One problem in seeing life as a conglomeration of games is that sometimes we are not all playing the same game. We might think we are playing the same game and only later realize that the other involved were using completely different rules and were aiming for different goals. For example, we may be playing the governing game in which we think that the rules are that the person elected works for the benefit of the people he represents — for which job he receives an appropriate salary. We are later frustrated to find out that our elected official was playing another game in which he courted the interest of large companies and wealthy power-brokers to obtain personal power and campaign money so that he could get reelected and later have a job as a lobbyist for his benefactors. He might have represented us when it served his purpose, but his rules and his goals were not those of the governing game. Not that this only happens in government, it can also happen at work. A man is hired to play the working game. As part of this game, the man is expected to make telephone calls and sell some items or some service. In return, the man will have certain signals sent between the payroll department as his bank, resulting in further signals being sent between his bank and his mortgage company, utilities, magazine subscription office, cable provider, etc. Finally leading to him having a home, lights, water, gas, Scientific American, The Big Bang Theory, and a little money left over for groceries and (hopefully) savings. Later, the boss finds out that the man was really playing the filling-up-my-timecard game, in which he spends the day surfing the internet, hiding from his boss, and counting this as work. The list can go on forever. The question is, “How can we live together, cooperate, pursue our individual goals, and function as a society when we are not sure that we are all playing similar games?”
This idea struck me when I was in my psychiatry residency. One of my professors was giving a lecture on evolutionary psychology and wanted to address the evolution of cooperation. As an example, he divided the class up into pairs and had us play “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In this game, two people have to decide whether to cooperate with the other or to defect. Payoffs and punishments are determined by the combination of each player’s choices. (For more information see the Wikipedia entry for Prisoner’s Dilemma.) An analysis of the game shows that both payoffs and punishments are larger if one defects. The consistently best results occur in pairs that generally cooperate. The professor told us that each pair would play the game twenty times and the person winning the most points would get five dollars. I was a geek who had previously studied game theory and anticipated what he was wanting to show us. I turned to my partner and told her, “He wants us to see how cooperation rather than competition will win the prize. Let’s make a deal. I will always defect, and you always cooperate. You will, of course, lose; but I will surely win, since I will get the maximum payoff each time. When we get done, I’ll split the money with you. We’re guaranteed to make $2.50 each.” By playing the game, “Meta-Prisoner’s Dilemma,” we would win or at least tie, if another pair came up with the same idea. Regardless, though, we got money. The thought then crossed my mind that I could play another game privately. This “Meta-Meta-Prisoner’s Dilemma” would go this way. My partner would cooperate, as agreed. I would defect, as agreed. I would collect the winnings, as agreed. And I would keep it all, as the chief rule in my meta-meta-game. What fun!
Look around for examples. They are everywhere. The most common meta-games are those which can be entitled, “Let’s Screw Up So-and-So’s Game.” Sometimes the players actually pretend to play the game, and only later do we find out that they were playing the meta-game. Others make no pretense of every playing the game. Once admitted into the game, or after forcing their way into it, they openly take pleasure in the frustration of so-and-so.
Please understand. I am not saying that the meta-games are good or bad in themselves. Their value resides in how they are used. In war, sometimes the “Let’s Screw Up So-and-So’s Game” is a very valuable game. When used merely to hurt the innocent, it is a bad game. Sometimes the meta-games show us valuable, new ways of thinking about the original game. For example, there is a game where two players will choose numbers for one to nine (after being selected the number cannot be repeated by either player). The goal of the game is to select numbers such at any three of them total to 15. What kind of strategy could you devise to play this game well? It’s actually Tic-Tac-Toe! The player who recognizes this gains a great advantage in the game. If you don’t believe me, check out the Wikipedia entry for Tic-Tac-Toe and look under the section labeled “Variations.”
So back to the original question, “How can we live together, cooperate, pursue our individual goals, and function as a society when we are not sure that we are all playing similar games?” I don’t see an obvious answer. The first step, I guess, is to recognize that we are all playing our own games. Some players are trustworthy and will not play the meta-games. Some people see value in fairness. Some grab for any advantage they can get. Society may be able to limit the range of meta-games that its citizens participate in, but will this stifle innovation, ingenuity, and new discovery? Will this prevent those from outside our society from using these meta-games against us? Will it make it more likely that we will not recognize when these meta-games are being used to seize an unfair advantage? One thing is for sure — the games are not going away and clever people will not stop looking for new ways to win.