Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Imperfect Information

 Imperfect information is information which in one or more respects is imprecise, uncertain, incomplete, unreliable, vague or partially true.”

Kayakan & Khanesar*

My recent missive about rumors in roleplaying games started me thinking about imperfect information, both in games and in our real-world experiences. Rumors are, in their own way, uncertain information, especially useful for gamemasters in encouraging characters to pursue opportunities for adventure (or misadventure). Games of all kinds help us learn how to estimate the current situation (or game state) so we can plan and implement responses (often moves or strategies) to alter that situation toward our goal of winning. Not having perfect information allows for more unpredictable variables in our assessments and usually provides a deeper, more challenging (and hence possibly a more satisfying) game experience. Games often provide us learning opportunities in safe-to-fail environments. We deal with incomplete information in our everyday lives, too, whether or not we want to admit it. Learning how to estimate a situation in games, taking into account imperfect information, can help us stumble through the numerous real-life uncertainties we face and decisions we must make.

Games can teach us many lessons. A few like chess offer us “perfect information,” a sort of “WYSIWYG” of the game state on any given turn. (An opponent’s hidden strategy remains a constant aspect of a game’s imperfect information, though players can sometimes guess possible actions based on the current game state and known victory conditions.) But many games conceal information through game mechanics. What cards or pieces does my opponent hold in reserve? Random elements like die rolls and card or tile draws add to a game’s tension and can easily derail the best laid plans. We manage through the game nonetheless, making the best moves for the situation at the time. Usually we’re most uncertain as the game begins and strategies start coalescing among players. We watch the overall situation unfold as play progresses, estimating our situation despite uncertainties and planning how best to use our resources to move toward our goals, both short-term by turns and long-term victory over the game. Often by mid or end game we’re pretty certain who’s winning, though some games keep players wondering, and hence very engaged, until the very end (usually those with complicated methods of scoring the end-game state).

Imperfect information in games also forces us to deal with unexpected situations arising from random elements, uncertainty inherent in the mechanics, or competitors’ unforeseen actions. We scurry about using our resources and the rules affecting the game state to overcome these obstacles and stay on course toward victory conditions. We’re not always successful...but games offer a safe-to-fail environment. So we lose the game, swallow our pride, congratulate the winner, and move on. Sometimes giving that game another try to learn how we might better use in-game resources, alter our strategies, and handle the inevitable adversity uncertainties inject into our plans.

I continue noticing parallels between games and real-life issues: how we deal with victory and defeat; how reflection remains necessary to learn from both game and life experiences; how we might better empathize with others (a few among many similar topics you’ll find wandering through Hobby Games Recce). Perhaps if we played more games as a society we might have better resilience in the face of adversity. We might better take into account imperfect information – or question the veracity of information presented as truth – learning to better anticipate how uncertainties can evolve and alter our expectations and reactions to such developments. The Future” is one big roiling ball of uncertainty...imperfect information, if you will. At best we tend to muddle through it without much introspection, reacting with little thought rather than, estimating the situation, adjusting contingencies, and making carefully considered moves.

I’ve found looking at history through the perspective of imperfect information leavened with a bit of empathy – especially as events unfolded to those living them – a particularly effective lens in trying to understand how people felt and how decision makers chose to act in the immediacy of historical events as they unfolded...without the benefit of hindsight or an omniscient perspective.

The opening days of World War II (from a European perspective, not our sheltered, isolationist American view) demonstrate how imperfect information influenced the uncertainty of the times. What were people thinking after Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939? The world had already endured several belligerent episodes in the years leading to that point, many hoping each one would be the last. And afterward it seemed to the rest of Europe that nothing much was happening, to the point it was dubbed the “Phony War” or “Sitzkrieg.” Certainly military operations continued against Poland, but aside from a few isolated events – the Raid on the Forth on Oct. 16, 1939, and the Battle of the River Plate on Dec. 13, 1939, after months of German commerce raiding – the world did not seem engulfed in war other than constant preparation and vigilance. As the war erupted across the world, everyone faced imperfect information and acted as best they could estimate the situations before them.

I still remember the opening, uncertain days of the covid pandemic in March 2020. We faced a great deal of imperfect information. How virulent was covid? What were the symptoms? How did it spread? What effective precautions should we take? When can we get back to school and work? Nobody had answers; the uncertainty increased tensions in other areas of our society which, in a feedback loop, created more uncertainty amid the animosity. People today have largely forgotten (or perhaps repressed) that feeling of helpless uncertainty along with the news footage of plain coffins buried in a New York mass grave, the faces of healthcare workers pushed beyond limits, and the stories of covid and vaccine deniers who ultimately succumbed to the disease’s physically and emotionally agonizing effects. I wonder if our response to the covid pandemic at various levels might have been different if more people had played Matt Leacock’s cooperative Pandemic board game. It might have given us a visual, participatory experience demonstrating first-hand how diseases spread, showing in abstracted game terms how our governmental infrastructure might handle such an outbreak, and helping us learn how to talk about and rationally respond to such a health emergency. With a little reflection a game like Pandemic can illustrate how we view evolving situations in real time, without the benefit of historical hindsight.

The experience of playing a game, in whatever form, develops before our eyes, from set-up and opening gambits to changes and evolution of the game state to final victory (or defeat). We’re not always sure – thanks to imperfect information, other game mechanics, and opponents – quite where the situation is heading, despite our best efforts to affect outcomes. Current events” unfold before our eyes in the news, from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to the more recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Israeli invasion of Gaza in response to terrorist attacks. Like our attitude toward developments as we play games, our perception of these events changes as we receive more information: far too often incomplete, biased, contradictory, and otherwise imperfect.

We don’t always have the time, insight, or awareness to take a pause to thoughtfully estimate the situation, understand what we can rely on as factual, and adjust our attitudes and actions to events over which we often have little or no control. Becoming aware of these changing states and reflecting on them can enable us to step back from emotional reactions where we take sides without looking at the nuances of a situation, choosing one side or another in a tribal black-and-white shouting match without considering the vast gray areas of any issue. Without pausing to examine evolving situations and our own emotions we’re more prone to react in the moment and dig into our passionately defended positions. Games offer us an opportunity to practice the intellectual exercises of estimating situations and evaluating what information we have, however imperfect, and reflect on our performance in a mindful way...qualities that might help everyone get along in the greater world.

* I discovered this particularly succinct definition on a Science Direct web page referencing the 2016 publication Fuzzy Neural Networks for Real Time Control Applications: Concepts, Modeling and Algorithms for Fast Learning (behind an academic paywall, but far beyond my meager scientific comprehension level). To the uninitiated layperson – and from a gaming perspective – the definition works. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia only has an entry for “perfect information” which only mentions imperfect information, though it also has links to other game-related concepts worth exploring (many of which are also pushing my bounds of comprehension).

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