Rules and MetarulesBy
â€œAnything that can be done can be done meta.â€ – Charles Simonyi
It’s probably not necessary to explain here what â€œmetaâ€ means, but I’ll quote from Wikipedia anyway:
Meta- (from Greek: Î¼ÎµÏ„Î¬ = “after”, “beyond”, “with”, “adjacent”, “self”), is a prefix used in English (and other Greek-owing languages) to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.
I’m going to discuss metarules: rules about rules. This post is not intended to be complete or comprehensive, merely to get you thinking, to use the now-hackneyed expression, â€œout of the boxâ€ about game rules. (Etymology note: a hackney is a taxicab, so how can an overused phrase be like a taxicab? Has it been driven back and forth until someone vomited in the back seat? Yes, that must be it.) In order to get outside a box it is first necessary to realize that there is a box. In this case, the box is the set of written or unwritten game rules governing whatever game it is the players are playing.
While the reader may be reminded of the book Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse, am not referencing it to any great extent here. This post is more about game theory as applied to the game rules themselves. It’s also informed somewhat by Timothy Leary’s approach to studying human social games. (He was a modern Galileo and is still regarded more as shunned heretic than revolutionary researcher). Here follow a few metarules:
- In order to win, you must understand the rules.
- That which is not forbidden is permitted.
- Alternate, physics version: That which is not forbidden is mandatory.
Once, a friend who’d previously lived in Arizona challenged me to pick his car from a lot containing some two dozen others. I stood there and looked the lot over, and said â€œI can’t tell.â€ He chided me, saying he never said I couldn’t take a closer look at all the cars. His had a couple of stickers on it revealing membership in certain Arizona professional groups.
The moral here was that I was free to solve the problem in an almost limitless field of freedom. In theory I could have copied all the license plates and gone to the registry. I could have dusted the door handles for prints. It wasn’t forbidden.
In the natural sciences a more extreme version of this game rule seems to hold that if something can happen it will, given time, space and energy. For example, life seems to appear with near certainty where conditions permit, and NASA scientists are nearly convinced there was life on Mars.
A couple of pop-culture examples from recent movies illustrate some game metarule principles. In The Dark Knight Heath Ledger’s Joker is Homo Ludens (â€œMan, the playerâ€) taken to the most nihilistic extreme. His game is to turn all society’s games inside out:
â€œYou know… You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!â€
The Joker has an unerring sense of the Achilles’ heel in everyone else’s game:
Batman: Where is Dent?
The Joker: You have all these rules and you think they’ll save you.
Lt. James Gordon: [Batman slams the Joker against a wall] He’s in control.
Batman: I have one rule.
The Joker: Then that’s the rule you’ll have to break to know the truth.
Batman: Which is?
The Joker: The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules. And tonight you’re gonna break your one rule.
Batman: I’m considering it.
The Joker: No, there’s only minutes left, so you’re gonna have to play my little game if you want to save one of them.
He then proceeds to feed Batman information that is almost true, but is false in one crucial particular; this is a favorite Joker tactic.
In No Country For Old Men we see the prodigiously homicidal Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) toy with a man who owns a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
Anton Chigurh: What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss.
Gas Station Proprietor: Sir?
Anton Chigurh: The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.
Gas Station Proprietor: I don’t know. I couldn’t say.
[Chigurh flips a quarter from the change on the counter and covers it with his hand]
Anton Chigurh: Call it.
This is an asymmetrical game: the gas station proprietor does not know he will die if he loses the toss, though he may sense it. According to Chigurh’s none too normal philosophy, this man has been playing an unworthy game for high stakes for a very long time anyway:
Gas Station Proprietor: Well, we need to know what we’re calling it for here.
Anton Chigurh: You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.
Gas Station Proprietor: I didn’t put nothin’ up.
Anton Chigurh: Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life you just didn’t know it.
Chigurh, earlier in this encounter, almost choked with laughter or disbelief when the man explained how he came to be here:
Chigurh: You live in that house behind the store?
Proprietor Yes I do.
Chigurh: You’ve lived here all your life?
Proprietor: This was my wife’s father’s place. Originally.
Chigurh: (coughs) You married into it.
Proprietor: We lived on Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family there. In Temple. We come out here about four years ago.
Chigurh: You married into it.
Proprietor: …If that’s the way you wanna put it.
Chigurh: I don’t have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.
It’s one thing, Chigurh seems to be saying, to marry the boss’s daughter and hope to gain advancement in a big business. But to do this for an empire one can almost spit across? This rouses his contempt and he chooses to telescope the man’s life wager into a single coin toss.
- Asymmetry metarule: the players may not be playing the same game.
- Asymmetrical knowledge metarule: The player who knows there is an asymmetry is the one who knows the rules.
- Asymmetrical Knowledge Corollary: The player who does not know about the asymmetry does not know the rules and therefore cannot win.
- Second Asymmetrical Knowledge Corollary: The player who does not even know he is playing a game does not know the rules and therefore cannot win.
Example: anyone who criticizes the extreme concentration of wealth in the United States will be attacked for “engaging in class warfare.” This in spite of Warren Buffett’s statement that â€œThereâ€™s class warfare, all right, but itâ€™s my class, the rich class, thatâ€™s making war, and weâ€™re winning.â€ It’s important to the very rich that this war remain asymmetrical, and a key stronghold of asymmetry is that discussion of the topic should be taboo.
In a close parallel to this, I once saw one of those true-crime shows on TV in which an expert explained how John Wayne Gacy, a flabby middle-aged man and sometime party clown, could kill at least 33 young men without some of them overpowering him. According to the expert, a favorite method involved showing the prospective victim a pair of trick handcuffs which easily came undone with a a simple twist of the wrists. Gacy would escape from them in front of him, then behind. If the young man let Gacy put the cuff on his wrists in front of him, he too easily escaped.
Then Gacy set up the end game: if the youth could be convinced to don the cuffs from behind, Gacy would reach into his barber-style shirt, with its two large pockets, silently switching a real pair of cuffs. Only now would the victim learn the true nature of this asymmetrical game, and it was all downhill from there.
I mention Gacy’s game because I think the GOP’s gradual packing of the Supreme Court with ultra-conservative corporate judges was of this type. The importance of future Supreme Court nominations to every Presidential election has consistently been an (intentionally?) underreported facet of electoral coverage. The significance of this observation should be made clear by Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
- It is possible for both/all players to be ignorant of rules and asymmetries, which tends to create lose/lose scenarios.
- Win/win scenarios are generally only possible when both/all players seek a win/win.
- Barring that, if one player seeking a win/win brings other overwhelming advantages to the game, a win/win may still be possible.
This seems to be the exception in games between adults, but is the norm with raising children. Your child may not want to eat the spinach, but you’ve got more strength, wit, experience, and control. You can withold the cake until at least half the vegetables are eaten, and the child will not be able to thwart you any time soon. Especially if he won’t eat healthy food. In the end it’s a win/win because you actually want him to grow up healthy.
When adults play the I-know-better-and-this-is-for-your-own-good game against other adults, it’s much more likely to be an imposture and a defrauding. Ask yourself: does the Federal Reserve Bank really know better, and are they really doing it for your own good? How about Goldman Sachs? The CIA?
It’s also important to
- Know what you are trying to win.
Both people and governments fall into various pitfalls in which they waste time, effort and resources on ill-defined or futile games, truing to recover already sunk costs, trapped by logical fallacies. Consider the assertion “We cannot abandon Iraq now, for that would mean all the lives already lost were wasted.” Only total victory is acceptable, even though it’s not as common in the real world as stalemates and exhaustion are. So assume total victory for one side: then does not the other side have motive to keep fighting, if it can, so that its casualties were not “meaningless”? Logically either someone must accept that the struggle was futile, or all continue fighting until the end of humanity. Knowing what you are trying to win prevents you from pushing all your chips in for some false goal.
It also suggests a corollary:
- If the other player’s goal seems absurd, perhaps it is not his true goal.
Not that it will always be easy to tell, and in any case players can have multiple goals. We can say with confidence, however, that if a foreign power occupies an oil-rich land and places the real levers of power in the hands of undemocratic, politically connected profiteers and warlords, the ostensible goal of “bringing democracy” isn’t likely to have been the real goal.
- If rule changes are not forbidden, they are permitted.
- Any method of changing rules which is not forbidden is permitted.
In 1947 the Austrian-born mathematician Kurt GÃ¶del went with his friends Albert Einstein and game theory co-inventor Oskar Morgenstern to take his citizenship test, but he had to be hushed up when he asserted that there was a logical flaw in the Constitution which could allow a dictatorship. It seems likely that his problem was with Article V: that although there are procedures which must be followed to create a new amendment, there’s no limit of any sort on what that amendment can say. It could say, â€œAll other parts of the Constitution are null and void, Glenn Beck is now King, All Hail The King.â€ However, Laurence Tribe and others pooh-pooh the risk; it’s hard to pass an amendment of any sort. The most recent, Amendment XXVII, which says â€œNo law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.â€ It was passed in 1992, having been proposed on September 25, 1789.
There are, of course, easier ways of changing the game rules.
- If you change the rules, it becomes a different game.