Do androids dream of electric rabbit feet?

Superstition seems a quaint old thing, more suitable for old grannies or the illiterate, but it’s alive and well in the information age. Online computer games, such as World of Warcraft and UltimaOnline, are full of examples of this:

[…] facing in certain cardinal directions would affect how your crafting came out. […] Many people, if they were successful over-enchanting an item at a certain spot, will return to that spot every time they need to over-enchant.

Or, to get monsters to reappear, little dances could develop (note the similarity with Skinner’s pigeons):

Some [characters] would sit and stand rapidly while strafing back and forth. Others would crouch and run in circles or figure-eight patterns. Jumping seemed also to be a common theme.

and sometimes it would go as far as "saying some ritual phrase out loud (in real life)."

In the real world, superstition is often justified by ignorance: people don’t know the rules of the universe, so they develop superstitious beliefs. But in the online world, there are some people who do know the rules: the game programmers. But players cling to their superstitions in the face of direct contradiction from them:

[…] players were CONVINCED that if you used the diplomacy skill on a chest it would improve the loot you got. No matter how many times we posted on the forums that this was a myth and it doesn’t do anything, they kept doing it. Finally we made chests an invalid target for the diplomacy skill, then players whined that all the points they put into diplomacy were worthless because we "nerfed" the skill!

Online superstitions are similar to offline ones; low cost actions, socially reinforced by the group, indulged in by people who don’t believe in them because "it can’t hurt".

In the real world, we could always hope that the march of science could replace superstitious explanations with truer ones. But the truth is already out there in these virtual worlds, and is ignored. If these games are the shape of things to come, it might well be that the zenith of rationality is already in the past.

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  • You are relying on a particular theory of our world when you claim that game programmers know the rules of online games. While I accept your theory, players need not accept it any more than they accept our standard physics theories. A God who could answer my prayer for real rain could also answer my prayer for online rain.

  • Even if we accept that “game programmers know the rules of online games” it does not necessarily mean that we must consider “online superstitions” irrational in and of themselves. First, the behavior of computer programs is complex even in cases where the rules are not, and examples abound of cases where programmers were aware of the rules of their program but not the implications and behavior arising from those rules (e.g. a security bug). As a somewhat contrived example, suppose I created a game where a dialog box to talk, attack, or steal from NPCs was handled by an NPC class, and using diplomacy improved the type of items that could be stolen (perhaps the excuse for this behavior in-game is that characters are caught more off-guard). Noting the similarity between this dialog and the one she wants to create, another programmer extends it into a treasure chest class. Unless this extension is made with care, the programming team has just unintentionally created treasure chests that respond to diplomacy.

    Secondly, computer games don’t exist in a void, but run on physical hardware. Systems rely on pseudorandom number generators, which can “have dubious or unknown characteristics” (PHP manual, mt_rand()). Not only is it possible to believe that an outside force could affect the random numbers generated, it’s not so absurd to think that they could be affected directly by user actions if you forget the large number of users of an online system.

  • The difference between superstition in real life, and superstition in a video game is that in a game, intelligent design is a hard fact.
    Still believing in something (like diplomacy working on a treasure chest) after the devs have stated that it isn’t true, but some games do not have developers that communicate that directly about game mechanics with the playerbase. I can provide examples of this from my online-time-waster of choice, Final Fantasy XI, if anyone is interested.

  • Chesh –

    Even if the developers say diplomacy has no effect on a treasure chest, and even if they aren’t lying, they could still be mistaken. It could be a simple matter of a line or two of code being in the wrong place.

    Mind you, I think it’s quite unlikely that diplomacy had any actual effect on treasure chests in this particular case.

  • Another extremely important difference between the “real world” and video games is that video games do not work on universal law. It is the absolute exceptionless simplicity of our universal physics that makes us confident that superstitions won’t work in real life. Mind you, I still think those gamers are almost certainly just being silly – people do the same things even in the “real world”.

    (Scare quotes on “real world” because of course a video game is a continuous part of our reality.)

  • Doug S.

    For some reason, I’m reminded of this comic.

  • It is a common problem that developers are wrong about how the game works. There are too many people and too much code for every statement to be accurate. This presents many examples where digital urban legends were mostly true. Asheron Call’s “Wi Flag” is perhaps the most famous example.

    It is more common that the developers are right. 95+% of the time, the conspiracy theories are wrong, especially since the “new” theory that accuracy is broken is the same one from every week for the last five years (no, you just missed a few times in a row, which happens). We know that everyone else’s superstitions are silly, but of course our beliefs are just recognition of oddities in the code.

  • ScottM

    It doesn’t surprise me. People who should know better often partake in it regardless of how much they know about the field they are in. I mean look at professional baseball and all the dances and little rituals that they will do before, or while they are at the bat. They of all people should know that kicking the dirt three times isn’t going to cause a ball to fly into their sweet spot to hit.

    Its just a psychological reaction on part of people who want to have more control over their lives and what is going on they have online or off line. And sometimes they get lucky.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    You are relying on a particular theory of our world when you claim that game programmers know the rules of online games. While I accept your theory, players need not accept it any more than they accept our standard physics theories.

    I’m not sure I can really go with that explanation. If players were asked “could developers rewrite the game so that diplomacy on a treasure chest had an effect (or not)”, then I’m sure that most would say “yes”.

    But they still don’t believe developers when they say that it currently has no effect. Something different from standard superstition is happening here.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    video games do not work on universal law.

    I think that’s a first difference. I think that another issue is that a lot of events in video games are truly random. I think we have trouble coping with truly random event and reach for patterns and superstitions.

    Science explains the advent of tooth decay, as well as the odds of winning the lottery. But people believe science in the first case, because the explanation gives you a program, a list of things to do. But they remain superstitious in the second case, because all that science says is “it’s random” or rather “you cannot do anything to change the odds”. Those situations arises often in games, and seem to be the events we have the most superstitions about.

    So, to reduce superstitions in games, introduce genuine actions that players can do to change their odds?

  • Douglas Knight

    But they still don’t believe developers when they say that it currently has no effect. Something different from standard superstition is happening here.

    That looks exactly like real-world superstition. People engage in superstitious rituals, claim to accept physics, and claim to accept organized religion, which often condemns the superstition.

    Quite generally, I do not think people use coherent theories, even if they can recite several. Superstition is just about the least important consequence of this.

  • It would be interesting to see if the same effects would occur in an open-source game, where players can in principle inspect the code and see how the “laws of physics” work for themselves. In practice most are not competent to do so, but there would still be a consensus among technical players about these kinds of rules. And if it were false, there would be a burden of proof on those who claim otherwise to show the code or point out the bug which causes the supposed behavior.

    It’s kind of like people who claim there are “back doors” in certain security programs. Such claims don’t get far with programs like GnuPG (which does encryption) because the source is published and nobody can find a back door. Such claims are harder to refute for closed source programs.

  • It is the absolute exceptionless simplicity of our universal physics that makes us confident that superstitions won’t work in real life.

    That is a concise statement of faith in reductionism.

    However reductionism to the Schrodinger equation has not been demonstrated even for all the properties of the simplest chemistry, much less biochemistry, much less biology and morphogenesis, much less behavior. So in the end the faith that all of the complexity in the world can be reduced to a physics equation is simply a belief system, not something demonstrated by science.

    In fact there is much evidence that causation works both downwards and upwards — consider regulation in organisms and in morphogenesis, the effects of placebo and nocebo on healing, and the causal efficacy of thoughts to effect neural firing and ultimately control chemical reactions in muscle cells.

    If one abandons an evidenceless faith in absolute reductionism, suddenly the universe begins to make a lot more sense as a series of nested, interacting, and evolving wholes or “holons”. All that is needed is to see that the assumed reductions were never once demonstrated — chemistry was never fully accounted for by the equations of physics, the morphology of protein folding was never fully accounted for by chemical forces, cell morphogenesis was never fully explained by protein self-assembly, organism function and behavior was never fully explained in terms of cell biology.

    Once it is seen that the reductions were never actually acheived, not once, but are simply a matter of faith, then a chink can appear in the hermetically-sealed armor of certainty which blocks out all evidence which might challenge the belief system of reductionism.

  • My son says that in his game, Guildwars, his guild ‘does everything by math,’ in that they keep a database of actions and consequences and if there is a correlation they do the action in the future, otherwise not. He believes this eliminates the tendency toward superstitious behavior, and that this is part of the reason his guild is so successful.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Unless there are false correlations. What confidence level do they use?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    that this is part of the reason his guild is so successful.

    Now that’s very interesting. Do they follow up and test the various “myths” floating around? It would be interesting to see whether the most successful groups are indeed the least superstitious.

  • Mikko K

    If the most succesful groups were the least superstitious, could we draw the conclusion that it doesn’t pay off to be superstitious, or rather that the smartest (hence succesful) ones are less superstitious?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    it doesn’t pay off to be superstitious
    Well, most of the superstitions seem to be very low cost (a little time lost, that’s all) so high superstition shouldn’t be much of a barrier to success. However high superstition might mean that methods that do really work to improve the players’ performance are ignored or not looked for. I’d assume that at the same level of play, superstition has virtually no effect on the performance; but an unsuperstitious player would improve faster.

  • So when was the zenith of rationality? The Enlightenment? Have we progressed? I argue perhaps, if superstition serves a productive purpose, which I think it does by facilitating trust.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    So when was the zenith of rationality?

    Interesting question, that. I’d guess either in the 1950’s or the 1985-1995 period. But I strongly believe that we were rational then for irrational reasons (a blind belief in rationality = science = good, to simplify).

    Now we’re more irrational overall, but those who of us do embrace rationality are more honest and “rational” about our reasons for doing so.