Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cognitive Bias and Games

Sometimes I wonder how well suited our monkey brains are for playing games.  The list of cognitive biases we innately possess is long.  Their relevance to how we interact with games shouldn't be underestimated.  And even when you know about them, there seems to be little you can do to stop them from happening to you in the moment.  Different ones seem to afflict different people.  Plus some games just seem to fall prey to them more than others.

Illusion of Control

The Illusion of Control is when you think you have a say in events completely outside of you.  You see this one all the time in dice games.  When someone is rolling well, they take credit for it.  The fact that I rolled 8 exploding 6's in a row in Chaos in the Old World was all skill.  I meant for that to happen.  I'm taking complete credit for that.  

It is of course paired with it's inverse.  Someone does something incredibly stupid, then dismisses their role in it as bad luck.  I may have attacked your wall of infantry with a single cavalry, but come on!  What was supposed to happen, was that I force some infantry to retreat, then get a bonus attack, kill more infantry, then advance into the woods where it's safe.  That this didn't happen exactly as I wanted is clearly just bad luck.

Gambler's Fallacy

You can't talk about cognitive fallacies in games without mentioning the Gambler's Fallacy.  It's when you think you have a certain die result coming.  You've been rolling 1's all night, so clearly a 6 is headed your way soon!

Gambler's Fallacy is one I know I suffer from.  There are days I absolute swear by it.  I'm still not convinced it is entirely a fallacy.  That's how pervasive it is.  I can't tell you the number of times I was playing Commands & Colors, and I've decided the targets of my attack based purely on whether I think I'm due some greens or some blues.  I even convinced myself this is a helpful thing to keep track of.  I even plan to continue doing it.  My monkey brain is too compelled to, by the following fallacy.

Confirmation Bias

Lots of people know about this one.  Confirmation Bias is when you look for results that reinforce what you already believe.  You also dismiss events which contradict your beliefs.  But it relates to games mostly by attributing your success or failure to things that had nothing to do with it.  Like adhering to the Gambler's Fallacy for instance.  Or sticking to a superstition.  Sometimes it manifest in downright unpleasant ways when it gets together with it's close cousin...

Negativity Bias

Negativity Bias is essentially pessimism.  All a person sees is the bad.  The glass is always half empty.  In games it manifest as those nights where everything is going awful.  All we see is the litany of awful moves and other players smacking us around.  Probably 5 minutes in you feel like the game is lost, and you can't figure out why everyone keeps picking on you.  You'll get a string of amazing turns, but then you have a minor setback and you shout "See!  Nothing is going right.  Nothing!".

Then at the end of the game, you won.  That was Negativity Bias at work.  You completely overlooked your strong position in the game because all you saw was the negative.  Although sometimes Negativity Bias can manifest towards the end of a game because of...

Recency Bias

Recency Bias is when you only consider things that just happened.  Maybe you've played well for most of the game.  Suddenly you get on a bad streak and completely give up.  You start to think that you've done poorly the entire game.  In reality it's only been the last few turns.  But those last few turns loom so large in your mind, you can hardly remember how the game began, and any luck you had then.  You may even completely give up on the game.

This happens to me after a few turns of stunning dice based setbacks.  I just completely lose faith in the dice. I'm convinced that no matter what I do, no matter my odds, the dice simply won't allow it to happen.  I've reduced the odds of failure to a 1/216 chance?  I convince myself that due to my recent bad luck, I'm going to hit that 1/216th chance.

Hindsight Bias

Another bias I see frequently is Hindsight Bias.  You'll easily recognize it when someone says "What I should have done was place my worker to take wood instead of stone" or something like it.  The fact of the matter is, even if the player had taken the action they wish they would have, it does not guarantee that the events would have played out like they hope.  More likely the other players would have adapted to it.  The direction the game was already heading in would have likely been maintained.

I've had to frequently remind people I play with that the move they made was the optimal move.  The odds of it failing were incredibly low.  However, either due to the luck of the dice or cards, it just didn't work out. It was still the right move, that would have worked in 99 out of 100 other games.  Sadly this is that 1 game out of 100.

Biased Gamers are Grumpy Gamers

One thing I've noticed is that cognitive bias can tend to eat away at a players enjoyment of a game.  It interferes with a player's understanding of correct play.  It also reduces their emotional enjoyment of a game.  And the worst part is, there seems to be few ways you can mitigate cognitive bias.  Especially when you are caught up in them.  They are tied to our monkey brain's ancestral needs, and are rather hardwired into us.  Although some games bring them out of us more than others.

So what are some times you've acted out during a game because of a cognitive bias?

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