Thursday, April 12 2007

Objectives, Games, and Ludicrous Conspiracy Theories

(Before we get started with a discussion of games and how they relate to logical analysis of current events, read this article by Bill Whittle at Eject! Eject! Eject!)

As I have mentioned, one of my hobbies is playing games of all sorts.   Card, board, miniature, roleplaying, computer, console... you name it. Although it may seem simple to say, the key to success is to always remember what the objective of the game is.  Again, this is often something that seems simple to do.  In chess, your objective is to put your opponents king in a position where he cannot save it from capture.  In Clue, your objective is to determine which suspect, location, and weapon card have been set aside.  This is generally pretty easy to do.

Matters are complicated when you start determining what series of steps are necessary to reach that final objective.  There is an old board game called Assassin.  It's generally similar to Monopoly, in that you travel around a board amassing money and resources, with the added step of then using the money to hire assassins to attempt to kill the other players.  The objective of the game is to be the last player alive.  But you can't do that without hiring assassins to remove other players, and for that you need money, and so most of the game is about making money.  The problem gets to be with players who focus on making money to the level of forgetting about the part about spending the money to off the other players.  He who dies with the most money, still dies.
To get to the objective requires planning, especially in the more complicated games. This is especially true with games that have multiple routes towards victory.  The game Puerto Rico has as the objective the amassing of Victory Points by the players, with the winner being the player with the most Victory Points at the end of the game.  Victory Points are acquired by either producing and shipping goods or building buildings.  In order to be competitive at the game, one needs to have some idea what methods work best towards increasing your capacity to get victory points in the future and plan ahead, and one must make decisions between getting a few victory points now and getting more points later.  Depending on the player mix and turn order, there are many successful strategies.  One must also be able to look at the situation and tell when a plan is not working or a better plan is unexpectedly possible, and when and at what level to abandon the existing plan.

Roleplaying games present a more complicated set of objectives.  Some of the objectives are not written down, and both the players and the GM may add their own objectives.  Furthermore, in traditional tabletop games, he objectives are generally not competitive, in that the players can benefit from helping each other reach their individual objectives.  Finally, players have the freedom to think of alternative methods to reach the objectives than what the game creators, both authors and GM, had intended.

The final level of complication for game objectives are competitive roleplaying games, such as often found in live action roleplaying, in which each player is often somewhat free to develop their own set of objectives for their character, many of which will directly oppose other objectives held by other players, and all of which are generally kept hidden.  This is where you get to have fun being the trecherous backstabbing, blackmailing bastard you know you'd be if  you didn't have laws or a conscience.    Furthermore, depending on the scenario and rules, characters may have access to any means of accomplishing their goals including various supernatural abilities in a fantasy setting.  When you have to deal with enemies who can shapeshift or use mind control or can supernaturally tell if you are lying, it throws a whole additional dimension into the level of planning required to reach your goal, but the available means at your disposal increases as well.

One of my favorite college gaming experiences involves a live-action game with a plot involving vampires and various and sundry other gothic horrors at a big vampire conference.  As far as anyone could tell, my characters' objective involved 'surviving the night', which was pretty much a common objective.  In order to try to be friendly, I asked a pair of unsavory looking types to carry a 'briefcase' for me to my 'car trunk'.  The GM describes the imaginary contents of the trunk to the pair: a second briefcase, a large gun,  a very large improvised firebomb...  The pair, actually being up to no good, tell the GM that they grab the very large improvised firebomb and attempt to return to the group.  Bad idea, fatally bad, to be precise.  One of my characters' objectives was, in fact, keeping the conference secure, and I had just eliminated two serious troublemakers without having to do anything risky at all.  Well, anything risky aside from explaining to a vampire prince why my character had a large firebomb in the trunk of his car, or a decent fake firebomb at any rate.  (This being a game, no actual guns, bombs (real or fake), death or vampires were involved.)

At any rate, in a competitive roleplaying game, one learns about opponents objectives by watching their actions.  The pair I eliminated from the game made the mistake of taking actions which telegraphed their objectives.  My actions were chose to mask my objectives and capabilities as much as possible.  Still, it was possible to learn something about what my objectives were by looking at the deliberate actions I took.  I had planned ahead and specified the large, phony firebomb that was in my characters' car trunk.  There are only so many uses such a device can have.  I also had to deliberately ask the pair to take the briefcase to the car trunk.  The vampire prince character was confronted with a pair of enemies who, at my behest, went to my car trunk.   From there, they removed and partially armed a large firebomb and attempted to sneak said bomb into his conference.  He therefore concluded that one of my objectives was to destroy the conference, and acted on that assumption to question me.  Only with the additional evidence that the bomb was a fake was his perception of my objective changed.  One looks at the deliberate actions to see what the objectives are.  (As an aside, someone later came to me and purchased the large gun, knowing that the bomb had been fake and that my characters' objective was to keep the conference secure, with the intention of using said gun to disrupt said conference.  This ended with the GM pounding on the floor, laughing.)

Now, how does this relate to modern, real-world conspiracy theories?  Lets take a jump to the current controversy over the events of September 11th, 2001, referenced in Bill Whittle's essay.  Lets, for a moment, ignore the technical debunking of the whole conspiracy nonsense.  For the sake of argument, lets also say that an all powerful conspiracy with  limitless resources exists, and this conspiracy has an objective of perpetrating an atrocity in the US for a nefarious reason and the means to carry it out.  Lets jump to their secret headquarters as they make plans for September 11th.

Minion 23:  "You summoned me, X Boss?"
X Boss:  "I'm just going over the plans for the big event.  What is this section XVII budget?"
Minion 23: "Well, that's the budget for planting explosives in WTC 7."
X Boss:  "Why?"
Minion 23:  "Well, we've only got a limited number of covert ninja demolition experts, and they're demanding overtime..."
X Boss:  "Why are we planting explosives in WTC 7?"
Minion 23:  "So it will collapse on schedule, of course..."
X Boss:  "Why do we even want to cause WTC 7 to collapse?  How does that help us meet our objective of starting a major war in the middle east?"
Minion 23:  "Uhhhh..."

The conspiracy theorists, with their super secret insights into the vast conspiracy, are seeing what they want to see.  If WTC 7 was brought down by explosives, time and effort had to be spent deliberately to make the building fall.  Not only is it impossible to have rigged the building in real life (unlike our hypothetical scenario), there's no logical reason for them to have done so, as it does not support the objectives of the whole operation.  For that matter, rigging WTC 1 and 2 with explosives does not really advance the main objective.  The conspiracy theorists are making up plans that fit their version of what happened and treating these plans as gospel despite the fact that these retroconned plans are illogical and don't fit together with the assumed objective or each other.

The overall concept behind the conspiracy in general is a cultural product we'll examine in a future discussion on anime and movies.

In the meantime, ponder this:  What is the 23rd letter of the alphabet?  Ewige Blumenkraft!

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