Lessons from Political Science

This semester, I’m taking a course in Interdisciplinary Methodologies in which a motley group of social scientists attempts to learn about the approaches, assumptions, and research styles of a wide array of disciplines. I have already discussed one of the ways that learning about economics has informed my own research, which was inspired by readings done for this class. This week we read about political science, and the most striking reading we had was by Gregory J. Kasza entitled “Unearthing the Roots of Hard Science: A Program for Graduate Students”. This work encourages graduate students to reflect on the methods that they are being taught and to question the basic assumptions of the discipline of political science. Kasza encourages his readers to “Let your experience and self-reflection as a human being be your first guide as you seek to answer the basic questions about politics.” The point he makes is that if your life and your choices cannot be described by the ways that you try to describe the lives and choices of others, can you be certain about your theory? “If your political views and actions are not guided mainly by material interests, why should you imagine that the views of others will be? If your life has not followed rational choices or mathematical equations, why should that be true of others’?” (page 226)

Basically, he’s encouraging us not to deceive ourselves and others. Can we apply this to linguistics? I have been thinking about my own behavior in relation to some of the theories and ideas that I tackle often, and even some that I wholly dismiss.

The different theories of syntax, including ones with movement and without — when I make a question, am I really following rules of movement that I’ve learned? Or am I just doing things the way they’re supposed to be with the constructions I’ve learned from examples in my environment? Syntacticians have been arguing this for decades, and I wonder what the role of self-reflection is in the creation of these different theories.

Another topic that I often take for granted: When I use short forms when I’m chatting in Warcraft or texting, am I just being lazy (as some language mavens and non-linguist language column writers would have it)? No, I’m not; when I really think about my own behavior, I’m following patterns that I know are accepted, and I’m adhering to these other rules of interaction. Character limits on texts, for example, sometimes results in me testing “smtg” instead of “something”. It’s not laziness, it’s not a corruption of the language, but rather a switch to adhere to a new rule set. I am someone who actually engages in this linguistic behavior, and I can analyze it from that vantage point.

This has me really thinking about game theory, as I described in my last post about economics, and loot rule behaviors. I described there that I struggled with the behaviors of my guildmates, and in fact my own behavior, a lot when thinking about changing perceptions of behavior in loot systems. I, myself, am doing things that a year ago I would have described as greedy and undesirable; furthermore, I am understanding and accepting of similar behaviors in people who I call my friends. It seems that I came at the game theory interpretation the right way — that is, through self-reflection and the attempts to understand the patterns and changes in my own life. The theory seems to fit. (And others agree — more on that later, I hope!)

This is why participant-observation is a great style of research. As a participant, you go through similar things as the people you are observing, and therefore you can come at your explanation from the point of view of someone who has experienced it. I have heard many times that self-reflection has no place in academic discourse, that we should remove the “I” from our writing. As social scientists, we cannot afford to do that; we risk ignoring our own biases, our own experiences, and our own interpretations of the event. We cannot be perfectly objective as scholars of people simply because we are people ourselves. If we are talking about the biases and motivations of others, does it make sense to ignore our own biases and motivations? This is an old argument that has been hashed out, but through this class I have encountered a similar argument in a discipline that I have never touched before. In some ways, it’s heartening to know that scholars across fields engage with the same issues in their work as I do; in other ways, it is unfortunate that some disciplines are so isolated when we do have a lot in common and wrestle with the same issues.

We all have a lot to learn from each other.

Game Theory and Loot Ninjas

In World of Warcraft, and any multiplayer online game, you have the “loot ninja” phenomenon. What is this? This is a person who greedily snaps up all of the loot, the person who takes an item because they “need” it even if they already have it, or the person who wins three of the same item in a raid group and refuses to share. We see this commonly in the new Raid Finder tool in World of Warcraft (I wrote about that here).

One of the features of the loot ninja is that they are always PUGs — people added to a “pick-up group”, or a random player that nobody else knows. Sometimes, as in Raid Finder, the entire group is full of PUGs and nobody knows each other. It’s been remarked in my guild over and over that they hate having PUGs in their raid groups, or even doing Raid Finder, because of the loot ninja phenomenon.

The loot ninja behaves this way because there are no repercussions. They can greedily take the items without sharing because it’s not prohibited by the game, and because they will never play with these people again. Loot ninjas don’t happen (or rarely happen) in guild groups, because you will be playing with these people over and over and over again. If you’re a loot ninja once, you’ll probably be ostracized, not brought back on raids, or kicked out of the guild. But there are plenty of people in my guild — heck, I might be one of them after so much exposure to loot ninjas in Raid Finder — who go into a Raid Finder and roll greedily on everything, get a lot of loot, and don’t share. Why? Because they won’t play with these people ever again, and chances are good that everyone in their Raid Finder group is going to be a loot ninja anyway. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Today, I was reading Robert J. Aumann’s Nobel Prize lecture from 2005, in which he discusses Game Theory (economic game theory, not video game theory) and its applications to war and peace in society. He argues that repetitively engaging in “games” — war games, too — enables cooperation (an peace). Why?

Imagine the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal—if one testifies against his partner (betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates), the betrayer goes free and the cooperator receives the full one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do?

The sole worry of the prisoners is to benefit themselves. Even when seemingly the best outcome is for both to cooperate, Prisoner A can betray Prisoner B and receive no jail time (that is, get the maximum benefit).

Aumann’s argument is that in a single, individual instance of this game, the prisoners will think about their personal maximum benefit, because there are no repercussions. That is, if Prisoner A betrays and Prisoner B cooperates, Prisoner B gets a full 1-year sentence and can’t do anything about that rat bastard Prisoner A.

However, Aumann says, if this game is repeated, there is the possibility for punishment. That is, if these two know each other and work together on the crime syndicate, this situation may happen again. And if Prisoner A screwed over Prisoner B, B is going to remember that and betray him the next time, and they’ll both wind up in jail.

It’s the same thing in war, Aumann says. That’s why the Cold War never escalated — because there was always the possibility of retaliation.

And this explains the loot ninja. In one instance of the Raid Finder game, everyone will be attempting to maximize their benefit. However, when in a guild group or a regular raid team, there are plenty of opportunities for punishment and retaliation, so cooperation is more beneficial to all. And this further explains the increasing loot ninja mentality of most people going into Raid Finder (even myself) — we have all been punished enough in the ongoing Raid Finder game that we are in retaliation mode.

I don’t think this was the intent of Blizzard when they created Raid Finder and the loot distribution system. I think they thought people would be “nice” and not try to take things that they already have. The reality is much, much different.