Both: Rock paper scissors.

Liz: Oh, rock crushes scissors.

Ben: Oh, oh,

Liz I'm Liz Landau.

Ben: I'm Ben Klemens,

Both: And this is Pod Paper Scissors.

[Theme music: You gotta make decisions.]

Liz: Ben, when you first asked me if I wanted to do a podcast with you about game theory, I actually thought we were going to be talking about stuff like Monopoly and Chess, Twister, all that good stuff.

Ben: So yeah, how those relate to game theory, especially Twister, is it's pretty interesting. And I've thought a lot about it. And I've written some games myself, which are kind of just OK.

Liz: Wait, you've written games?

Ben: Yeah. And you know this because we've played

Liz: Oh, I forgot you made that because it was so fun.

Ben: Well, thank you. Yeah. So thanks for, thanks for the positive review of this totally free game that you could play with two decks of cards at Carbondale dot network.

Liz: Wait, Ben, let's pause here for a second, I want to hear more about how you came up with this game.

Ben: Well, there there are a couple of steps to designing the game. So you could kind of break it down into the mechanics of the game and the sort of theme of the game. So before Carbondale dot network became a free game, you can play with two decks of cards at HTTP colon slash slash Carbondale dot network, I'd worked on another game called Bamboo Harvest. It had a similar mechanic, it was about laying out sort of a forest of cards, you deal a bunch of cards on the table. And your goal is to kind of clear a path through the forest. I took that one to the guy who runs Rio Grande games.

Liz: Oh, he makes Puerto Rico, right.


Ben: Yeah, Puerto Rico and Dominion, and what else, Race for the Galaxy. They're a pretty successful game company. And it was kind of cool that I got to talk to the guy, you know, who still runs the company and picks the games. And what he told me as he was rejecting Bamboo Harvest, was that every mechanic of the game should be aimed at the theme, so that people feel immersed in the game. They feel like there's somebody else while they're playing it. They feel like a landowner in Puerto Rico. They feel like a space Conquistador in Race for the Galaxy.

Liz: Oh, yeah. When I played Carbondale with you a few weeks ago, I felt like I had just arrived in Carbondale, Illinois, and I was looking for love.

Ben: Yeah, you told me about Carbondale before, right.

Liz: I want to go to Carbondale for the 2024 Eclipse, because it is the only town in America that will see both the 2017 total solar eclipse and the 2024 total solar eclipse.

Ben: This is why we keep you around. You're playing Carcassone, yeah, and it's about the French countryside and you really feel like you're somebody living there. And so he cares deeply about creating an illusion of something else. And you know, they're a successful game company. So he's definitely getting something right.

Liz: You know, that reminds me of Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. He wrote a whole book about the theory of play called Homo Ludens.

Ben: Okay, as a former Caltech grad student, I could say this, [in the style of a character from The Big Bang Theory] Huizinga!

Liz: Yeah, that's what I thought too.

Ben: Okay. Okay. So [Johan] Huizinga.

Liz: Yeah, you know, he was a historian writing in the 1930s, about what is play, and he was talking about how play, there are a few elements to play, and which include, like creating an illusion of being outside of your real life.

Ben: Oh, so this is this is what our friend from Rio Grande games was looking for. Yeah,


Liz: Hey, I think have said that. You have to be free to play. It's not that you're forced to. It's not part of real life. It takes place in a separate time and space, and has a very specific order to it,

Ben: Can I give you an etymology, this is not a digression. So illusion, it originally meant to, to mock, to sort of play at, and it comes from the Latin ludere, which means to play. So this kind of directly gets it that that play is the creation of an illusion.

Liz: That totally makes sense. I mean, now that we have all of these fully immersive ways of playing like video games on your TV or computer, even virtual reality or augmented reality, these are all technologies that are aimed at taking you out out of your current environment and transporting you mentally into a new space for playing.

Ben: Okay, it's not new right? Like like football. Football, like people really fall for the illusion of that right? Like they're—

Liz: I don't

Ben: Okay, okay. Yeah I used to live in Baltimore there was a big Philadelphia-Baltimore rivalry and football.

Liz: Wait don't you mean Pittsburgh?

Ben: I don't know a lot about it. I was a fan of Baltimore first because I lived there, and second because the Baltimore Ravens are the NFL's only goth-friendly football team.

Liz: So wait, what? Oh, oh. Oh, you mean because of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven?


Ben: Yeah, yeah, it's actually, they're actually named for that, and I love that. There's a literary allusion and a-llusion, literary allusion. Anyway, there's this rivalry, right? So there are people who care deeply about who wins the next game. But okay, I looked this up. Not a ton of players on the Philly team—

Liz: Hey, that's Pittsburgh, Ben: —are from Philly,— Liz [exasperated]: Pittsburgh.

Ben: —not a lot, not a ton of players for on the Baltimore team are from Baltimore. Right? There's, there's one or two players who have been traded between them. So what does it mean that you're a fan of one team and not the other when like, they're both kind of constructs, right? But that's, that's okay, right, if you want to fall, fall into the illusion, and we think we all know people who do, then cool, that's part of it. And you're part of the play of the game, if you're part of the audience, you know, swept up in this illusion.

Liz: You know, it's always been amazing to me the deep connection that people feel with the teams that they root for, like, I'm from Philadelphia, and when I tell people that they're like, Oh, yeah, well, it sucks for the Eagles this year.

[sound of water pouring]

Ben: That's, that's the sound effect that we're doing today. That's tea. Let's see, is it gonna sound like I'm peeing?

Liz: Yeah.

Ben: Okay, everybody, trust me. It's tea.

Liz: Yeah. So, you know, before the Eagles won the Super Bowl a few years ago, you know, I mentioned I'm from Philadelphia, and people, people will be like, Oh, yeah, Eagles, or the year that they won, it's like, Oh, wow. yeah, that's awesome that you're from Philly, because like, go Eagles. And for me, personally, I could care less like, I don't follow football.

Ben: You're the one at the, at the Super Bowl party who's like standing on the side. And it's like, yeah, I don't care about this.

Liz: I am by the cheese dip, the best part of sports: cheese dip. [Ben laughs.] But it's amazing that like people who you know are really into the Eagles, or the Ravens or the Steelers, you know, there's an imagined community of people who are fans of these teams, like, obviously, not all fans have met each other. But they have this common language, these common symbols of these teams that they root for, that they feel deeply connected to.


Ben: So what would Huizinga say about you, then, as somebody who's, well, those guys are sitting on the sidelines. What are they going to say about you?

Liz: Well, I guess I'm a terrorist, Ben. And that's because I break the illusion that something important is happening when I'm just sitting by the cheese dip and asking, wait, who's playing again? Or when can we get to the commercials? Oh,

Ben: Yeah. Did you see the Super Bowl this year? It was? Who was it? It was Shakira versus JLo.

Liz: Oh, my gosh, Shakira vs JLo. Amazing performance.

Ben: Yeah. I don't know how we scored that one. But I was on the Shakira team.

Liz: I think they're both winners.

Ben: That's great. Okay, we'll get off Shakira, and back to Huizinga. So yeah, what else did he count as play?

Liz: Well, it's funny because I thought that I was reading a book about having fun while playing, but he's talking about things like [suspenseful music] lawsuits as play also.

Ben: Those don't sound fun. That doesn't sound like football.

Liz: Right. But it's something that takes place in a theater—the courtroom—with players who are the prosecution and the defense, and sort of this arbiter is the judge, and we have people conforming to a certain order that society has deemed proper.

Ben: Okay, so it's, there's an illusion in the courtroom. Is this what we're looking for?


Liz: Yeah. So when we think about this, essential elements of play, which are taking people out of a reality, having a set of rules that everybody conforms to, having this illusion that's separate from everyday reality. You can think of a courtroom that way as well. You can think of the whole process of lawsuits and coming to court and having this sort of decorum around decision making. These are all actually elements of play in some sense.

Ben: So can I give you more trivia? It was not uncommon in the past, for people to actually bet on the outcome of lawsuits. [Horse-racing horns.] But yeah, what you're what you're saying makes a lot of sense. I mean, there there's certainly sort of a fictional world that goes on in the courtroom. You can't picture, like, somebody just throwing a party in there in the courtroom, or, you know, just having lunch in there.

Liz: Right.

Ben: How they even were—do they still do this? In British courts? Do they still wear the wigs?

Liz: They do these like giant powdered gray wigs are still something that is found in certain courtrooms in England. And that's been the case for hundreds of years. In fact, it wasn't just a fashion statement for the courtroom. It was actually because people were getting syphilis, and one of the symptoms is hair loss. So they wanted to cover it up.

Ben: Oh, that's, that's pretty fabulous. They're not. That's not why they wear the wigs now is it?

Liz: Yeah, so they stopped being necessary to cover bald spots a long time ago, and in fact, became more of a fashion statement. Kind of like Marie Antoinette.

Ben: Her wig didn't look like hair. Yeah, I mean, in all the movies, like I never met her, tell you the truth. But first, it's like white, like it. It often had like, arbitrary curls, right? It was closer to a hat than like hair, yeah.


Liz: Well, we have to consider as well that there are certain traditions such as Orthodox Judaism, where women have to cover their hair at all times if they're married. [Fiddler on the Roof Sting.] By the way: tradition!

Ben: Tradition!

Liz: So women actually commonly wear wigs for that reason as well. But in general, fashion is a form of play. And you know, I'm somebody who enjoys dressing up, especially in this quarantine time, I find myself wearing t-shirts and shorts a whole lot, especially even in work context, when no one can see me anyway. But every once in a while, I'll put on a dress, walk around Dupont Circle and feel a little bit more special.

Ben: Yeah, for me dressing up is like, pants at this point. Okay, so Huizinga saw law as a form of play? Is there, sort of like history to this? He He's an anthropologist, right?

Liz: Yeah. And he also studied Eskimos, did you know that Eskimos have rap battles?

Ben: No, this is fabulous.

Liz: Yeah, it's like Eight Mile on ice.

Ben: [laughs] Brilliant.

Liz: You know, what else Huizinga talks about? That I wouldn't have expected to be like play. He talks about war.

Ben: Wow. Because, you know, we said it was not real life. But we've gone from football, which I am willing to say is not real life, though people make millions of dollars on it, to law, right, where people wind up in prison to actually people getting killed. And it's still play. Yeah.

Liz: And I feel like he also contradicts himself by saying that you have to be free to play in a game because there are definitely people who did not choose to go to war, but find themselves trapped inside of that game.


Ben: Okay, so it's still a game because there's, I guess, literally, there's a theater of war, yeah. And there, there are still kind of rules of engagement.

Liz: Right. And that is separate from real life in some sense.

Ben: Okay. So alright, I'll try to accept this then. So, in war, there are people who are shooting for glory, they're shooting for things besides just like maximizing economic resources for a country or whatever.

Liz: Right. And then you also have terrorists, like we were talking about before.

Ben: Oh, that's, this is you?

Liz: It kind of relates to how I would be a person who goes to a football watching party and stands by the dip in like, this game is stupid. I don't care who wins.

Ben: Okay, so the terrorists they're not in the theater of war, and they're not playing for glory or all of this stuff about—so they're not following the rules

Liz: Right

Ben: You're saying and that breaks the illusion of play.

Liz: Right.

Ben: Okay. So what about, I don't know, like drone strikes? Are these breaking the illusion of play?

Liz: They kind of are too, especially when they take out people who were definitely not playing in a war such as civilians. I mean, it's horrible how people are just minding their own business and they are killed by drone strikes

Ben: They're definitely not playing. They're not part of the illusion.

Liz: Right. So what have we learned?

Ben: that Huizinga, who is not Shakira, had this whole theory—I guess Shakira is at play too right? Because she's, like, on stage she's a character, which I imagine she's not IRL, right.

Liz: I'm sure when she's at home with her beautiful family, she is not belly dancing.


Ben: Yeah. Okay, you know, off stage, can, can we still trust her hips? Does she have duplicitous hips IRL?

Liz: They lie!

Both: Ooohh.

Ben: So, okay, so so when we look for play, either on the board games, or in a lawsuit, like we're trying to, we're trying to create a spell over the characters, over everyone who's involved.

Liz: You know, what else is a game with casualties? Flirting!

Ben: flirting? Really? I guess they're they're sort of an illusion, there's a spell in flirting too. There are rules. You know, I'll bet we could devote a whole frickin' episode to it.

Liz: Oh, I have so much to say. Let's do that next time.

Ben: Okay. So can I ask you one last question,

Liz: Sure.

Ben: Can you play alone? Do you need other people to, to form form the illusion of play?

Liz: That's really interesting to think about.

Ben: I guess, especially since we're quarantined. I mean, a lot of people have been building their whatever, whatever structures they have at home,

Liz: The whole video game industry, where you play against the computer, or you play against an artificially intelligent program that has allowed millions of people worldwide to play alone for years. You know, when I was in high school, I played this online multiplayer role playing game called Gemstone III, it was on AOL, and in 1997, my friends and I from middle school, every day after school, we would log on to AOL with our dial up modems. And we would engage in this world with each other and with strangers in which we were walking around, you know, look left, look right. Pick up a sword, we would encounter these monsters, we would trade and buy cloaks and daggers and things. It was this really immersive world that was entirely in text. And it got to the point that my friends and I would actually talk about the game in school before we went home and played in it.


Ben: Oh, it's cool that you, um, had friends. And a dia—okay so during the, I think during the same period you were playing this, I was probably playing text adventures, that solo text adventures. You know, you're in a, you're in a maze full of twisty passages, kind of stuff. Like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, he wrote a version that was a solo text adventure. So I guess there I was caught up into the into an illusion of play, like solo. He also wrote a really great one called Bureaucracy.

Liz: Whoa, is that where you get to pretend to be a government bureaucrat?

Ben: No, no, no, you're pretending to—OK, it's a thing that actually happened to him, he tried to file a change of address with his bank. And the bank said, in order to file this, we have to send a verification to your original address. And he's like, I don't live there anymore. And he's like, how am I supposed to do this? So anyway, he wrote a whole game around it. And I think about this sometimes when I'm actually doing bureaucratic things, like: set of rules, there's a play system to this. And it happens all the time, like you're on a quest, right? [8-bit quest music] You want to, you want to fill in, you want to like get this status change. And so in order to do so, you need to get this form. And in order to fill in the form, you need to get this other form. And in order to do that, you need to, you need to like have some line off your taxes, which means you have to do your taxes, which means you have to gather all this—Like it really is like a lot of games and it's it sort of made my life better. Because I think about this, when I'm playing these things—

Liz: You mean when you're filling out your taxes?


Ben: Yeah, yeah, I guess I just call them play. Yeah, if you think yeah, if you think about it as a quest, it's like a little less painful. But yeah, so I was playing alone and I guess like I said before that this is kind of relevant because we're all in quarantine now and a lot of us are hanging out alone.

Liz: Yeah, you know, I actually wrote a little song about that.

Ben: That's great. Hit it!

Liz [singing over a surfer rock guitar]

It’s day 17
after COVID-19
Made the whole world stay in
Let my party begin

I’m too busy for Zoom
Too much fun in my room
Where I sleep in past 10
Never change clothes again

So much streaming to do
No point talking to you
Cause I’m better than ever now

‘Cause I’m the queen of this quarantine
Got my wine and my cheese
But if I have to sneeze
What does it mean?

My new Kindle’s on fire
I watched all of the Wire
That was your favorite show
Well now I’m in the know

Baked some brownies, some bread
Sewed a mask for my head
But there’s no point in leaving
The sunshine’s deceiving

I haven’t spoken a word for weeks
And I definitely won’t speak it to you

Cause I’m the queen of this quarantine
Got my wine and my cheese
But if I have to sneeze
What does it mean?

I’m happier than I’ve ever been
And you’re having a hard time, right?

It’s Day 203 of a world closed to me
Maybe I’ll change my clothes
Stretch my hands to my toes

Lots of books left to read
Lots of dough left to knead
Think I might clean my castle
Each day is a hassle

I’m starting to cough
But I’m brushing it off
‘Cause there’s no one left to tell

Cause I’m the queen of this quarantine
Queen of this quarantine
Queen of this quarantine

While everyone’s hopin’
That the country reopens
I don’t know what I’ll be
Does anyone remember me?