Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance

The word that comes to me as I reflect on the story of this story is tragedy. There’s so much evidence that a change of course was required – seen and not heeded. There’s a strong parallel between Harvey Smith’s entry into the game industry story and what went wrong. It never occurred to him that people actual made games, yet he played them constantly. Such a strange disconnect. I simply can’t understand it, and frankly neither could he (at the time anyway.)

So, let’s accept that as a blind spot, non-judgmentally. We’ve all got them. That one is his. (A knowledge of one’s blind spot(s) is critical, so many of us don’t think on this at all.)

There’s a similar lesson in Deus Ex:Invisible War and Technosaur. In both cases, external input was set aside and ignored. The “outsider” opinion was rejected out of hand. One did not reject Don Mattrick at EA out of hand, and remain long there. It’s too bad he didn’t have more EA HQ “time”. Maybe that knowledge hadn’t seeped into Origin, but man, how could it not have by then?

The Deus Ex:Invisible War lesson was similar in that he focused on input from a selective (and not representational) group of people instead of as many outside opinions as possible. He gave voice to learning that lesson after the fact, but it’s unclear why it was necessary. Both him and Warren tut-tut’ed on this point, so clearly there was private context not presented.

The parallel remains though. Two dots which ought to have been connected, weren’t. The rationale for why they weren’t connected, outside opinion not taken, is the same. The consequences substantial – art less than what it could have been, and friends fired.

One thing that’s alluded to, but not explicitly communicated, is Warren’s role and awareness. It’s not definitive, but Warren appears to try to take some of the burden of responsibility. Not just in the section about who you should listen too and when, but also in the story about his decision not take the Looking Glass job.

It’s critical that you be in a group with the right people.

You’ll know ’em when you find them.

Both are cliched platitudes, so watered down to be almost useless. At least at the time of Deus Ex, he both knew that was with the right people, and they were in fact the right people.

That’s what makes this story a tragedy.

To have found, and achieved so much. To loose it, and not realize it’s absence. To not have changed, to be still be blind, and crash with such inevitability.

There were so many markers, even in this relatively short discussion that Blacksite:Area 51 wasn’t going to succeed. Sure, I come at this with 20/20 hindsight and years of distance. But there’s this inescapable feeling that I have when I watch him discuss his current project. There’s sense I get from the way of he was presenting. His body language, voice, and words changed subtly. In ways that I recognize, because I’ve done it myself with similar outcomes.

Mirror… Mirror…

Laying off your friends changes you. Being responsible, and not being the river to your people, even if only for a turn of a season, leaves a mark. It also gives you an innate sense – the ability to recognize it in others. Have they? Or have they not yet been the goat? It’s clear he has. On a lesser absolute scale then I, but that’s irrelevant. He clearly felt it and learned from it. His experience was enough for him to learn. (For me, the jury is still out…)

That’s what makes the glaringly obvious issue with Blacksite all the more frustrating. Satire, specifically political satire, is difficult to pull off and has only been done in maybe a handful of games. Trying to pull that off, using current real world events as a foil is just brutally impossible. I can only think of one game ever (Papers, Please) which managed to do it, and even there the world context is obscured.

CoD4’s terror attack on the airport or CoD:BLOPS’s murderous torture scenes aren’t satire. They’re ham-handed attempts at grabbing attention. They’re so over the top, so outside the realm of likelihood, that they aren’t taken as commentary on what is currently happening, or happened. Instead they are a cautionary tale (at best) for what might happen if things are taken to their logical (or extreme) conclusion. Following that train of thought, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that’s what Blacksite attempted/intended to do.

It failed miserably.

Here’s how you know that you’re doing it wrong. Are you suppressing feedback or opportunities for feedback? If you do that with a core element, with the heart of the thing you’re building, you’re well down the path to failure.

The part that kills me is that the clue is on the Warren’s second slide. “Do not undertake the creation of a bunch of brand-new tech if you are not prepared for the time hit involved.” Not tech – that’s too narrow of focus; “new” is the keyword. In this case, delving into the realm of political satire was the new thing. To do so requires humor, deftness, ridicule, and shame to make it go.

None of those things are “well understood” game concepts, even today. Look, I get how damn hard it is to listen to outside opinions – not only to listen, but to even want to acknowledge that they’re even relevant or desirable. Anyone who’s actually done anything has a variant of this story. Daniel Kahneman’s take on this, from a psychological perspective, is described in Thinking, Fast & Slow, as “irrational perseverance.”

Daniel learned three lessons from his brush with the similar circumstances. First, there are two distinctly different types of forecasting, the inside and outside view. The inside view is the one we’re all familiar with – it’s the estimate based on the perspective of the person actually doing the work. It tends to be the “best-case” scenario because, after all as humans we’re fundamentally optimistic.

How to do deal with that “planning fallacy,” as Daniel calls it, is the second lesson: one should balance all forecasts with both inside and outside views of the project. An example of an outside view is to determine what the base success rate of projects similar to the one we’re working on. In Daniel’s example, the outside view estimate was seven years, with a 40% chance of failure – a far cry from “another year or two” inside view estimate.

That huge gulf leads to the third lesson:

“I was slower to accept the third lesson, which I call irrational perseverance: the folly we displayed that day in failing to abandon the project. Facing a choice, we gave up rationality rather than give up the enterprise.

Excerpt From: Daniel Kahneman. “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” iBooks.

They dealt with the forecast discrepancy the same way that just about every other human on the planet would. They shrugged their shoulders, picked up their shovels, and kept digging. Paying heed, and doing that which should have been done, namely quitting the very day that you realize that you’re not going to achieve your goal within the amount of effort you’re willing to spend… Well that’s just not things that people do.

Not in real life. Not even when we know better. Not in our stories. I can hear Lex Luthor now: “North Ms. Tessmacher! North!”

We willingly throw away good money after bad. Our time and that of others. We trade away all that we have of value, and compel others to do the same. Down the hole in complete and utter denial.

Realizing that we’re doing this is something that people, for whatever reason, just don’t do as a matter of course. We try to prevent it from happening. It’s surprise to us when we do get outside opinions. If such a calamity does befalls us, we do our damnedest to ignore it.

Why do creative endeavors seem to require willful blindness?

I suppose without it, we would not take risks. Without it, we could not shoulder the responsibility necessary. Without it, we would not be free. With it, we are endowed with a superpower – one which allows us, and only us, to predict the the one true future.

Sigh, what madness is that?

That’s the moral to his story for me. That question and the roughest outline of an answer.

Related Posts:

Lecture 1 Warren Spector
Lecture 2 w/Patrica York
Lecture 3 w/Harvey “Witchboy” Smith
Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance
Lecture 4 w/Hal Barwood
Lecture 7 w/Mike Morhaime