Microtransactions, Speed Learning, and Absent-Mindedness

Reddit Threads

Last week was a historic one for Reddit. A reply by Electronic Arts on unlocking heroes in Star Wars Battlefront 2 became the most downvoted post in history, currently standing at -675k. It was in response to a customer’s complaint about microtransactions (paying for individual things within the game). Here is the original post:

ea_reddit_battlefront

And the infamous response:

ea_reddit_downvotes

I am generally on the side of EA, mainly because (1) money fuels game development, and (2) the Internet and especially sites like Reddit are prone to witch hunts. That said, I think the timing and bluntness of this particular response are mistakes. A vocal portion of the gaming community hates microtransactions, and defending the concept on a public platform like Reddit seems like an ill-conceived move.

As someone who plays a lot of videogames, I thought this drama really illustrated the debate on microtransactions. I used to be on the fence about it but now I’m clearly in favor of them.

  1. Microtransactions reduce the cost elsewhere. Games like Dota, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm (and just last week, Starcraft II) are free to play, where you aren’t at an in-game disadvantage if you are playing for free (though for some of them you don’t fully get the option to play all the heroes at a given time). Without microtransactions, the games would cost money up-front, and would be less popular and probably make less money overall.
  2. Companies make profits. That’s what they do. If a company spends a lot of money on a game and releases everything for free, you might have a good one-time bargain, but the company will go out of business and the long-term equilibrium state will be worse as there will be fewer competitors. On the flipside, if a company charges too much and nobody buys it, then it will also go out of business, and therefore the invisible hand pushes prices towards reasonable levels.

On the more social side, we all know that we live in political bubbles on social media, and it’s really the way the platform works. Facebook perpetuates bubbles by connecting real life groups of people together, and generally real life networks lean towards one side. Tumblr makes it very hard to argue a dissenting opinion. In addition, Facebook and Tumblr have only upvotes and no downvotes. Reddit is better in comparison, but even so, the combined effects of selection bias of who visits a subreddit and who cares enough to vote leads to populist inquisitions like this.

Speed Learning

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on “speed learner” Max Deutsch who, despite being a chess novice, challenged world champion Magnus Carlsen to a game with one month to learn the game. Carlsen accepted.

I’ve always thought of chess as an interesting game to think about in the context of learning, both human learning and machine learning. Like many other activities, it takes a lot of practice and mistakes to intuitively spot recurring patterns and motifs. Humans are very limited by computation speed, so a lot of the human aspect of the game is having good intuition, whereas computers can roughly calculate everything. I’ve also thought chess is something where a human cannot just read the rules, think about it logically for a long time, and then be really good at it. A thought experiment I always imagined is the following:

Take a young, smart person who doesn’t know how to play chess, and lock them in a room for 20 years. Give them access to all chess rules, chess books, articles, and so forth, but with the caveat that they are not allowed to play a single practice game. Provide them with sustenance and somehow incentivize them so that their only goal is to become the best person in the world at chess. At the end of the 20 years, sit them down across the board from Carlsen and go.

I would expect this person to get crushed in the game. Even if you change Carlsen to a lower ranking grandmaster, or even down to an IM, I think the no-experience person would be overwhelmingly likely to lose. The game requires so much practice and the brain version of muscle memory—reading about it theoretically only gets you so far.

In the article, Max Deutsch had only 1 month, though he could play games with people or computers. As expected, he got totally crushed. The WSJ article makes it sound like an interesting game, as if Deutsch had the advantage for a few moves, but that is nonsense. Carlsen played an odd opening to get Deutsch out of opening book (so by construction Deutsch had an “advantage”), and once Deutsch was out of theory, he makes multiple blunders that immediately sealed the game. It was clearly over on move 14. The blunders were the kind that most tournament players would have caught just from experience.

Chess is a game where, from a human vs human perspective, experience and intuition vastly outweigh theory. For now.

Absent-Mindedness

Here’s an article that argues the “absent-minded professor” is really a social dominance behavior. (h/t Marginal Revolution.)

All of this has persuaded me that absent-mindedness should be viewed in much the same way that Talcott Parsons viewed illness. At its root, it is a form of social deviance. Basically, everyone would love to be absent-minded, because it allows you to skip out on all sorts of social obligations. (Again, I have colleagues who miss meetings all the time, or show up hours late saying “I could have sworn we agreed to meet at 5pm…” No one ever shows up early because they forgot what time the meeting was at.) More generally, remembering things involves a certain amount of effort, it’s obviously much easier just to be lazy and forget things. The major reason that we don’t all act this way is that most people get sanctioned for it by others. Absent-mindedness, after all, is just another form of stupidity, and when ordinary people do things like forget where they parked their cars, they get punished for it. People say things to them like, “what are you, stupid?” It’s in order to avoid being seen as stupid or incompetent by others that they feel motivated to make the effort to do things like remember where they parked their car.

Becoming a university professor, however, is a pretty good way of exempting oneself from suspicion of outright or base stupidity. When university professors do stupid things, people don’t say to them “oh my god, you’re so stupid,” or “stop being such an idiot,” instead they start making excuses, like “there he goes with his head in the clouds again,” or “he must have more important things on his mind.” In other words, they give you a free pass. Not only can you get away with being stupid, you wind up with social license to become even more stupid.

I feel like this has some truth to it, but I would also guess there’s another good explanation that accounts for a lot of it—people generally want to fit in, and if there are other absent-minded professors around, new ones will tend to be more absent minded. Similarly, we all know famous stories of great scientists/academics who made great discoveries while being absent-minded (the Archimedes “Eureka” story being the archetypal, even if apocryphal). Emulating the great minds of the past seems like something we encourage.

In addition, there are plenty of absent-minded people who don’t hold much power if any, and the article’s explanation obviously doesn’t apply to them.

But I will agree that probably part of absent-mindedness in certain areas of academia is influenced by this. I would take it further and say that a lot of minor personal details, not just absent-mindedness, are all partly social dominance behaviors. Overall, the article is an interesting read, though I mostly disagree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s