lock picking, parrying, pickpocketing, and setting traps. Constitution covers HP (i.e. how much damage one could soak up and survive), as well as concentration and the barbarian's "rage" ability. Wisdom allows characters to ask more insightful questions to NPCs to get better information, covers divine magic for clerics, druids, paladins and rangers, enhances monks' dodging abilities, and contributes to healing, listening, and looking. Intelligence covers the acquisition of new skills (general learning speed), as well as arcane magic for wizards and the disable trap, lore, search, and spellcraft (counter-magic) skills. Charisma covers arcane magic for bards and sorcerers and contributes to animal empathy, singing, persuasion, taunting, and using magic devices.

So we're now in a bit deeper; certainly better than the bare-bones "physical/mental/other" trinity from which most RPG rulesets are, ahem, divined. And we've covered a good many things a hypothetical person could do, with a semi-coherent system for what skills govern which actions.

What interests me most at this point is the treatment of the mind: at first glance, two of the main stats, intelligence and wisdom, seem to cover this category. The manual notes that high intelligence and low wisdom makes for something of an idiot savant, while high wisdom and low intelligence makes for a kind of non-specific street smarts. After all, "wisdom" comprises a fairly wide array of concepts--willpower, common sense, perception and intuition--it's a pretty heavy stat, from a narrative level. (Notably, Arcanum goes to the trouble of breaking it into "willpower" and "perception.") So we have two stats standing in for "mind." Except...charisma? That's more "interpersonal" than smart, so maybe that's a third category. And once we're into threes, hoo boy. One could alternatively divy up the stats into physical, mental and spatial/temporal, or internal, external and liminal: strength and constitution for the objective, visible world, intelligence and charisma for mind and speech (speech being, in this projection, a manifestation of the inner self), dexterity and wisdom for the relation of the world to the self. That these pairings seem to oppose each other--constitution makes enemies' strength less effective, wisdom counteracts dexterity skills--adds some legs to this model.

One more thing about these skills, which have (of course) evolved considerably over many iterations of D&D: saving throws. Certain attacks, curses, etc. can be turned aside by fortitude (constitution), will (wisdom), or reflex (dexterity) saves. In the 4th edition ruleset, all six stats contribute to saving throws, essentially pairing off the starting six: strength and constitution, dexterity and intelligence, wisdom and charisma. And this pairing also makes a kind of sense, which raises a new question: do any of these stats really work in isolation? I mean, in the universe we actually inhabit?

In practice, it's difficult to build muscle without also improving endurance and general cardiovascular health. Dexterity is a matter for people with more medical knowledge than I, but there's certainly a fairly significant physical component. Similarly, how well can one actually think with an unhealthy body? If the brain itself--a physical organ that runs on oxygen and regulates an unfathomably complex machine via electrochemical signals--doesn't problematize mind/body dualism, perhaps the ubiquity of anti-depressants in modern American society will. And shouldn't the "willpower" part of wisdom affect all of these?

Working from this concept, one could easily split up the starting six into primary and secondary groups, making the secondary stats by combining the primary. Wisdom and dexterity are pretty convincing as the building blocks of charisma, at least where I'm stanging--dexterity is already associated, metaphorically, with wit and mental processes, and a general comfort with and awareness of one's company and surroundings is always the part of interpersonal relations at which I suck.

There are a theoretically infinite number of these kinds of models that can be produced, of course, even with a relatively small number of variables, just by rearranging the relationships between them. And each of these models would no doubt be consistent with some aspects of observed or imagined reality and not others. RPGs aren't my favorite genre to play, but they're definitely my favorite genre to think about, for the same reason I find my liberal-arts-major knowledge of science so useful in my everyday walkin' around time: it gives you a new way to look at your regular, boring-ass life.