Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ieuan, the Baneslayer, or Why Nicol Bolas Sacs a Shinewend Every Time You Make Another Win Con, Part 1

Magic designers often go through an extended period where they struggle to acquire a reasonable and consistent framework with which to evaluate potential designs, whether their own or those of others. In truth, as with any pursuit, most will never make the leap from deluded mediocrity to the zen enlightenment of honest and informed appraisal. Very few communities exist where honesty is tolerated, so it's hard to get into the habit of telling (and hearing) the truth. To make matters worse, the world abounds with people who dip their toes, enjoy, love, and then fervently believe their passion and interest alone make them peerless experts. But how often do any of us sincerely ask ourselves if we're one of them?

Yeah, yeah, I know, telling people they are unwitting victims of their own thought processes is so passé. If you have to listen to one more person spout authoritatively about Dunning-Kruger or any other form of cognitive bias based on a casual reading of a Wikipedia article that cites Malcolm Gladwell, you may attempt suicide by ASMR. But answer me this: at any point between the time when talking about metacognition and the pratfalls of our monkey brains was cool and fresh, and the time when it became a hackneyed cliché, did you figure out what to do about it?

Sure, we can all do our best to stay abreast of the latest XKCD comic that oh-so-coyly insinuates how hopelessly boorish anyone is that doesn't get it, but knowing really is only half the battle. How many people do you know that smoke, drink, eat, forego sleep, or do anything to unhealthy excess, while at the same time unironically acknowledging they really shouldn't?

"I've got to quit smoking."
"I drink too much."
"I really need to lose some weight."
"I've got to stop going to bed so late."
"I know all about the ways we fool ourselves into incorrect modes of thinking."

Knowledge of a problem doesn't make it disappear. People can (and regularly do) stare fact and reason in the face and continue to exhibit astonishingly poor judgment even when informed of it. And in a group setting, everyone feels enormous social pressure not to be honest in their evaluations of others, lest they be ostracized for being an uncivilized cretin that sees the worst in people. As a result, many communities are largely populated (and usually dominated) by less capable people that really believe they are great at whatever that community's shared interest is. Such people can almost never be made to recognize the need for self-reflection and improvement due to validation by their equally ignorant peers and satisfaction with their current station. Newcomers, unless uncommonly astute, diligent, and attentive, quickly become just another cog in the machine, another victim of the meme of self-affirming mediocrity.

Even in communities whose sole reason for existing is ostensibly to objectively evaluate members in accordance with one or more particular shared goals, blatant failures abound. Communities aren't comprehensive or inclusive enough. Administrators develop biases and ulterior motives. Rational discourse becomes dominated by progressively more insular bureaucracy as expression shifts from descriptive to increasingly meaningless and colloquial, perversely promoting camaraderie through exclusion. Cults of personality develop around one or a small number of people and few dare to speak out against them. Thus a culture of glorified inanity emerges.

As an example, consider, who was the defending champion in the skeet shooting event at the 1996 Summer Olympics? No one defended the title, but not because the 1992 gold medalist failed to qualify, or wasn't available, or wasn't willing to compete. No, the gold medalist was barred from competition. Why? Until 1996, skeet shooting at the Olympics was an "open" event, meaning it wasn't segregated by sex. And in 1992, for the first (and seemingly last) time, Zhang Shan, a woman, won the gold medal.

Zhang Shan's victory caused such an uproar among the misogynistic arbiters of the previously male dominated sport that all open shooting events at the Olympics were immediately abolished, and in 1996, only men were eligible to compete in Zhang Shan's event. The Olympic organizers didn't even make an "equivalent" event for women until 2000.

Naturally, the belated women's event was explicitly designed to make it impossible to directly compare the scores of men and women. Men shoot at a maximum of 150 targets, while women shoot at a maximum of just 100. This pointless variation in the rules, at the world's most storied and prestigious competitive forum, exists for no reason other than blatant sexism, to protect the fragile male ego.

Zhang Shan's victory wasn't a fluke, either. If women were still allowed to compete against men, they would be winning their share. In the London Olympics this year, a woman was once again the best in the world. Kim Rhode hit 99 of 100 targets (99%), while Vincent Hancock hit only 148 of 150 (98.6667%). I'll make another post soon detailing exactly how to calculate this, but, in short, assuming that for both Kim and Vincent, they each have a fixed percentage chance of hitting a target based on personal skill, one's performance doesn't affect the other, and P(Kim hits) and P(Vincent hits) are distributed uniformly and strictly between 0 and 1, there's a 52.6871% chance Kim's superior performance stemmed from superior ability.

Some communities are better than others, for various reasons. It's a lot harder to delude yourself into believing you're awesome at Starcraft when you've been stuck in silver league for months and your EAPM peaks somewhere in the neighborhood of 30. But no matter what objective and readily available systems exist for evaluating skill at a particular pursuit, there will always be a sizable population that won't – that can't – believe what those systems tell them. It's human nature. Even experts delude themselves, sometimes. Every time a grandmaster gets smashed by a Gaulzi cannon rush and rages at him to "learn to play for real", the primal ego has prevailed.

Of course, this article isn't really about skeet shooting, or Starcraft. Though what I've been talking about is generally applicable almost everywhere, my true aim at the moment is to get people to approach game design, and Magic design specifically, with a more careful, considered, and critical eye.

Continue on to Part 2, where I explain a method for doing just that.

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