24 October 2018

Do aliens play video games?

If we meet an alien, from a different planet, and are able to talk with them, how relate-able would they be?

Would they feel pride for their nation, town or sports team?

Would they feel ambition, after being rewarded for achievements?

Would they keep playing video games once they start it, or binge-watch TV shows?

Would they be content to sit down and do nothing?

We might imagine them similar to us in many ways, being driven by the same incentives to live well. An alien, transported to earth and given a human skin could try to blend in. They would likely want to maximize their own prosperity by earning more money and resources, getting in a safe position for themselves and their close ones, and affecting the community wellbeing. Those are all common sense incentives, and in these regards, an alien would blend in.

But I bet, most likely, no alien would ever like to play video games. It’s because video games reflect not a common sense incentive, but a very human one.

Games are designed to be addictive… for us. We have chemical systems in our brains and body - endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, cortisol. When we play a video game we get rewarded with dopamine, which makes us feel good, but is also highly addictive. And we keep on playing, not because it is good for us in some abstract sense, but because it gives us pleasurable chemicals in our brain.

Our reward circuits have been hijacked by the video game. The game is optimized for stimulating our chemical circuits. And so are optimized the binge watchable TV series. And so is optimized social media. And so is optimized our To-Do list. All of these act similar to drugs, in that they rely on the quirks of our chemical systems in order to get a hold of our habits.

Drugs and alcohol deserve a special mention though, as they even go and mess up with our chemistry directly, instead of merely adapting to it. And our chemistry matters a lot. It determines our actions far more than any rational arguments. I experienced this firsthand when I became a compulsive problem-solver. I also experienced it when dealing with alcohol

What is rationality?

I’d like to compare chemical decision making with “rational” decision making to drive the point further. There are at least two different definitions of rationality. Both definitions are compelling, and neither one takes into account our chemical undercurrents.

One of the most commonly used definitions of rationality, is the Von Neumann & Morgenstern utility maximization, which I would refer to as “classical” rationality. According to it, we assign a utility function to outcomes and assume the superposition of outcomes has a weighted average of the utilities, then we come up with some predictions that we can empirically test. Classical rationality a really neat theory. Just four common sense axioms and ta-da! From these four axioms we can derive how people should behave in any situation.

Just like with classical mechanics, classically rationality is a good approximation to behavior. When economists talk about rational actors, that’s exactly what they mean by “rational,” and they often tie it to maximizing money. For example, we would look for discounts or buy the same item from a cheaper place because we want to maximize the utility of money. In some situations, we will choose the more expensive, more convenient option because we also value our time. If we assign a price for the value our time, we can derive that price based on the tradeoffs we make. 
Some economists point to those cases, and claim “see, humans can be rational”. Yet others, such as Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational point at examples and studies which show that people are indeed not rational. And he’s not the only one finding holes in classical rationality. Nassim Taleb in Skin in the game defines as rational the actions which maximize long term survival. He then goes and spends time, showing examples of people and institutions which, in the absence of any threat, start acting in corrupt and selfish way. Skin in the game rationality can be useful when analyzing the incentives of public figures to serve the common good.

Skin in the game rationality is a novel concept but nonetheless effective in some situations that classical rationality fails to explain behavior, especially in building systems of actors with diverging interests. When a system doesn’t involve skin in the game, it can promote people who can talk a lot but not get stuff done. When a system involves skin in the game, it promotes people who realize that in order for them to remain at a position of authority, they need to deliver results. When they don’t deliver, they lose their skin.

Chemical rationality is who we are

Would these two definitions of rationality apply to aliens? My opinion is emphatic yes! Both the classical, and the skin in the game rationality are math, and math transcends not only solar systems and galaxies, but also multiverses and living-inside-a-simulation. In the beginning there was math. Math is abstract, and not rooted in reality, and thus universal.

Aliens would be willing to both maximize profit according to classical rationality, and also survival according to skin-in-the-game rationality. Yet, these rationalities might apply to a different degree. Classical rationality is motivated by the emotion of greed, and skin in the game rationality is motivated by the emotion fear. Depending on how much greed and fear aliens have, their actions would be more or less classically rational, or skin in the game rational. We can not expect their society or lack thereof to resemble ours in any way. Hell no. Aliens would have different inclinations for social bonding, for addictive behavior, for pride in achievement, for pain tolerance.

And for video games. What defines us as humans are our erratic habits and tendencies. Hormones and chemicals are what provides the rewards for our actions, and these rewards are a basis for our rationality.

Our proclivities are our signature as a species.

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