Sunday, July 10, 2016

Playing Unfairly

I just had an interesting conversation that touched on the concept of "unfair advantages". In that discussion, I noted the use of the word "unfairly" as being only properly applied to things that should not be done. Now, that was stated in the context of justice, and I stand by it. You don't say that a law is "unfair" unless you are arguing for its repeal. Behavior is only described as "unfair" if it is considered to be wrong.

But in this discussion it was offered in response that it doesn't mean something that shouldn't be done: "Unfairly means lacking balance, justice, honesty, and so on," to which I replied, "Surely you wouldn't claim that things that lack justice or honesty should be done. We can set them aside, I think. As for the other... balance... typically in context this is a metaphor for justice."

This got me thinking tangentially about things that we deliberately do "unfairly". And by that, I mean "unfair" in the same sense as "unjust". That is, skewing the rules of conduct to favor one party. I'll address the "balance" definition in a bit.

As it turns out, we do a lot of things unfairly, by preference. For instance, would you play a game that is deliberately unfair?

Subtract your average score from the basis score and multiply the result by the percentage factor to calculate your bowling handicap. Suppose the basis score is 200 and the percentage factor is 90 percent. If your average is 147, you have (200-147) X 0.90 = 47.7. Again, drop the fraction.
Yes, you would. If you're a golfer or a bowler or a chess player and you're facing a more accomplished opponent, then it's customary to play with a handicap. A poor bowler starts out with points merely because he's a poor bowler. That's not the fault of the better bowler. It's certainly not objectively fair to the better bowler. After all, the better bowler has spent countless hours perfecting his game; he didn't become a better bowler without a considerable investment of effort. And he may have invested a lot of money in very good equipment, or he may have received the equipment as a gift. But the poor bowler gets the points without any investment at all.

A handicapped game is objectively unfair. So why play it?

Because it's a game, and we can't lose sight of the objective of a game. It's social intercourse. It's meant to be fun. And it's simply not fun to lose all the time. It might be just that the better player wins, but it's not fun. So in order to entice the poor player to play, the good player offers a handicap. It's a bribe: "I'll give you points if you'll play with me." Then some math is worked out so that the better player doesn't lose all the time either, because as we noted, it's not fun.

Note that the handicap alone doesn't make the poor player better. To become better he has to do what the better bowler has done, and diligently practice. He can't take his handicapped win/loss ratio on the pro circuit where there are no handicaps and expect to do well. He's still a poor player. And the better player is still better. He would tend to be a better player even if you took away his fancy shoes and ball (which, as it turns out, aren't that important). In fact, there's very little that can be done short of crippling the good player that can make him play poorly. It's not what handicaps do... in games.

We are so used to the concept of handicaps that we informally think of them as a way to make the game fair. That's not entirely accurate. It's to make the game fun, and by that we mean more unpredictable. A sporting chance is what we call the unpredictability of a (semi) random winner. And we re-define "fair" to mean those games in which we have a sporting chance.

And so we play unfair (i.e. unjust) games to allow poor players a chance at winning. We certainly don't do it to promote the best players.

Yeah, they all look pretty
much like that.
Actually, most people will strive only to play unfairly, and will shift their definition of fairness fluidly to affect whatever aspect of the game can be made unfair. If the rules are equitable, then players will practice and buy better equipment to increase their advantage. But if their opponent's advantage is too great, they make the rules inequitable by rolling out the handicaps. We can claim that the handicap "levels the playing field", but that's the little white lie we tell ourselves to save our own feelings. The bitter truth is that we use handicaps because we're not good enough to win on a level field.

A game that's completely fair is Noughts and Crosses, or Tic-Tac-Toe. It's so fair that the rules allow for tie games, there is none of the "unfairness" of random chance, and no amount of additional practice will give an accomplished player any advantage over even a moderately skilled opponent. As a result, as soon as a player becomes skilled at it and realizes there is no way to win, he stops playing it. He knows that a fair game isn't really fun, because it's pointless.

As noted in the film War Games, "the only winning move is not to play."


That bit about conflating "justice" and "equality" and "fairness"... we do it a lot, in various contexts: economic, sociological, political, etc. But let's switch gears...

Consider another sort of game. Let's call it The Game of Farming. Now, an arbitrary number of people can play, limited only by land or sea (we're very broad as to what we can farm). The Game of Farming is an open-ended game, in that it lasts indefinitely. So you can have a winning strategy, but there's no end-game condition. When a farmer retires from the game, he can pass on his assets to another player, even a new one, who will continue in his stead. And the goal of The Game of Farming is to produce as much as you can, sustainably, so that you can continue farming. The optimal condition is that all farmers collectively feed themselves and all non-farmers and do so again the next day, and the next, and the next... no one goes hungry.

So. Suppose one farmer is more successful than another. He's not poisoning anyone else's crops. There's no toxic run-off from his farm. He's not blocking the sun. He's simply farming better. He's using the best seed he can. He's using effective, environmentally sustainable fertilizers. He's rotating his crops. He's cooperating with other farmers to exchange feed, seed, and breeding stock. He's feeding a lot of people, and is wildly successful at it. He gets more money as a result, buys surrounding farms, and applies his techniques there. These are techniques, by the way, that he learned through long and careful study, and which are implemented through the use of expensive farming equipment in which he has invested.

The result of this farmer's efforts is that The Game of Farming is placed far closer to its optimal condition... that of feeding the planet. Other farmers could follow his example and bring it closer still. They could even apply their efforts to growing things that this farmer doesn't, increasing the diversity found in the world's larder. Some do.

Now imagine that there are players who misunderstand the goal of The Game of Farming. They imagine it to be like other games, with "winners" and "losers", and they define the optimal condition in terms of their personal success. Furthermore, they define that personal success in envious terms, measured against the success of others rather than their own improvement. They see the successful farmer and imagine his success to be their loss. It doesn't matter to them that their farms are more prosperous than they were last year. It matters to them that their bounty didn't increase as much as the prosperous farmer's.

They claim that the prosperous farmer has an "unfair advantage". His father was a farmer before him, and passed on privileged farming knowledge. He studied at a premier agricultural university. He is blessed with arable land and abundant water. They demand that the rules of The Game of Farming be changed to eliminate this kind of unfairness. Some of them give up in frustration or demand subsidies even though they have perfectly workable farms.

Imagine how counter-productive and destructive to the world-at-large it would be if the successful farmer were penalized for his success. Don't we want to feed the world? Would it not be ridiculous to discourage or shame future farmers for attending "privileged" agricultural schools that taught more than the average college about biology, ecology, and husbandry simply because they might become more successful than average? Would it not be unconscionable to cap the production of a farm simply because other farmers feel disadvantaged because they didn't perform as well?

Instead, should we not encourage all farmers to be the best and most productive they can be without being envious of those who happen to be occupying better land or using better techniques? Should they not be encouraged to emulate the successful farmer? And should we not improve the training of new players so that they know that the goal of The Game of Farming is not to achieve parity among farmers, but is to see that the world is fed?

How does equality among farmers benefit the world if the supermarkets are bare?

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