Thursday, September 23, 2010

Game Theroy for Writers part II. “No you go first, I insist.”

With this post I hope to give you another tool for you to demonstrate how intelligent your characters are. As writers, sometimes we are faced with having to write in a genius when we ourselves are not that smart. So how do we create an illusion of genius without having to devise the world’s greatest battle plan or business strategy? I think one tool could again be game theory.

In games, as in life, there are some things that you just naturally don’t want to go first in. One very good example would be rock, paper, scissors. If your opponent throws rock, well you’d be pretty stupid to not throw paper.

But then there are other games where going first has a distinct advantage. A great example of that would be a wild west shootout. If you get to shoot before the other person, then you stand a decent chance (assuming you’re not a horrible shot) of winning.

So now the question is how do we know when to go first (more specifically our game theory savvy genius of a character) and when to defer when the situation is not so obvious.

The answer is lies in the usefulness of information, and the chance of ending the game on the first move. I know this seems very basic, but please stick with me on this. Yes I know rock paper scissors and duels are done simultaneously, but that’s what makes these such clear examples.

So let us delve down into this idea. In the rock paper scissors example, there is a HUGE advantage of going last because 1) You gain the knowledge that allows you to make a winning move and 2) The other person can’t win unless you make a move. So that is pretty simple. Lets look at the shootout game. In that there is a HUGE advantage in going first because 1) You already know the other person is going to shoot at you, so you already know all the the information and 2) You can win without the other person having to make a move.

Now lets do something a little less obvious. Say there are two companies, A and B. They both have a new gadget, (say an mp3 player) that they think will revolutionize the industry. Now they both know that the other is going to release one of these and that there could be some bugs or features people don’t like. So introducing the second model would have the advantage of being better technically. But if you introduce first you can gain a reputation and market share that would dominate your competitors. So what do you do?

Obviously the answer to that is complicated and we would need a lot more information to solve this analytically. But thankfully we don’t have to because we are writers and we can make whatever we want happen. If your main character is the CEO of company A, you can have him choose either strategy, and you can decide if he succeeds or fails. What makes game theory useful is that you can SHOW the CEO thinking and coming up with their strategy in an intelligent manner yourself. Have them wrestle with this idea.

The same goes for a general in a battle. Sure you can make them appear smart by having them win the battle with whatever strategy you choose. But what I think would show their intelligence more would to have them go over these two variables and try to decide what to do.

Smart characters should be shown thinking to get the effect across, same as strong characters should be shown picking up boulders. If you want to demonstrate how physically strong your character is, you show them picking the boulder; you don’t just say the boulder was moved. Same goes with smart characters. You don’t have the smart general just win the battle by surprising the enemy. You show them weighing in these factors and deciding that perhaps we know enough about the enemy where we don’t have to wait first to see what formation they arrange themselves in.

Hope this helps.


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