Moulton Lava

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Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Rules, Games, and Dramas

For thousands of years, monarchs, politicians, and organizational managers have sought to construct the ideal set of rules so as to achieve an orderly, stable, well-regulated system. This notion is subsumed under the popular meme, Law and Order.

Rules are also used to define games. Most games (think of Chess, Checkers, or Go) have very few rules which are easy to learn, easy to remember, and easy to abide by.

Given a set of rules which define a game, there is a branch of applied mathematics called Game Theory which studies the optimal strategy for playing any given game.

Some years ago, there was a movie called Colossus: The Forbin Project that revolved around a computer simulation game called Global Thermonuclear War. That cinematic parable, drawn from a key insight in Game Theory, was followed by a similar thriller called War Games.

For the past decade, one of the most popular franchises on American television has been NBC's Law and Order. The endless syndicated reruns can be watched almost any night on the TNT Cable Channel, where the advertising slogan is "We Know Drama."

The point of all this, of course, is to note that rule-driven systems are not inherently orderly, stable, and predictable. Rather they are the recipe for games and dramas. Mathematicians have known for over a century that rule-driven systems are mathematically chaotic. Within the broad scope of Chaos Theory, the branches subsuming Game Theory and Drama Theory are probably of most interest to the general public, who lap up games and dramas along with copious amounts of beer and popcorn.

Now mathematicians will tell you that it's also possible to design orderly, stable, predictable, and well-behaved systems, if that's what you really want. But the solution is not to be found in any set of rules. Rather, if one wants a highly functional system that operates gracefully and with minimum of suspenseful drama, one must evolve beyond mere rules and embrace the subtle mathematics of functions.

This is not likely to happen in my lifetime. At least not among Homo Schleppians, most of whom are hopelessly math-impaired.

If I were running Wikipedia, I'd go with a set of rules that intentionally maximized the dramaturgy. It's clear that Wikipedians crave heart-pounding, knuckle-biting psychodrama, and they might as well admit that and design their system to become the premier site for live-action post-modern scandal-ridden theater of the absurd.

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