Friday, February 24, 2006

Simultaneous Action Selection, Bluffing and Other Mechanisms of Little "Skill"

Geeks love these kinds of discussions.

Jim over at The Gamer's Mind talked about Simultaneous Action Selection and randomness.

Thi Nguyen picked it up and made a counter-argument in Geeklist form.

I'm not really interested directly in the debate here, although it IS excellent reading for the hardcore gamer. I'm more interested in the use of the word "skill" within that discussion.

What follows here is my personal interpretation of the arguments in the articles preceding.

People seem to define "skill" as a game element where players' decisions have a meaningful impact. I.e., making a deliberate decision based on available information should give the player a better game result. So, this opens a different yet not-less-significant can of worms.

First: If a decision is based on pure conjecture, is it skill? Is "reading" your opponents a valid "skill"? Some, especially poker players, will argue this to be true.

Second: If a player makes a decision based on statistical probabilities, is there skill involved? The Rock-Paper-Scissors example cited in Thi's list is a simple example here. Now, if in the counter-example in the same list where you have "Good ol' Rock" Bart Simpson likely to pick Rock, a player (Lisa) makes decisions based on THAT assumption, it becomes "reading" the opponent OR using preacquired information. Is that skill? Is there skill involved in (a) knowing Bart picks Rock a lot and (b) therefore playing Paper more often than you otherwise would?

Third: If a player makes a decision based on perceived outcomes that he attempted to influence, but where he is uncertain of the outcome of his influence -i.e., Diplomacy - is this skill? Is a player who is backstabbed more often a player of less skill?

Fourth: I'm adding this as an afterthought. Are decisions based on historical information "skill"? This is part of the Simpson idea in the second item, where Lisa has information on Bart's tendencies when playing Rock-Paper-Scissors. It's also one of the "skills" poker players tend to cite - knowing how other players play. This explicitly means you are using "metagame" information - information obtained outside of the current game.

In all four cases, I would argue that there is no skill, as I define it. The reason is that the decisions a player makes is based purely on conjecture, or on information coming from outside of the current game. I would call this making decisions based on "peripheral information". This information is not coming directly from the game, but from the players. Is this part of the game? Maybe, but I would disagree. I *might* even call it cheating to an extent.

It's like playing poker on the internet. The only information you have is the amount of the bids and the bidding pattern. Poker players tend to not consider this as "real" poker because they lose the peripheral information they get from physical cues. Anyone can count cards when playing online with the use of pen and paper. So all you have now is the bidding, which is essentially how one bluffs. Without peripheral information, it's not much use game mechanism-wise. So the game of poker, without the peripheral information, is barely more skillful than blackjack.

Yes, yes, some gamers will call this "interaction". Any game has that. Even a game like Puerto Rico contains these elements. If I know that Billy prefers the corn strategy and he's sitting on my right, I can use that information in decision-making. If I know that Mary always bids in increments of five in Modern Art, I can use that information too. And if I know that Gerald is a pathological liar in Diplomacy, I'll play as if he's gonna backstab me every damned time.

Is that "skill"?

No, it's not. The ability to take current game information and only current game information and make a meaningful decision based on that - now THAT is skill. You MUST remove any peripheral information, such as historical preferences of the other players, from the mix. Decisions based on probabilities - my goldfish can do that. "Princess Bride" decisions also identify game mechanisms where skill in not involved. Same thing with "bluffing".

So you poker players out there - you're playing a game that requires very little skill.


ekted said...

Nice post. I'd also like to point out that at no time have I made the connection that Randomness (or SAS) equates to not fun. And from this post, I would also say that Skill also does not equate to fun. There are plenty of games with SAS and/or lack of skill that are enjoyable.

Rick said...

Agreed. Fun is a whole other animal that deserves its own post, or series of posts...

Linnaeus said...

So am I supposed to be the lying bastard in the Diplomacy example? hmmmm?

Joe Gola said...

Let's make up a hypothetical scenario. Arturo and Benny are friends who both love to play poker together. Arturo is a player who always plays the percentages, who never bluffs, who does not pay much attention to his opponents, who routinely displays his excitement when he has a good hand, and who will predictably get flustered when losing and begin placing large bets on weak hands. Benny is a player who used to be much like Arturo, but who made a concerted effort to change the way that he plays. Now Benny watches his opponents to see if he can guess how strong their hands are; he is unsatisfied with the chance element of cards and so occasionally tries to convince other players that he has better hands than he does in the hopes that they will fold; he does not show emotion when he is dealt a good hand, and at times will even feign uncertainty with a good hand in the hopes that other players will stay in the hand; he is able to stay calm and keep his head when losing.

Now, if the two friends play together regularly, who do you think will win more money at the table in the long run, Arturo or Benny? Furthermore, couldn't the result of the work, cleverness and concentration that Benny applies to the game be considered a skill just as much as the result of the work, cleverness and concentration it takes to perform look-ahead in a different game? The American Heritage dictionary defines skill as "proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience." Your definition of skill seems to be narrowed to "facility at logic and math."

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Joe!
To be honest your post about a poker game (I talking about Texas Hold’em) to be a game without skill made me laugh.

People like you is the ones paying my rent… and I’m glad there are so many of you out there thinking the same, so keep up the good work, I take your cash any day ;)