Monday, May 17, 2010

The heat of the moment

I have been mulling over people's perceptions of the decisions of others when made in intense situations.  I think we as a species are pretty bad at figuring out what we are going to do in an emotionally intense situation and we are equally bad or even worse at evaluating others.  Examples come from both the utter failure of some traditional economic theories in real life as well as my experience in games.

Consider the idea of man as a rational economic unit.  In theory each person makes buying decisions that maximize their own overall happiness and can accurately determine what will most improve their lives.  In reality this is a complete farce.  People buy houses that are simply too expensive for them to support and spend the next 25 years 'house poor' desperately trying to make payments and being incredibly pinched for money - and when something goes wrong they default.  People buy sugary drinks at Starbucks instead of drinking water from a fountain and then pay a ton of money to gyms to work off the calories and then avoid going there.  These are not rational decisions that maximize overall happiness and they are *not* made only by dumb people.  Incredibly smart people completely fail these tests of rationality and deferred gratification.

Similarly I have seen examples of people in games that make decisions that are obviously incredibly dumb while remaining entirely understandable from within that person's frame of reference.  A classic example from WOW is the Gunship battle.  Both the Horde and the Alliance are attacking Icecrown Citadel to defeat the Lich King.  It is clear to everyone that the Lich King is really, really bad and the greatest threat and yet when the two groups arrive there they immediately start fighting each other.  Many people have commented that it is ridiculous that the Horde and Alliance would fight each other - their real enemy awaits! - and yet it makes complete sense.  How many of the soldiers on each ship have watched comrades die under the blades of the other side?  The Horde even stitches together pieces of the corpses of the dead from the Alliance and makes hideous undead abominations out of them.

How would a real person react?  How would a group of modern people react if they had weapons in hand and a group that desecrated their dead and transformed the rotting flesh into monsters was right nearby, sitting in weapons range?  Sure, there might be good reasons to not attack but realistically someone is going to lose control and shoot and once one person does the whole situation explodes.  These groups have every reason for irrational hatred towards one another and to expect them to react in a game theoretical 'maximize my chance to win' way is not rational.  People do crazy things when they fall in love with a house, see a sugary drink, or have a gun on hand when necromancers come wandering by.  They don't make the best decisions but it is not unexpected, unrealistic or surprising.

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